It's farewell to GB's cycling queen and Britain's most conflicted Olympian.
When Victoria Pendleton completed her final competitive race in London's velodrome having been pipped to the gold medal by her nemesis Anna Meares, it was no surprise to see the tears flow uncontrollably.
"I'm very glad that that's the last time I will be doing that," she told the BBC, continuing to push and repeat the sentiment that she would certainly not miss this odd, hard life spent in the saddle.
"I'm just so relieved and I'm overwhelmed with emotion." Relief. Disappointment. Regret. For hers is not a typical story of sporting dreams played out. Chris Hoy she most certainly ain't.
As Esquire editor Alex Bilmes discovered when he met the 31-year-old before the London games, behind the poster girl looks is something far more complex and conflicted.
I’m not sure I had an image in my head, before I met Victoria Pendleton, of what the fastest woman on two wheels ought to look like.
If I had for some reason been forced to conjure a picture of someone, I’m certain she would not have borne even the remotest resemblance to the slight, smiley young woman I meet for the first time in London in mid-May, in a café near Euston.
It’s the end of a day of promotional work, her last duty of that type until after the Olympics, and she has a couple of hours to talk before catching a train home to Manchester.
She arrives in a trench coat over a Breton-style top, skinny jeans and dainty brown brogues: smart, stylish, conventional. With her delicate features, her raven hair and her pale blue eyes, Pendleton is strikingly pretty but she has none of the imposing physical presence one expects of a world-class sportsperson.
She is, by her own estimation and that of others who know about professional cycling, too small, too slender, too feminine — “girlie” is the word she uses — to do what she does even competently, let alone competitively.
“Physically,” she summarises, “I haven’t got what it takes.” Not only that, she is also regarded by many as temperamentally, as well as physically, unsuited to her sport: too vulnerable, too melodramatic.
This makes the fact that she does what she does as well as she does, which is as well or better than anyone has ever done it, seem almost incredible.
Her competitors are, without exception, bigger, bulkier and more aggressive than her, and yet Pendleton is world and Olympic champion, winner of a freakish nine world titles over almost a decade at the top.
The only way she can explain her astonishing success is that she has a “shedload of tenacity”: she simply tries harder, pushes herself further and wants to win more than her opponents.
For anyone like me, who would hesitate to describe himself as a cycling aficionado, a brief explanation: Victoria Pendleton is a track cyclist, a sprinter.
She competes inside a velodrome, where she makes circuits of a steep-sided track at implausible speeds, in one of those skintight leotards and a sci-fi helmet.
At London 2012, where she will be one of Team GB’s brightest stars, a poster girl not just for her sport but for the wider Games, she will compete for gold medals in three events: the individual sprint, for which she won gold at Beijing in 2008; the team sprint, for which she holds the world record with her partner Jess Varnish; and the keirin, a mass-start race in which cyclists are paced to full speed by a motorbike.
“I go round and round in circles, really, really fast, on a big wooden bowl,” she says to me, almost in wonder at the ridiculousness of it, when I ask her to describe her job. “I turn left for a living,” she deadpans, during another conversation.
This, it turns out, during a series of conversations over the course of a week — in London, in Manchester and on the phone — is not atypical of Pendleton’s attitude.
“Pointless” is a word she uses more than once to describe what she does.
Not that she is constantly wracked with existential dread or consumed by the cosmic insignificance of her sporting achievements.
But she is certainly ambivalent about her time as a cyclist — a period that encompasses her entire adult life to date but that will come to a close in August, at which point she will retire, comparatively early, as either world and Olympic champion, or world and former Olympic champion.
She wants desperately to win in London. But then she wants to stop and do something else. Something completely different.
Pendleton is scaldingly honest about her reasons for quitting cycling, some of which are surprising — at least to me, an outsider to the sport.
I’d gathered from some of her previous interviews that she is candid and occasionally outspoken, and from footage of her competing that she is easily upset, but I wasn’t expecting to meet someone so disheartened.
Her impending retirement has nothing to do with her physical condition. In fact, in the week I meet her she is arguably in the shape of her life; she texts one evening to say she has just recorded a personal best time in training.
Instead, her decision is informed, she tells me carefully, by politics: in her words, “some of my working relationships [with Team GB staff] are not as strong or amicable as they once were, or as I would need them to be to continue.”
There is a sense that, the cycling apart, she has never had much in common with many of her fellow cyclists. Her interests are cerebral, aesthetic. She likes fashion and art.
She takes photos and she cuts pictures out of Vogue. At home, she has a wardrobe full of fabric waiting for the Olympics to be over, at which point she intends to get busy with her sewing machine. She spends money on contemporary art. She seems to value creativity at least as much if not more than sporting prowess.
The friends she has stayed in touch with from school are the arty types rather than the sporty types. As a child, she was often made to feel weird because she pursued cycling.
As an adult, she’s sometimes made to feel weird because she prefers other pursuits. The most rapturous I hear her is describing the feeling of wearing an Alexander McQueen dress for a photo shoot. “I like heels and make-up,” she says. Not, as far as we know, predilections she shares with her fellow Olympian, Sir Chris Hoy.
In her early twenties, when she was first on the international cycling scene, other girls would belittle her by treating her as sexist men might treat a female colleague they feel threatened by.
In Russia once, two girls patted her on the bottom as she walked past. The message was: you’re too feminine for this, you don’t belong here.
Pendleton, to hear her talk about it, has always had a conflicted relationship with her job. Many people do, sportspeople just like the rest of us. But sportspeople in particular tend not to talk about that.
They tend not to talk about anything interesting in public, certainly not to journalists, and especially not to journalists during the build up to the biggest event of their careers.
Pendleton is different. Her talent, she intimates, is both a gift and a curse. “All I’ve ever wanted to be is really good at something,” she tells me. “As a kid growing up, I can see now, it didn’t matter what I did, as long as it was something I could be really good at. Cycling just happened to be the opportunity that came along.”
At some point it wasn’t enough to be good at it. She had to be the best in the world. Nothing less would do. That’s the bit I — and probably other non-Olympians — find harder to understand, I tell her.
Surely you don’t need to be the best in the world at something to have value as a person? Don’t you know you’re lovely as you are? “I know,” she says. “But no one ever says that, though, do they?”
Later she contemplates her future as someone who once was, as opposed to currently is, the best in the world. “Was — past tense — the best in the world,” she repeats. “How pointless is that?”
Victoria Pendleton can’t remember the first time she got on a bike — but she does remember clearly the first time she rode without stabilisers, her dad racing along behind her holding on to her saddle before letting go. It was, she recognised even then, a significant moment of father-daughter bonding.
“It was important to him,” she says, “and it was important to me because it was important to him, because it was what he did.”
Cycling was Max Pendleton’s life. His own father was a keen cyclist, and he became a national champion on the grass. He even appeared on the cover of Cycling Weekly a few times.
He worked as a chef because it was easy to fit the job around his training schedule. (He later retrained as an accountant, and now runs a property management company.)
The cycling club was how he socialised and how he let off steam: he was, his younger daughter remembers, a ferocious competitor, the kind of man who would launch an attack at the bottom of a steep hill, as if to impose himself on the competition by sheer force of will.
Max and Pauline, who worked as a bookkeeper for a local shop, had three kids: a daughter first, Nicola, and then the twins, Alex and Vicky.
They lived in Stotfold, in Bedfordshire — a nice place to retire to, Pendleton reckons, “But no opportunities for young people, not a lot to do.” It was a big day when a supermarket opened in town.
All three kids were introduced to competitive cycling early, but only one stuck at it. (Nicola is now an accountant; Alex is a graphic designer.)
Vicky was the child with the most promise but also perhaps the one least prepared to disappoint her father. She felt that her participation was expected, that she had a duty to her dad to ride her bike, especially once the other two had stopped.
If she had declined to continue taking cycling seriously, she says, “It would have been massively upsetting to my dad.”
She was nine when she first competed, around 14 when Max realised quite how extraordinarily talented she was. He pushed her hard.
“He’d take me on quite challenging routes. And he’d be like, ‘If you don’t get over this hill we won’t get home.’ And then he’d cycle off and leave me.” He taught by example, too.
“I remember him winning a lot,” his daughter says. “I thought, ‘That’s what happens: you go to races and you win. That’s why you go.’ I couldn’t get my head around the idea of going to races just to take part.” She still can’t. But then it wasn’t just Max who was pushing her. She pushed herself.
“I don’t like giving up,” she says. “I absolutely hate it. Because I don’t want to let myself down and I don’t want to let anyone else down.”
Success in sport is partly driven by fear of failure. The person least prepared to lose is the person with more chance of winning. Success in cycling, Pendleton adds, is about the ability to tolerate physical pain.
“It’s how much you’re willing to hurt yourself. How much pain you can deal with before you take your foot off and go, ‘I can’t go on’.” Her eyes narrow at the thought of this.
“I can’t. I can’t. I can’t.” She repeats the words in a fake whiny voice. “It sounds so weak! I’d rather drop dead off my bike.”
More than once, she says, she has pushed herself so hard that she passed out. She tells me this with some pride. Her father’s daughter, and something more. “The idea of being mediocre, to me, is just, uuuurgh,” she says.
In her mid and late teens, she spent an enormous amount of time with her dad, learning to not be mediocre. She competed at weekends; she trained in her free time. She would routinely do 50 or 60 miles on a Saturday morning, and school holidays were often dominated by cycling.
Between May and September she and her father would crisscross the country in his car, just the two of them, going to races up in Carlisle, down in Portsmouth.
She found the society of other cyclists, most often men and closer to her father’s age than hers, less than convivial — “I didn’t really have any friends in cycling” — and she also found it hard to fit in at school. She felt an outsider in both worlds.
“I used to cycle to school quite often,” she remembers. “I was hideously embarrassed of the school bus overtaking me and a double-decker full of kids shouting. Me in my cycling leggings and jacket, with my rucksack carrier on the back. I mean, who does cycling? That’s not cool!” She actually shudders at the memory. “Oh, God, terrible.”
Also not cool was her intense competitiveness in other sports. She wanted to win, to dominate. She played hockey fiercely, she ran cross-country fiercely.
“It didn’t make me an attractive option as a friend. It didn’t make me popular. In fact, quite the opposite.”
At lunchtimes, if there were no organised sports to take part in, she and another girl would do a few laps of the school field. “That’s weird, isn’t it?” she checks. Yes, I say, it is a bit.
Her commitment to cycling meant she missed out on teenage parties, on going to the cinema.
“Sometimes it made me sad and I wanted to say, ‘No, I can’t race.’ But quite often, I felt in a position where I couldn’t say no because I didn’t want to disappoint my dad. My relationship with him was very important to me. I knew cycling made my dad happy and my participation in it brought us closer together. I liked having that relationship with my dad and I thought if I didn’t cycle, I’d lose it.”
Sadly, despite her huge success and his pride in it, Max and Vicky are no longer close.
It’s a familiar sports story: the father who coaches his daughter to early success but then is forced to step back as her talent takes her far beyond his capabilities.
“The further I’ve got in my career, his input into what I do has become less and less and our relationship has become further and further apart,” is how she puts it.
Nevertheless, for all the hardships and the sacrifice, and the strains on their relationship, she is tremendously appreciative of what her father did for her.
“In terms of how I deal with training, with physical pain, I wouldn’t be able to do it if it wasn’t for him. I learned how to hurt myself.” He taught her. A dubious distinction, it might seem — it certainly seems so to me — but one clearly crucial to her success as a cyclist, if not necessarily her happiness as a person.
She was spotted at 16 by the national team coaches. This was the first time she heard the line about how she was too puny to ever be a sprinter. That she would never be able to carry enough muscle for the explosive acceleration, the sheer power that the sport demands.
It’s a background hum, sometimes rising to a roar, that she would continue to hear, and try to ignore, even to this day, as she prepares to go into battle once more with grim-faced women more heavily muscled than she.
In the mid-Nineties, there were very few funds available to develop track cyclists. There was no prize money and there were no sponsorship opportunities. You’d have had to win an Olympic medal to earn enough not to have to hold down at least a part-time job at the same time as training and competing, often against heavily government-funded riders from China, Russia and elsewhere.
So Pendleton went off to university in Newcastle, somewhere she could train hard for three years while completing her studies. Inspired by the efforts of Jason Queally, the British track cyclist who won a gold medal at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney — anticipating the enormous success in the sport that would follow for Team GB over the following decade — Pendleton decided that perhaps there was a future for her in the sport after all.
The national cycling coaches thought so too, and at the end of 2002, lacking funds to train her themselves, they sent Pendleton, then 22, to the World Cycling Centre in Aigle, Switzerland.
She lived there for 18 months. When she wasn’t competing, she was training with a rainbow coalition of cyclists under the French former world champion Frédéric Magné. This is where the real sacrifices necessary for Olympic glory are made, in the early parts of a sportsperson’s career, when other girls are dancing and drinking and dating and enjoying being young and carefree and single.
At the World Cycling Centre, young cyclists eat, sleep, train, then eat, sleep and train again. There is no going out, no partying. Pendleton’s biggest indulgence was to buy a brioche and spread Nutella on it. Occasionally, she’d go to the local Chinese restaurant to get a green tea.
In a preview of future clashes with authority, her time in Aigle ended unhappily. She decided she’d had enough and wanted to return to the UK to train with the British team for the 2004 Olympics, but she hadn’t finished the two-year course.
Magné took a dim view. There was a heated row. “He had me by the wrist at one point and he was shouting at me,” she says. “It was nasty, quite horrible.”
In 2003, while still in Aigle, she’d joined the World Cup circuit and come fourth at her first world championships. She was fourth again the following year. Fourth wasn’t good enough.
She was already struggling to justify the sacrifices she was making for the sport, given what she felt were scant rewards. “I thought, ‘I’ve had enough. I don’t want to do this anymore’.”
She was persuaded to keep going at least for the 2004 Olympics. Then the 2004 Olympics almost put her off cycling entirely.
Her description of the atmosphere at the Olympic Village in Athens is enough to put anyone off. “Everyone’s anxiety levels are through the roof,” she says. “The pressure is unreal. They’re stressed out of their eyeballs. It’s like either they’re going to win or they’re going to die. And they’re all in this one enclosed space. It’s full-on.”
She hated her room. She wasn’t prepared for the media attention at the track. She felt she didn’t fit in. “It’s just a really alien environment. I didn’t feel comfortable. It was a really negative experience.”
She came sixth in the time trial and ninth in the 200m sprint, went home to her parents, threw away anything that bore a trace of her time in Athens, and once again contemplated a future without cycling.
“I was going to pack it all in,” she says. “I thought: ‘I’ve disappointed everyone. I’m a letdown. I’m not good enough.” A few months later, when the dust had settled, she went with some British teammates to Majorca to train. Again, she was convinced to keep going, and in 2005, in Los Angeles, she became world champion.
“That was massive,” she says. “It was a huge feeling of acceptance. Like, ‘I’m good enough to hang out with [her British teammates] now.’”
Between then and the Beijing Olympics in 2008, she was supreme: the best female track cyclist in the world. She went into Beijing as favourite.
“I felt like it was my medal to lose,” she says. “I knew I was in the best form of my life.” But the experience of being at that Games doesn’t sound much more pleasant than her time in Athens.
She spent her days in Beijing watching TV on her own as the medal tally of the British cycling team grew, “holding a pillow, sobbing uncontrollably because another one of the guys had won another medal.” These were tears of joy, she says, but still, it doesn’t sound like much fun.
In total, Team GB won 14 cycling medals in Beijing — more than any other country. Of the eight gold medals, Pendleton’s in the sprint was among the most convincing: she destroyed her old adversary, the Australian Anna Meares, in the final.
Still, if you’ve got this far into her story, you won’t be surprised to hear that her reaction to becoming Olympic champion was more conflicted than that of most other world-beating athletes.
She describes the moment of victory in a tone of bemusement, like someone relaying the events of a baffling dream: she crossed the line and got off the bike; someone handed her a British flag to wave; she was whisked through the media zone; then dope control, where a Chinese official in full surgical gear took blood and urine samples and did paperwork while the new Olympic champion waited silently; then a press conference where she was irritated by the fact that almost all the questions were directed to her defeated rival, Meares; then straight into the medal ceremony, “no time to even put a comb through my hair or wipe the sweat from my face.”
She has watched the medal ceremony back on video. “You can see me look down at the medal and kind of smirk to myself, because it’s so surreal. I tried to feel something but I couldn’t. It didn’t feel like it was happening. I was smiling at one point but then the national anthem started and I was like, ‘You can’t laugh through the national anthem. That’s treason!’ But it just felt so comical. It was totally messed up.” Hers was, she knows, a strange non-reaction to the realisation of a life’s ambition.
Back in England, she had a few promotion-packed weeks before she was back in full training. She didn’t get to enjoy her victory, she thinks. “I didn’t really celebrate the win, ever.”
She thinks her mum might have cooked her a special meal at home, but they didn’t go out or do anything specific to celebrate. “I’ve never really done that, celebrate something about me. Because it’s always all about me. The last thing anyone wants to do is make it about me again.”
Another legacy of her unconventional youth and young adulthood, she says, is her awkwardness at social occasions. As an Olympic champion — and a young, good-looking female one, at that — she was invited to parties and dinners, but she found them difficult. “I feel like I stand out like a sore thumb in a social environment,” she says. “Like, ‘Do I look like I’m having fun? Am I having fun? Do I fit in here? I don’t fit in here. Should I just go? Yeah. I should, I’ll just go.’ It’s really annoying. I’d love to enjoy it, but I feel like Mrs Dull. And then I feel sad, like getting ready for the event was more fun than the event itself.”
Which is sort of the story of her life: Pendleton, it seems, is forever getting ready for exciting events that she then doesn’t much enjoy. More often than not she leaves with an empty feeling inside, and doubts about whether she should try again.
In truth, it had all started to go wrong before Beijing. Or, first it went right, then it went wrong. In the run-up to the Games, Pendleton fell in love with Scott Gardner, who was then the British cycling team’s sports scientist: the expert data analyst who works with the coaching team to help athletes maximise their potential. Which was wonderful, of course, but also “disgustingly unprofessional”.
A relationship would be a conflict of interest and likely to prove controversial with the British team coaches and Pendleton’s fellow competitors.
Before they did anything about their mutual attraction, Pendleton and Gardner, a phlegmatic Aussie, discussed what to do about it in what sounds like agonising detail.
“It was the most awkward thing I’ve ever had to do,” she tells me. “We hadn’t even gone on a date.”
If they went public with their putative relationship — and they are not, she says, the kind of people to lie about it — then one of them would have to leave the team.
And it would have to be him, since she couldn’t compete for another nation. What if the relationship didn’t work out? Then he would have left for no reason. He was prepared to take that chance. When they told the team coaches they were starting to see each other romantically outside work, they were told to keep quiet until after the Games, so as not to disrupt the team’s preparations.
As soon as the Games were over, Pendleton says, “the shit hit the fan, and what should have been the happiest moment of my life turned out to be the most hideous.” Later, she tells me that, “I honestly left the Olympics feeling like I’d committed a crime, like I’d killed somebody.”
Back in the UK, with Gardner gone from the team, Pendleton says she became something of a pariah. “Some people reacted very negatively,” she says. Not all, she’s keen to stress, but a number of her coaches and teammates were furious that they could no longer work with Gardner. People made disparaging comments about both of them. Sometimes they still do. “It was tough,” she says. “Some people didn’t have my back any more.” It was, she says, “shocking, painful and uncomfortable. It hurt.”
Following the Olympics, from 2009 until the beginning of this year, Pendleton’s form slumped. “I cried a lot that year,” she says, of 2009, her first year as Olympic champion, the year she was awarded an MBE and her fame transcended cycling, bringing her lucrative endorsements, magazine covers, promotional work.
In 2010, she thinks that people on the team softened towards her somewhat but then last year she had a terrible time. Her parents had split in 2009 and their separation became, in Pendleton’s own words, increasingly ugly. Her granddad — her mother’s father — died, and she felt guilty for not having spent enough time with him at the end of his life.
Then she injured her back, making training more difficult. At the world championships in Poland, she could manage only bronze. It was, she says, a disaster, but one good thing came of it: the British cycling bosses agreed to rehire Gardner, now her fiancé, this time as Pendleton’s personal coach, working with her alone in an attempt to get her career back on track.
It seems to have worked. Just in time for the Olympics her performances have dramatically improved. In April in Melbourne, she became world champion again in dramatic fashion, suffering a nasty crash against her old nemesis Anna Meares in the semi-final, but going on to victory in front of an openly hostile crowd.
Off the record, she tells me more details about her problems at work. She will miss many of the people involved with British cycling. But she hasn’t forgiven the specific people she feels have let her down. And she won’t miss them when she’s gone.
The National Cycling Centre occupies a large, cream building on the windswept Sportcity development, to the east of Manchester city centre.
A goal kick from Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium and a trolley trundle across a vast car park from an Asda superstore, the centre houses the Manchester Velodrome, an indoor BMX track, the offices of the British cycling team and a branch of Evans Cycles.
It’s not unlike one of those out-of-town corporate campuses, with its laminated, lanyarded receptionists, quiet canteen, and its air of echoey anonymity.
This is where Vicky Pendleton reports for work each weekday, a half-hour commute from her home in Wilmslow, to the south of the city, where she lives with Gardner and their two Dobermanns.
I’ve come here on a grey Friday morning in May to watch her train, but it seems that while I was en route a media lockdown of the gym has been declared.
I’m banished to the canteen while Pendleton negotiates with the performance manager of the British team, Shane Sutton. After a while she comes to collect me, clearly embarrassed, and for a few minutes I’m allowed to watch her lift and pull.
I’m glad she managed to sneak me in. To see Pendleton in the gym is to see someone in her element; she seems utterly transformed from the petite young woman who disappeared so easily into the crowd at Euston station a week before. Here she is forceful, dynamic.
In her skintight leggings and training top, I can see how powerful her thighs are, how sinewy her arms, how ripped her stomach. Her eyes flash and she struts around the room. She is clearly tremendously strong, and now she looks it.
Later we have lunch with Scott Gardner — “I think Vicky’s told you a lot about what’s been going on,” he says to me, when I ask how it’s going — and Pendleton’s friend and fellow Olympian Ross Edgar.
The talk is lighthearted, easy. But when they’ve gone and Pendleton and I are left alone, conversation turns again to her feelings of disappointment and frustration.
She suspects that the men who run British cycling still see her as the callow, clueless 16-year-old schoolgirl she admits she was when she first joined the national programme.
Now that she’s an Olympic champion, a famous name, and very much her own woman, she thinks they find it hard to cope with her. She thinks they find her difficult, and that some of her fellow cyclists agree with them.
Last word on that to Gardner. While we watch his future wife do stomach crunches, I ask him how they make things work, with him being both her coach and her fiancé? Isn’t it difficult to be the taskmaster at work and the shoulder to cry on at home? He gives a wry smile. “Look,” he says, “it’s not exactly ideal.”
The individual sprint, the discipline in which Pendleton won her Olympic gold medal, is a series of best-of-three races in which two riders compete over three circuits of the 250m track.
The races are not mad dashes for the finish line but rather gladiatorial games of cat-and-mouse, battles of nerve with riders circling suspiciously, hanging back or looking over their shoulder, before one makes a break for it: either too early, in which case she will be overhauled; too late, in which case she has already been left behind; or at exactly the right moment to break the will of her competitor and cross the line first.
Pendleton is not the flat-out fastest rider. She seldom, if ever, records the quickest time in qualifying. Last time she won the world championship, she qualified twelfth fastest. So it really does come down to tactical intelligence and determination to win.
That’s how she manages to beat someone like the intimidating Meares, who is bigger and more powerful than her.
It’s always been the case that the most exciting sports stars are not the remorseless professionals who grind out victories through systematic diligence, but the heart-on-their-sleeves mavericks who teeter on the edge of disaster, curse themselves and their sports, before producing a sublime moment of skill from nowhere, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, then bursting into tears.
It’s the choice between Borg and McEnroe, Prost and Senna, Shearer and Gascoigne. Do you want predictability, efficiency, robotic get-the-job-done competence, or do you want Vicky Pendleton, with her fragile temperament, her tiny frame, her propensity for blubbing on the track, her angst and uncertainty, and her by-the-skin-of-her-teeth victories?
“People say as a sportsperson, you shouldn’t reveal your weaknesses,” she says. “You shouldn’t come across as vulnerable. But I am vulnerable. I am emotional. What’s wrong with that? As long as my legs are faster than the other girls’ and I hold my shit together, it doesn’t matter.”
At one point, on the phone, we discussed this image of her as an emotionally unstable person. She said she thinks it’s a convenient, lazy tag given to her by the media.
She says she’s just honest, and that sometimes that honesty can make her seem odd, given that other sportspeople are so relentlessly banal in their public pronouncements.
I think she’s right about that. But clearly, she is something of a drama queen. She’s complicated. She’s difficult. For someone who has spent half her life balanced on two wheels, she’s surprisingly resistant to equilibrium and stability. As a result, she’s utterly compelling.
Has she got what it takes for one last glorious hurrah before she turns her back on her sport for good? The encouraging news is that for the first time ever, she’s actually looking forward to an Olympic Games.
Not that she’s not feeling the pressure, not that she’s overconfident about her chances. But she feels she’s on the home straight now. She’s determined to enjoy her last days of training. She feels strong and healthy. She’s going to be riding for gold in three events, and her chances, she reckons, are as good as anyone’s.
The London Velodrome is magnificent, she says. “It’s like an amphitheatre, and when people cheer the noise goes through your chest cavity. When I was in Melbourne [in April] being jeered by the crowd [while racing Anna Meares], I thought, ‘Just you wait until we get to London. Just you wait’.”
After that, who knows? Thinking about the future, she says, is exciting but terrifying. “I’ve always lived by a very strict regime. I’ve always had training programmes, goals planned for me. I’ve never ambled along. Everything has been planned and organised."
She thinks she’ll have to keep planning things and being organised, otherwise she’ll be lost. She’s looking forward to joining a gym. Trying other sports that have been long forbidden, lest she injure herself. Going skiing.
She’s made enough money from endorsements to take some breathing space. But she’ll need to find work eventually. She’ll take a year, she reckons, to decide.
She’s had tentative talks with broadcasters. She’d like to do something creative. She’s going to marry Scott. They’ll move south, near to London. They might think about kids, but she wants to live her own life for a bit, first, before devoting her time to someone else.
She’s 31. It’ll be fascinating to see what she does next. But first there’s the matter of the Olympics. Her events begin on 2 August. By the evening of 7 August her Games will be over.
This time, if she wins, she promises she’s going to celebrate.
Photography by Greg Williams