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VICTORIA PENEDLETON: OLYMPIAN

"Nothing I've done will matter if I don't win in London: Olympic gold and eight world titles but Pendleton fears failure in 2012. "

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As the New Year materialised, Victoria Pendleton viewed the finishing line of her Olympic career through fearful eyes. For her, being an Olympic champion with eight track cycling world titles to her name will count for nothing from this moment on.

 

 

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According to Pendleton's Law, only triumph on her bike at the London Olympics in August can validate her career.


'What happens in London will define the rest of my life,' she said unequivocally.

 

 

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'It's stupid, really. It makes no sense. It's just another race, on a bike with one gear and no brakes and against the same girls.


'But London isn't just any old Olympics; it's the most important of all Olympic Games for British athletes. More people will be watching in Britain than ever before. More people will be paying attention to what's been invested: time, effort, energy and money.

 

 

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'You feel you have to do well and you haven't got any control of this daunting thing going on. You can train hard, you can give everything you've got on the day. But you can't control the outcome and you're never going to feel any more pressure than in that moment.

 

 

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Pendleton won an M.B.E. in 2009

 

 

 

'My mum is always telling me, "You are an Olympic champion and nobody can take that away from you". Yet it still feels that nothing else you have ever done matters. Only what happens at the London Olympics will truly matter.'



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At 31, Pendleton is a woman who dares to bare her soul. To her, losing is anathema.


She is driven to win because she is frightened of the consequences of failure. 'I'm a quiet achiever, not cut out for this,' she said.


'I am not someone necessarily rewarded by my own performance. I am always striving to do better, so I am never satisfied.'

 

 

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From the grand dame of track cycling, the confession is stark and revealing. 'I've done this for so long because I am good at it, not because it's my dream and really fulfils me as a human being,' said Pendleton.


'I feel great when I win but it's not the whole truth. For the last 10 years, I've been at the top of my sport, but it's hard to maintain. As the years pass, the rewards feel less because you have already done it before.


But I still push myself as I detest losing.' Pendleton's career is most easily characterised by her appearances at the last two Olympic Games.


In Athens, she cried for her lack of success; in Beijing, she could not cry, as much as she wanted to, and is embarrassed by photographs showing her smirking when they played the National Anthem in her honour as a gold medal hung from her neck like a piece of priceless jewellery.



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'All I felt was a huge relief,' she recalled. Britain 's magnificent cyclists, who will all be burdened by the weight of their own history in London, brought home eight of the 19 gold medals Team GB won in Beijing.


'I did well because, as one of the last to race, I was afraid of fading into the background if I didn't win when the team had done so brilliantly,' Pendleton said.

 

 

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'I wanted to feel I belonged. But you never prepare yourself for the day after. Instead, you are confronted by a range of questions: Where am I going? What am I doing? Do I feel good about this? Am I missing something?' The years since Beijing have provided few answers for Pendleton. 'It's probably been the worst three years of my life,' she said.


Her Australian boyfriend, Scott Gardner, a sports scientist, who is now her fiancé, felt obliged to leave the cycling team after the Games to avoid a conflict of interest.


'My relationship with Scott caused huge disruptions and other riders were bitter that he left as he was a great part of the team,' she said.


'It's been a real struggle.' Her analysis must be put in the perspective of an Olympic champion accustomed to winning - indeed expected to win.


At the European Championships in Holland in late autumn, Pendleton collected gold medals in the team sprint with Jess Varnish, her heir apparent, and in the keirin.


But it was the individual sprint, her signature race yet one in which she failed to make the final, that attracted most attention, not least from her rivals.

 

 

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'The word on the street is I have given up on the sprint to concentrate on the other two events in London,' she said, raising her eyebrows at such a preposterous thought.


Admittedly, she felt sufficiently concerned in Apeldoorn to address the issue with Dave Brailsford, the team's performance director. 'Am I too old for this?' she asked him.


'The truth is I was feeling some injuries then, but I have recovered.' Even so, Pendleton lifted a veil on the psychological, as well as physical, demands placed on the team by the management when she said: 'I came away from the Europeans with two gold medals out of three, but did I get a pat on the back? No.


'The management expect gold all the way; that's no way to live. It's almost an unrealistic expectation.'


Yet to deny that she is focused on winning the individual sprint gold for a second time would be a betrayal of her instincts. 'I want to defend my title,' she said.


'The sprint is a form of combat and I like that.' In London, Pendleton is expected to compete in the three events she raced in Holland.



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She rehearsed those races in London's Olympic Velodrome in a World Cup event next month but Pendleton is old enough and wise enough to treat her results with suspicion. She is training to peak in August, not mid-winter.


Gardner is back in her corner, at least. 'Scott looks after my sports science in Manchester on a part-time basis, but we try not to talk shop when we are at home together,' she said.


'My key performance indicators are better than at any time in the past three years.


'I'd say I was ahead of where I was before Beijing - but I need to be. Yet I know I'm still in a strength building block and don't have the explosive power I will need.


I will stick to my guns in February and, while it's hard losing, I won't sacrifice my Olympic preparation. The most important aspect of the test event in London is for us to view it as a big learning experience.'

 

 

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Pendleton feels comfortable under the spotlight. It is hard, though, to envisage the woman dressed to meet us in over-the-knee black leather boots, leggings and short jacket, with her raven-black hair tumbling down her back, as the same athlete who goes to work in Lycra and a crash helmet from Star Wars.



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Her candour, coupled with an easy, flirtatious manner in front of a camera, has brought her modelling assignments, most recently for Harper's Bazaar.



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She is also perfectly cast as the face of a new campaign promoting the Hovis Wholemeal Gold Start Challenge, which aims to help people become healthier by cutting out snacks, as well as the flowing locks of Pantene.

 

 

Monday may be a holiday, but Pendleton will be in the gym at the Manchester Velodrome as usual.


Her mission may be occasionally confused by the maelstrom of emotions that course through her body, but she will not be easily distracted from her ambition to win in London.


For there will not be another chance. 'After the Games I am taking at least a year out from competing, perhaps stopping all together,' said Pendleton.


'This is just a stepping stone on my journey. I don't know where it's leading me, but I know I am destined to do something that will fulfil me as a person. I am not embarrassed that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I've always been very honest and open.


'I'd love to be cool, calm and collected; emotionless and mysterious. But I haven't got the acting skills to do that! In five, 10 years' time, my mum says I'll look back and realise I did rather well.


'I do wish I could have appreciated it more at this time, but when you are focusing on the next goal, on getting better, you're never given five minutes to reflect.'


That time will arrive, but only after the hard, wintry days of the new year have turned to summer.


'I want to be happy but it's hard knowing I still want to win more, at the Olympics most of all,' she said. 'I'm not done but I hope that, if I don't succeed, people won't forget me.'