London 2012: Victoria Pendleton motivated by medals, not money

By Matt SlaterBBC sports news reporter

Victoria Pendleton helps some of the world's biggest companies sell bread, trainers, sports drinks and shampoo.

Attractive, smart and talented, her appeal to advertisers is hardly a huge surprise.

But if it was flogging stuff that Pendleton was interested in, there are easier ways to do it than training her body to reach speeds of 40mph on a bicycle, not to mention risking serious injury should she fall off.

So it was with some surprise that the 2008 Olympic women's sprint champion read comments from British team-mate Mark Cavendish that suggested she was in it for the marketing, not the medals.

"Unlike Victoria Pendleton, I'm not in it to be the face of my sport, I'm in it to achieve," Cavendish said.

When I put this to Pendleton - just over two weeks after the cycling world watched her hit the deck at full speed but come back to beat her fiercest rival Anna Meares - she laughed it off, saying she had been assured that Cavendish had been "misrepresented" and that they were "fine".

She did not need to add "I'm in it for the medals, too, Mark!" but she did.

So no serious harm done, then, and the pair will no doubt celebrate together at London 2012's closing ceremony if they have gold medals around their necks.

And that is now a far more likely prospect for Pendleton than it seemed a year ago, when a cyclist who was almost unbeatable between 2007 and 2009 suddenly looked like she might want to be doing something else.

Pendleton is not the only athlete to have experienced the old adage about it being easier to reach the top than to stay there, but she is perhaps unique in her willingness to talk about it in such honest terms.

"Once you've won the Olympics, you go to the World Championships and it's not got the same meaning, the same grandeur," she said. "It's just not the same; it doesn't feel as important."

What she needed was a rest. She knows that now.

"Somebody should have stepped in and said 'Vic, take a break', but they didn't," she told me at an event to promote a Hovis campaign designed to encourage women to get back on their bikes.

"And I must admit it was really, really hard. It felt like an anti-climax and I didn't celebrate anything, or make the most of what I had achieved.

"It was like it was in the past already and I was moving on.

"I remember a very emotional training session after Beijing. It was only me and one other person and I was rolling around, in the dark and quiet, thinking 'what am I doing?'"

What she was doing, of course, was what she had been doing since she was nine: trying to win bike races.

Back then, they were 400m dashes on grass tracks, and she was hoping to impress her father Max, a British champion.

In 2009, she was ploughing on because nobody had ever "backed up" an Olympic sprint gold with a world title. She did it, but it did not make her feel as happy as she expected.

What followed were two "really tough" years in which she saw niggling injuries and Australian rival Meares combine to leave her off the pace.

And then something clicked.

"There was a light at the end of the tunnel, and suddenly London 2012 didn't seem so daunting," the 31-year-old said.

Starting with a world record with Jess Varnish in the team sprint at London's test event in February, Pendleton is approaching her final Olympics looking like somebody who knows what they are doing again.

The best evidence of this came at the last big championship before London, the Worlds in Melbourne earlier this month.

Having narrowly failed to win a medal with Varnish in the team event, Pendleton came up against the defending champion Meares in the semi-final of the sprint.

The pair had met many times over the years, including the Olympic final in Beijing, but this was sporting theatre of a different calibre.

It was almost over before it started, though, as Pendleton crashed into an ominous-looking Meares in the first heat.

"It was my own fault," recalls the British rider.

"I touched Anna, lost my balance and took quite a tumble. I was quite embarrassed about it but miraculously didn't break any bones, or my bike, so was able to get back up and finish the job."

Sounds simple, doesn't it?

Friction-burned and with holes in her outfit, Pendleton was then beaten in the second heat, only for the officials to overturn the result because they ruled that Meares had illegally blocked her.

This set up a thrilling decider, which Pendleton edged, silencing the home crowd. An hour later, she would win the final and claim a sixth world sprint title in eight years.

After the race, Meares did not hide her disappointment, but was also quick to praise her opponent's courage and bounced back herself to win the third Olympic event the duo will contest in London, the keirin.

For her part, Pendleton does not see this as a Coe-versus-Ovett contest for the ages, although she acknowledges it felt that way at times in Australia thanks to an excitable local press.

"The thing about the 'Anna v Victoria rivalry' is just that we've been at the top of our game over the same period of time," she said.

"So we have met each other on numerous occasions when the world has been watching, and it has created this situation where 'Vicky has won one, you've won one'.

"It's close; we're very closely matched."

Which is precisely why most sports fans are absolutely delighted that Pendleton is still riding her bike to win medals and not just flog stuff.

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