Growing up with a seriously ill twin brother and a bookie's challenge... why the stakes are high for Victoria Pendleton at Cheltenham
A year ago, the only saddle Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton was comfortable with was on a bike. Today she lines up at Cheltenham Festival. Tom Peck on how a dare led her to take part in one of our most dangerous sports
With Victoria Pendleton, there is always drama. Not many athletes, not many people, would put their ferociously competitive spirit down to the fight for attention that comes from growing up with a twin brother with cancer. Not many people, having won Olympic gold, would claim to have been trying to please their father. Not many people, when they fall in love, find that it turns their greatest joys to sorrow.
These were the central aspects of the Victoria Pendleton story, as told to fascinated millions in a powerful BBC documentary broadcast in the rarefied days before London 2012. But that is the documentary maker's art. To disentangle the threads, straighten them out and weave them together into something that looks like it had always been meant to be. "We'd go up some really massive hill," she said back then, of her childhood out on her bike with her dad. "And he'd ride away from me, and I'd think, 'He's not even going to look back to see if I'm coming'."
That show, punctuated by tears - mostly her own, but plenty of the viewers' - conspired to position her back at the brow of a hill, staring down upon some sort of destiny. All roads had led to here. A home Olympics. An expectant nation. The bang and the roar of a crowd. A few more laps of the London velodrome and what they might add up to.
But the credits rolled and not everything went quite to plan. Yes, she had her moment, riding around with the Union flag, victorious in the keirin. But a controversial disqualification in the team sprint cost her, and her teammate Jess Varnish, a likely second gold.
In the final race of her long career, the individual sprint, her decade-long nemesis, Australia's Anna Meares, every inch the Moriarty to her Holmes, bullied her up the bank of the track, penned her in, daring her to take the initiative. The tactic was an old favourite. She shouldn't have risen to it. But she did, and she lost. And her words at the end were revealing.
"I won't ever don a skinsuit again," she said, her voice unsteady. "I won't miss it. I've had a skinful. Cycling fell in my lap. It wasn't a dream or ambition. It was me having something in common with my dad, and I happened to be quite good at it."
Today's events should prove simple by comparison. They have not been teased out in front of the public eye as the last act in some compelling family psychodrama. But they're no less dramatic. It's a simple jeopardy. A year ago, a bookmaker dared her that she could not, 12 months from now, finish a race at the Cheltenham Festival. She had never ridden a horse.
This afternoon, not wearing a skinsuit, but jockey's silks in black, white and red, she will line up alongside 20 or so other runners and riders at the start of the Foxhunter Chase, having convinced a sceptical racing community she is up to the job, and will stand just three and a bit of the most unforgiving miles away from a quite remarkable sporting achievement.
It was always meant to be dramatic. Betfair wouldn't be paying her £250,000 for her efforts if there wasn't a story to tell. "What is character," wrote the American novelist Henry James, "but the determination of incident? And what is incident but the illumination of character?"
In rising to and, dare we say it, meeting this challenge, new depths to the already mysterious Pendleton psyche have been revealed.
John Francome, the celebrated jockey, has called her "an accident waiting to happen". Others, such as A P McCoy and the trainer Paul Nicholls, whose horse she will ride, have been more supportive. "At the beginning, I was a little bit dubious about the whole thing, but to be fair, she has improved so much and is ready for the challenge," said Nicholls. "The improvement from month to month has been absolutely incredible."
It has not come without its setbacks. In 20 rides, she has been unseated four times. A normal rate for the kind of jockeys she will ride against might be about one in 10. Then last week, at Wincanton, she won. Pacha du Polder led from start to finish, and on the home stretch pulled even further away. Not quite an Olympic gold, but a £1,247 prize on a horrible wet Wednesday, and in the winner's enclosure, again her voice seemed like it might break.
"Honestly, it's hit me hard. It's gone right in. I can't explain to you. Going round that final bend, I could hear people. I could hear hooves … and I thought, 'They don't sound that close and they're getting further away'," she said.
"I was like, 'I'm almost too scared to look round. I'm just going to keep going'. And then I heard the commentator: 'Eight lengths clear'. Oh my. It's actually happened."
Just to be standing on the line next week, she says, will feel like an Olympic bronze - not that she's ever won one. Just two golds and that painful silver to Anna Meares. Completing the course will feel like gold.
It will also be dangerous. The sheer number of riders in the field, the aggression, the lines they will take, and the course itself, identical to the Cheltenham Gold Cup, all place the Foxhunter on a different level from anything she has faced before.
Not to mention the 70,000 spectators. The "Cheltenham Roar" is well documented in sporting circles. There is no noise quite like it in any sporting amphitheatre. This will not intimidate her. London's Olympic velodrome made a noise like no other. But what might make Cheltenham different is that it poses the possibility of unqualified joy. That day in Beijing, in 2008, when she stormed to victory in the sprint and became a household name, she has since described it as among the most miserable of her life. She was in a forbidden relationship with one of the team's coaches, Scott Gardner.
"We knew if we embarked on this, then that would be the end. One of us would have to leave the job," she said in an interview following her retirement from cycling.
"We'd spoken to senior management about it. They'd told us to keep quiet about it until after the Olympics, but as soon as I'd won, the story got out. And that's when all hell broke loose."
Gardner, a Tasmanian to whom she is now married, was removed from his duties and transferred to British swimming. She has said that several of her teammates, whom she has not named, resented her for having lost Gardner, a valued coach.
"I felt at times that I was out on my own," she said: "I'm not disregarded, but I'm not the favourite, shall we say."
All this is a long way from her school days in Bedford, where she would race on her bike alongside the school bus, furious if it reached the gates before she did. From there to Olympic gold is a journey of sorts. It's difficult to place this equestrian coda within any sort of context. And in one particular way, it's very different. At Wincanton last week, her final words on the matter were this: "I will go out there and enjoy it because it is the most fun I have ever had in my life."
From Olympian to Cheltenham
Born: September 24, 1980, Stotfold, Bedfordshire.
Family: Daughter of Max Pendleton, British cycling champion, and Pauline Viney. She has a twin brother and an elder sister. Married to cycle coach, Scott Gardner.
Education: Fearnhill School, Letchworth Garden City; Sport and Exercise Science BSc, Northumbria University.
Career: Won her first British National Track medals in 2001. Winner of two Olympic and seven world championship gold medals. Became a jockey in 2015.