We have witnessed a number of extraordinary accomplishments at the London 2012 Olympic Games. In the lead up to the Games, however, there were few events I wished to see more than the culmination of one of the most enthralling sporting rivalries for a generation: Victoria Pendleton facing Anna Meares.
While Pendleton could claim first blood, after taking gold in the keirin, the focus would rightly be on the women’s sprint, which took place on the final day of action in the Velodrome.
Pendleton’s gold in the keirin was an unexpected success. Meares led going into the final lap, but Pendleton timed her move perfectly, taking the lead and maintaining it as she crossed the finish line.
Meares looked to have been entirely knocked out of her rhythm as she was passed by her British bete noire. She went backwards and ended up finishing in fifth position. It seemed that Pendleton had the whip hand as they competed for one final time in the best of three sprint to decide who would be the Olympic champion.
Like the greatest of rivals, their respective careers have been defined by the other. Where would Pendleton be without Meares, and vice versa? Their conflicts – which have at times descended into enmity – have been a boon the world of track cycling (particularly for women).
Off they went in the first race, with Pendleton starting in the inside lane. Meares generally likes to be the one chasing, and left her rival to set the pace before making her move. As the last lap began, Pendleton began to motor and Meares responded in kind. They came into the final corner with Pendleton just ahead, but the Australian was closing fast. Going into the home straight, Meares made an aggressive move towards the Briton, inadvertently catching Pendleton with her elbow. They came into the last few yards, up to the line, with both Pendleton and Meares a whirling dervish of thighs, calves, and ankles pumping furiously like pistons, and then…
Who crossed the line first? If anyone tells you that they knew immediately, they are lying. It took a relative age for the victor to be announced, but it transpired that Pendleton had crossed the line before Meares by 000.1 seconds.
Just think about that – one thousandth of a second. Never had the maxim about fine margins making the difference in sport felt more pronounced than in that moment. It was a compelling ride from both competitors, a searing demonstration of why these two are head and shoulders above their peers. If you ever want to explain to a non-cycling fan about the rivalry between Meares and Pendleton, show them that race. It was a perfect microcosm of how evenly matched they are.
The race commissaire then became involved and sullied one of the greatest pieces of sport seen at these Olympics. When Pendleton received the aforementioned elbow from Meares, she was unbalanced, and in an attempt to correct herself, drifted out of her lane. While it was an infringement of the rules, it seemed clear that the initial infringement, albeit unintentional, came from Meares. Despite the protestations of a furious Dave Brailsford, Pendleton was disqualified and the race given to Meares.
Pendleton was being tested like never before, and as race two commenced, Meares begun on the inside lane. Like Meares, Pendleton also likes to chase her opponents down, but the Australian rider knew this. Meares enjoys a well-earned reputation for aggressive riding, often bending the rules without breaking them. She rode to the outside of the track, and while that was predictable, what she did next was not. With Pendleton in keen pursuit, Meares slowed to a crawl and almost stopped altogether.
What she was doing was making it near impossible for Pendleton to remain behind her, all the while leaving the track open for Pendleton to take the initiative. Unbeknown to Pendleton, and the watching fans, this was a plan that Meares had been assiduously working on for the past three months – force the Briton to lead rather than follow, before picking her off on the last lap.
It was a compelling game of patience. Pendleton wanted to remain behind Meares, but “Black Caviar on wheels” was making it increasingly difficult for her to do so. The race became a battle as to whom could assert their race strategy. It was Pendleton’s will that broke first. Her mind still in a haze from the earlier disqualification, she sped ahead. Meares now made her move, reeling her in on the final corner and winning the second race – plus the gold medal – comfortably.
It was not a positive end for British fans or for sport. However, we should not think ill of Meares. She didn’t complain when Pendleton (initially) took the first race, and executed a brilliant game plan to win the second. I reserve all the opprobrium for the commissaire, whose over-officiousness robbed us of what would have been an apposite final chapter. The script was written for the pair to have a final, winner takes all showdown in race three.
If Pendleton was raging at her defeat, she did not show it. As Meares celebrated, Pendleton immediately rode alongside her and extended her hand, which Meares sportingly accepted. On the medal rostrum Pendleton put an arm around Meares, with the Australian understandably emotional as she wore her gold medal.
After this, in the post-race press conference, they were both glowing in their praise for each other. It appeared as though all the competitive rivalry and unpleasant words that have been spoken previously dissipated at the very moment Meares crossed the line ahead in the second race.
As for Pendleton, she was given a standing ovation from the crowd. She may have failed to win the gold in her final race, but Pendleton retires as the greatest British female cyclist of them all (although Laura Trott underscored her credentials as Pendleton’s dauphin only minutes earlier in the women’s omnium). Upon receiving her silver medal, Pendleton actually appeared to be happy for the first time in a cycling arena.
Having flogged herself physically and emotionally for years, often for the benefit of others, she seemed to finally have a sliver of peace. Cycling has often seemed to bring Pendleton little but pain and anguish, broken up by brief moments of satisfaction in the form of gold medals. This is no more, for she has given us enough. Hopefully now, Victoria Pendleton can live for her own happiness. This does, however, throw up the eternal question, that is always asked of any rivalry: who was better, Pendleton or Meares?
In a rum way, should we be thanking the commissaire for making that absurd decision, assisting Meares’ path to gold? Regardless of the controversy, by winning in London, fans of the 28-year-old can make the case for their girl being the superior rider. However, Pendleton also has an Olympic sprint title from Beijing, which came at Meares’ expense. While Pendleton may have more world crowns, surely the Olympics is the pinnacle. So who was better?
Sadly, we will never empirically know. The rivalry may be over, but the debate is set to rage on. Even in Pendleton’s retirement, her professional life will be forever tied to Meares. Perhaps that is as it should be. Maybe it is only right that we do not place one woman above the other, but alongside each other. After all, they have given us some of the finest sporting moments and performances seen anywhere since 2005, and even though Meares hasn’t retired, I will miss seeing her racing against Pendleton.
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