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Victoria Pendleton: Between the Lines

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The cyclist’s account of her journey to nine world track titles and two Olympic gold medals.

Sports stars present such a polished and media friendly image that it can be impossible to know what they are really thinking. But come the inevitable post-retirement autobiography, free from the rigours of competition and the constraints of representing their country, a very different story can often emerge.

This divergence is particularly stark in Between the Lines, cyclist Victoria Pendleton’s account of her journey to nine world track titles and two Olympic gold medals.

On the face of it, her story was a fairytale. Most of the British public had never heard of Pendleton before she burst into mainstream consciousness by winning the individual sprint at the Beijing Olympics.

She continued her stay in the limelight with magazine covers, ad campaigns and world titles. Approaching London 2012, she was widely considered the favourite to take three gold medals, and duly proved her worth as the golden girl of cycling by topping the podium in the keirin.

But her glamorous veneer hid a story of deep insecurity and self harm, of a difficult relationship with her father, and of fraught dealings with British Cycling’s senior coaches.

Pendleton is, by her own admission, emotionally fragile. Growing up, she felt that her father, an ardent amateur cyclist, loved cycling more than her, and saw the sport as a way to earn his love. Her problems deepened early in professional career, feelings of loneliness and isolation at a training camp in Switzerland leading to self-harm.

Even while training as part of the phenomenally successful GB track squad, at times she struggled. After breaking protocol in 2008 to fall in love with a member of the coaching team, her relationship with the squad’s management became turbulent. The mutual animosity was such that several members of the team did not wait to say goodbye to her on her retirement.

Pendleton is clearly keen to lay out her side of the story, but she doesn’t stop at her relationships with the squad. Post-retirement, she also clearly feels more able to talk about gender inequality in cycling.

Despite her stated reluctance to become a spokeswoman for the subject, during her career Pendleton often called out the disparities in opportunities and support for women and men. Had equal medals been on offer to women in Beijing, she writes, she could have been as successful as Sir Chris Hoy.

She also notes her difficulty in her translating her track success into mainstream success in the way Hoy could, and writes that she often suspected she was valued less than the men on the squad.

Senior figures within British Cycling are now publicly questioning what can be done about this  inequality, but Pendleton’s frank account highlights the difficulties female athletes continue to face.

Aside from these revelations, Between the Lines also offers a rare insight into the pressures and emotions of track cycling.

Avid cycling fans will be gripped by the book’s rider’s-eye-view descriptions of sprint match races, but these passages could at times challenge the casual sports fan. World Championships and World Cups, Athens and Beijing, individual sprint and keirin; all have a tendency to blur together.

The influence of co-writer Donald McCrae is evident in some of the more imaginative metaphors (“the piney hills” of the track?), and in the rather heavy quoting of newspaper coverage by McCrae’s colleagues at the Guardian.

But overall, this is no bad thing. Any difficult passages are more than balanced out by some thrilling descriptions, particularly of those races against Pendleton’s Australian arch-rival Anna Meares, which offer vivid and exciting reminders of the thrills of last summer’s cycling action in the Pringle.

Predictably, the media has made much of Pendleton’s emotional issues and dramatic revelations. But in writing about her experience with such candour, the real story that Pendleton reveals is one of grit and determination despite the hardships she faced.

Sporting heroes, especially men, are often painted as gods. Pendleton’s honesty about her imperfections makes her seem more human, but also yet more deserving of her position as one of Britain’s sporting legends.

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