Victoria Pendleton said an emotional goodbye to track racing after the women’s sprint final, losing to Anna Meares after a dramatic and controversial race in which the multiple world and Olympic champion was relegated in the first heat for an ostensibly innocuous manoeuvre, before being outgunned in the second match.
Prior to the final, today’s semi final saw a continuation of Pendleton’s unstoppable form in the earlier rounds. Anna Meares was the only rider in the competition on similar form, less than a tenth behind Pendleton in qualifying and dispensing with her rivals through the rounds with similar ease. So the final, a repeat of the final in Beijing 2008, was always going to be a tasty encounter.
Match one and Pendleton led out, with Meares stalking at distance. At the bell Pendleton was still ahead, forced to lead out but by the final corner Meares was on her shoulder and in full flight. At the line, they were shoulder to shoulder, elbows out, Pendleton taking it by a whisker.
Moments later Pendleton was controversially relegated for coming out of the sprinter’s line – it appeared in reaction to a shoulder barge from the Australian. The crowd groaned but to no avail; it was 1-0 to the Australian rider. Lengthy and animated discussions took place between Dave Brailsford and the commissaires but the decision stood.
Match two and Pendleton had it all to do. This time Meares led out, leading Pendleton up and down the track, stalling on the back straight, crucially forcing Pendleton to the front. At the bell Pendleton had no option but to take it on from the front and Meares slotted into her slipstream before coming around Pendleton and getting the jump. By the last corner it was all over and a shocked and delighted Meares took gold as a tearful Pendleton took a final lap of honour, saluted by the capacity crowd.
Speaking to the BBC moments later a still emotional Pendleton said: "I'm just so relieved and I'm overwhelmed with emotion. I would have loved to have won on my final race. I'm glad that it's all done and I can move on.”
Despite the intense rivalry that has characterised Meares and Pendleton’s relationship for years, and the manner in which she relinquished the Olympic title, the British rider thought it fitting that her final contest should be against the Australian: "I'm glad that it was me and Anna Meares in the final, it was the way it should been. She was a fantastic competitor. But I'm very glad that that's the last time I will be doing that.”
The women’s sprint final was the second time in the London Games that Pendleton saw victory snatched away by a controversial judging decision, with herself and Jess Varnish denied gold in the Women’s Team Sprint on the first day of track competition: "I can't believe that twice in one competition that I've been disqualified and relegated, it's unheard of,” said Pendleton.”I really tried in that last race though and I can't believe it's all over."
Pendleton bowed out to emotion scenes in the London velodrome, her tearful lap of honour greeted with a standing ovation from the capacity crowd, retiring on the back on an incredible nine world titles and three Olympic medals. However, it is the manner in which Pendleton has gone about her business that has endeared her to British cycling fans – wearing her heart on her sleeve and never afraid to let her emotions show, yet bulletproof in battle on the track, especially against her long time adversary Anna Meares, with whom she had her final poignant contest.
After Victoria’s emotional farewell, the team around her paid tribute to a remarkable career and shared their abiding memories of a true champion and sporting icon.
Sprint coach Jan van Eijden, an integral part of the core team that was built around Pendleton said: "She's determined and she's very gifted. She's given everything for the sport and she tried everything to be the best. If she had chosen to try for the team pursuit, I think she would've had a good chance to do that.”
Mark Ingham, Great Britain cycling team mechanic revealed a more personal insight into Pendleton off track: “The first time she won a World Championships in 2005 in LA she gave me and the other mechanic, Ernie Feargrieve, a handmade card,” said Ingham, who has been part of the team that has meticulously prepared Pendleton’s machines for eight years.
Dr Steve Peters, Great Britain Cycling Team’s sports psychiatrist, worked closely with Pendleton and looked back seven years to 2005 and "The joy on her face when she won her first world title in Los Angeles."
Great Britain Cycling Team Performance Director Dave Brailsford also harked back to Pendleton’s first world title in LA in 2005 as a moment when he first recognised the qualities of a true champion: "When she won her first World Championship title in LA, you saw this gritty determination and the never-say-die attitude which propelled her through to becoming a world champion.
“If you look for every aspect of a true champion, she possesses them. I'm sure she'll take that into the rest of her life. I'd like to say thanks on behalf of British Cycling, because British Cycling owes Vicky Pendleton a huge amount."