Title: Between the Lines - The Autobiography
Author: Victoria Pendleton (with Donald McRae)
What it is: What it says it is - the autobiography of Victoria Pendleton
Strengths: Shows why serving pros normally produce such anodyne cliché-riddled anecdote-bloated biographies: with her bridges burnt Pendleton is able to be brutally open about both her personal circumstances and her time as one of the stars of Team GB.
Weaknesses: The normal weakness with autobiography: it's one side of the story.
Up until recently, Victoria Pendleton's personal life has seemed pretty unexceptional, save for the nine rainbow jerseys and two Olympic gold medals she's won over the course of her professional cycling career. She was born and raised a pretty standard Home Counties kid. The youngest of three children (a twin brother who preceded her by an hour and a sister five years her senior) and with a mum and dad from the first generation of post war kids, parents who loved her. Dad was an accountant, mum ran the house and together the family cycled. Happy families.
Dad was something of a name on the amateur cycling scene, had even graced the cover of The Comic. Dad was also from the school of hard love.
"Dad was very strong; I was skinny. He was a really fit man, who had been cycling for decades, while I was a puny little girl with stick-like legs and a serious face. Max Pendleton was a star amateur rider. I was a worried waif. But Dad must have sensed I had a huge heart because he never made it easy for me. He pushed me every single mile, especially when he was such a deadly climber."
From early on, Pendleton learned to race, first on grass tracks then on hard. She progressed. And got noticed. She was sixteen when the phonecall came from the national track team's assistant coach. Would she like to pop up to Manchester and have a go on the vélodrome?
"Alone in bed, in the dark, I closed my eyes. I saw all the piney patterns and deeper shadows of the track. I heard the distinctive sounds of the vélodrome in my head and, most of all, I felt the surreal excitement of riding a fast and beautifully geometric track. I knew I'd be back, and the thought sent a thrill rippling through me. Sleep was elusive; but I didn't mind. In my head, I was riding round and round, up and down, dreaming of the next time. I was happy in the fairground."
In the mid-nineties in the UK there wasn't much of a career path for female track cyclists. A Sports Science degree in Northumbria was the path Pendleton took. Studying and training became her life. A Spring 2001 work placement in the bowels of the Manchester vélodrome, doing officey type things for British Cycling, let her see the World Class Performance Plan from the inside.
The bangles and baubles had by now begun to trickle in to British Cycling. Yvonne McGregor had a rainbow jersey and an Olympic bronze medal from Sydney, and on the boys' side there was the set of Jason Queally's kilo gold, the team sprinters' silver and the team pursuiters' bronze from the same Games. Pendleton was able to secure a place on the England Potential plan, bottom step of the ladder leading to WCPP funding. With her degree completed by the Summer of 2002 she moved up a step and rode her first World Championships. Two months later Pendleton was on her way to Aigle for an all expenses paid extended stay at the UCI's sprint academy.
In 2005 Pendleton scored her first sprint rainbow jersey, becoming only the fourth British woman - after Beryl Burton, Mandy Jones and Yvonne McGregor - to win a senior World Championships. Two years later, in 2007, Pendleton won three more rainbow jerseys, in the sprint, team sprint (with Shanaze Reade) and the keirin. The sprint and team sprint she retained the following year, bringing her rainbow jersey tally to six. At the Beijing Olympics she added gold in the sprint.
"I had three minutes before the focus shifted. Three minutes to accept a Union flag and hold it above my head in a ritual gesture of victory while I looked briefly tearful at the release of winning. Three minutes to stand in front of the snappers, arms above my head, fingers clutching the flag, as I stared dazedly at the clicking and popping cameras. Three minutes to smile and try to look euphoric as a whirl of feeling tore through me. Three minutes to compose myself and savour the pure relief of winning. And then they were gone. The eyes and the lenses turned elsewhere. They moved away from me to the giant shadow of Chris Hoy."
Pendleton's fourth sprint world title - her third on the trot - came in 2009, the fifth in 2010. Then, after four years of coming home from the World Championships with a new jersey in her suitcase, Pendleton scored a duck in 2011, her penultimate championships. The following year Pendleton bounced back and won her sixth sprint title - her ninth rainbow jersey in all - and then wrapped her career up at the London Olympics with a final gold medal in the keirin.
"Once I felt the heavy chunk of Olympic gold settle around my neck I sang the national anthem and finally understood what you are meant to experience in such a moment - joy, pride and relief all wrapped up in a magical blur of feeling."
That, more or less, is the basic story of Pendleton's life, on and off the bike.
Actually, it's not even the half of it.
* * * * *
The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh has a line in one of his poems, 'through a chink too wide there comes in no wonder.' Sometimes you don't want to know what's really behind that door. It's best not to look. But sometimes the light of wonder can still shine, even after you've pushed the door open. In Between the Lines Pendleton isn't just pushing, she's practically kicking the door off its hinges. And the wonder of it all is that the tale she tells is still so compelling.
Let's try a gear change and a different way to ride though this story. Loop back in time. Winter 2002. The UCI's sprint academy. Aigle was a cycling boot camp, with Frédéric Magné as drill sergeant. Up and bed made by seven. Breakfast. Trudge to train. Train to French language classes at seven-thirty. Track or gym at ten. Lunch. Communal sleep. Track again at three. Hotel. Eat. Bed. Sleep. Repeat, Monday through Friday. Saturday, two hours of low gear road riding. Repeat. Christmas holiday. Home. Back. Repeat repeat repeat. Build your strength. Hone your speed. Steady progress. Winter turns into Spring. Spring gives way to Summer. Repeat again.
Cut. The barbed comment of a self-funded Canadian rival lashing out at a state-funded rider: 'You will always be a princess - but you will never be queen.' Cut. With a Swiss Army knife. Cut and try to make the pain bleed out. The pain of being beaten by older rivals. The pain of being beaten by younger rivals. The pain of disappointing others.
Loop further back. Childhood. Pendleton's father was straight out of the lines of Philip Larkin's poem: man hands on misery to man. And man did he have misery to hand on. Spades of it. As a kid he thought his parents favoured his sister over him. His bike became his refuge. Then he got married. And then the kids came along. Pendleton grew up wanting to please her father. When she pleased her father she felt his love. Pendleton didn't want to disappoint her father.
Jump forward. 2006. Team GB poached Scott Gardner from the Australians. He joined the Team GB support crew. Pendleton found him distant. Enigmatic. Maybe he fanned the flames with gentle indifference. Maybe there was just chemistry between them. Whatever it was it was the sort of thing British Cycling frowned upon, for good and obvious reasons. The following year Pendleton and Gardner crossed the line and fell in love.
Roll on. Celtic Manor. Eight weeks before Beijing. Time to break the news to Shane Sutton. He broke the news to Dave Brailsford. He broke the news to Steve Peters. They all accepted that these things happen. Pendleton was twenty-seven, Gardner thirty-two. They could learn to live with it. But, until Beijing was done and dusted, the two new lovers were asked to keep things quiet. Keep things secret. Don't upset Team GB's delicate equilibrium. There's bangles and baubles at stake. And the Lottery-funding they bring.
Roll on. Beijing. The day after Pendleton beat Anna Meares in the sprint and bagged a gold bauble. Sutton and Brailsford called a showdown with Pendleton and Gardner. Jan van Eijden, the sprint coach, was let in on the couple's secret love. Van Eijden took the news badly. He was hurt that no one had told him. That neither Gardner nor Pendleton had told him. And in his pain he pressed the buttons that can crack Pendleton's emotional shell. You've disappointed me. You've let me down. You can play Pendleton's emotional fragility like a piano if you press keys like those. Pendleton pushed back with rational argument. Rational versus emotional. The Peters principle at play. But even Pendleton's tears of hurt and pain and blood change nothing: Gardner's asked to choose between career and love. He makes his choice and collects his P45 on the way out.
Roll on. Three months. Pendleton's parents broke up after thirty-eight years of marriage. Max Pendleton's own emotional ghosts had returned to haunt him after Pendleton and her twin brother were born. There wasn't enough love to go around, he thought. He went off to look for his own. A secret he'd kept to himself. Until now.
Skip forward. 2010. Spring. Copenhagen. World Championships. What could have been Pendleton's last. The stupidity of cycling had finally struck her. She told her coaches, Jan van Eijden and Iain Dyer, that she was through with this. She was out. Steve Peters was called in. Peters who'd helped Pendleton try to sort herself out in Aigle. Peters who was there at all the important moments. Trying to help Pendleton to understand her inner chimp. Except Pendleton's chip was big as a gorilla. And so Peters talked Pendleton down. London was just two years away and she'd regret then if she wasn't a part of it. So Pendleton accepted two more years.
2012. London. Stratford. The Pringle. Pendleton and Jess Varnish have just exited the team sprint. An illegal change-over in front of a bunch of blazers who were going to be sticklers for the rules, no fear, no favours. Pendleton still had two more chances of gold ahead of her, the sprint and the keirin, but Varnish's Olympics were over. And by the time the brute truth of their disqualification had been realised, Brailsford, Sutton, Van Eijden and Dyer had switched their attention to the boys. No one was there to throw a comforting arm over Varnish's shoulder. Team GB's emotional intelligence deficit was as clear as day.
* * * * *
There are many things to admire in British Cycling's Lottery-funded renaissance. The attention to detail. The successful management of change. The fact that they set targets and meet them. In terms of success, they have come to resemble the old Soviet-era medal factories of East Germany and the USSR. But at what cost? What is the true price of all the gold, all the glory, all the national pride that Britain's elite Olympic cyclists are bringing home? You can count it in pounds, shillings and pence, if you want, but you'd get the answer wrong. Between the Lines gives an idea of the true cost, the personal cost, certainly that paid by Victoria Pendleton.
Between the Lines is unlike most other sporting biographies - certainly I'm not sure I can think of a cycling one that matches it (Graeme Obree's comes closest). Most sporting biographies suffer from hiding more than they show. Pendleton cannot be accused of that. Some, in fact, will probably criticise her for revealing too, too much. They'd be entitled to their opinion, but if you want mine, they'd wrong. By revealing so much - about herself and about the inner workings of British Cycling's medal factory - Pendleton has shown just what price is being demanded of those charged with bringing home the bangles and the baubles. And people really should stop and ask themselves if that's a price that's really worth paying.
The criticisms made of British Cycling within the pages of Between the Lines are at times shocking. For an organisation that pats itself on the back for its attention to detail it would seem that they have yet to master emotional intelligence. They are still stuck in the past when it comes to dealing with athletes, a time in which man-the-fuck-up is the standard cure all. Given that British Cycling has Steve Peters as part of the team you might think that this is something they'd have nailed. Yet look at the experience of Pendleton: even with Peters looking after her the top brass kept getting it wrong. Now that their failures have been pointed out in the clearest way possible, you'd hope that the lesson will have been drilled home.
What of the way in which Pendleton talks of her own personal circumstances? They are central to who and what she is. To shirk from their telling would be to tell barely half the story. They are more sad than shocking. And they certainly help top explain a lot.
Beyond all that, Between the Lines has other things one doesn't normally expect to read about in cycling autobiographies. Names like Hervé Léger, Louboutin, Erdem. Giuseppe Zanotti, Dolce & Gabbana, they certainly make a (pleasant) change from Paul Smith and Fred Perry. Do you really want to know about riding World Championships while having your period? (What does that tell you: that cutting is more acceptable than bleeding as a topic of conversation?) Or how about having the moment of victory compared to orgasm? Maybe you'd rather slip back into the comfort and safety of the bland, anodyne, cliché-riddled, anecdote-bloated autobiography template? Really?
And, of course, there's Pendleton's rivalry with Anna Meares. But you'll have to read Between the Lines if you really want to get to the bottom of that. Just take my advice on this: this is that rare cycling autobiography you should read.