While British golden girl Victoria Pendleton’s face and body lit up screens and billboards all over London in the lead-up to the games, Anna Meares trained in anonymity in northern Italy.
When every English newspaper splashed with Pendleton’s take on the most hyped rivalry in track cycling and how it might play out in London, no one could get to Meares.
The 28-year-old from Central Queensland was holed up with the Australian sprint cycling team in Montichiari, a small town in scenic Lombardy, preparing quietly for what could be the final showdown between the two undisputed queens of the velodrome. Decamping to mainland Europe allowed the team to escape winter in Adelaide. But it also removed Meares from the spotlight – first in Australia and then in London, where Pendleton is ‘‘Queen Victoria’’ and Meares is portrayed as some sort of athletic wicked witch, the fly in ‘‘Our Vicky’s’’ ointment and the biggest obstacle to the 31-year-old’s perfect Olympic swansong.
Today, the games begin. The pair meet in the first of three events they will both contest, the team sprint. ‘‘I am relaxed and confident that I have done all the work that I could have possibly done,’’ Meares said from Montichiari shortly before she left for London. ‘‘I don’t believe there is anything more or anything that I could have done better … I am in the form of my career.’’
She will need to be. Though favourite to win the individual sprint and the keirin, Meares learnt four months ago, when she was pushed into disqualification at the track cycling world championships in Melbourne, how badly Pendleton wants to finish her career on top.
It was the latest, extraordinary twist in their rivalry. Before Beijing, where Meares took silver – behind Pendleton – seven months after breaking her neck in a cycling accident, the Australian was used to playing second fiddle in the sprint.
It took Meares another three years to crack a victory – an emotional win at the world championships in Holland – and she maintained the upper hand with a semi-final win over Pendleton in the Olympic test event in February. The Melbourne race in April has given Sunday’s sprint showdown a deliciously uncertain edge.
‘‘There are so many components you have to get right to end up on top,’’ Meares said of her favourite event. ‘‘You can be the fastest and lose, you can have all the skill and technique yet lose. This race is about who can compile all the qualities and components required to win, who can perform under pressure, [who’s] done their homework, who knows their opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, who can confront another and outwit them. It is the most difficult and challenging race I have ever had to ride … it tests me to the max.’’
Pendleton has made it clear she wants a normal life after London. No more soul-bearing documentaries, no more glamorous fashion shoots, no more pressure to win, win, win. From her training base across the channel, Meares followed a lot of the commentary on their rivalry but didn’t think she stood to benefit from Pendleton’s sky-high profile.
‘‘If Vicky can keep herself grounded and not allow the many distractions of being a home Games and of being a face of the Games to a minimum then no, it is of no help to me, the spotlight she is under,’’ Meares said. ‘‘She has proven many times in the past she can handle it, I am not expecting any different. She is a good competitor, as are all the other girls.’’
Two weeks ago, Meares stopped posting on Twitter. The usually relaxed and bubbly voice on social media fell silent. ‘‘Thanks for the support. See u all after its all been run,’’ she posted in her farewell.
‘‘The build-up has been long and the excitement hard to control,’’ Meares said from Montichiari around the same time. ‘‘Nerves are there but under control … I hope I can do something great and all I want is that chance. The rest is up to me to get over the line – first.’’
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