Jess Varnish on British cycling: 'Victoria Pendleton's left a big hole... I miss her'
Jess Varnish comes to terms with replacing Pendleton as female face of British cycling
Monday 22 April 2013
Market Street, Manchester's main commercial thoroughfare, on any given Saturday. A man puts down his crutches, rolls up his trousers to expose an amputated leg and begs to the sound of a jazz band further up the road.
At one end, a tall, beautiful black man reads aloud from the scriptures. At the other, Islam is better resourced with a stall carrying banners and postcards asking: "Is Life Just a Game?"
It is a question Jess Varnish would be well placed to answer. By her own admission, she is best known for one thing, partnering Victoria Pendleton when an illegal changeover saw them disqualified at the Olympic Velodrome.
Pendleton had two more chances for glory and won gold in the keirin (where the start is controlled by a pacesetter). When the medal was placed around her neck, Varnish was holding Pendleton's baby nephew, Nathan. She was the only member of the Great Britain cycling team not to win one.
Via a quick flit through Strictly Come Dancing, Pendleton has retired and this bright, chatty 22-year-old from Bromsgrove is now the face of British women's cycling.
At the adidas store a few feet away from the sound of the Book of Revelation, she had just been tending to a queue that snaked out into the rain. Even after the Olympics and Bradley Wiggins's triumph in the Tour de France, she finds all the attention a little strange.
"Vicky [who is 10 years older] told me that when she started out she had absolutely no use for an agent but I had to have one," said Varnish, who has one of the most constant smiles in sport. "I don't get to hear of the wilder offers that come our way but my agent did tell me a mum had asked if I could come to her daughter's sleepover."
Varnish is remarkably philosophical about the events of 2 August 2012. When she was growing up, Pendleton was a poster on her bedroom wall. In her autobiography, "Between the Lines", Pendleton remarked that "Jess was always apologising" for any perceived errors, although in truth there was little to apologise for. "In time, she changed from Victoria to Vicky," said Varnish. They spent the long hours between races watching box sets of "Downton Abbey".
Away from the hotel, they smashed the world record on the same Stratford track of polished Siberian pine that would be used for the Olympics. Pendleton had a rose named after her. Varnish gave her name to a Virgin Pendolino train. In the fateful race they had beaten the Ukrainian team by more than a second, which in sprint cycling represents a devastating margin of victory.
"What happened next will always be there and in many ways that might be a good thing because it spurs me on," Varnish said. "It's never going to go away, let's face it. It is what I am remembered for.
"But it was better than missing the Olympics through injury. Oh God, yes. I couldn't have stood that. Even though I was disqualified, I was still at the Olympic Games. I'd still broken a world record.
"You are upset but then you realise that this shouldn't define your life. It is a hard sport, you shouldn't expect it always to go right."
What drove Pendleton to fury was that at the time nobody went over to Varnish to see if she was all right. Team GB employed a phalanx of coaches and psychologists at London 2012 but all Jess Varnish really needed was a hug.
Her time will come on the track. She will be 26 and physically at the top of her game when the Olympics open in Rio de Janeiro and Pendleton expects her former partner to be "at the peak of world cycling".
Her main rivals in Brazil are likely to be Kristina Vogel, who was one of the last Soviet citizens born in a town named after Lenin, but now represents Germany, and Becky James. In February in Minsk, Vogel was beaten to the sprint world title by James, a brilliant 21-year-old from Abergavenny whose relationship with the rugby player George North has seen them called "the Welsh Posh and Becks".
"It is a small, enclosed world; you get to know everyone in cycling," Varnish said. "Do you learn to dislike them? On the bike you do. Off the track it's different but you can't race someone you like too much. You never think of their names or call them by their names. They are just 'the opponent'."
Even Victoria? "Even when I was up against Vicky, I wouldn't think of her as Vicky and she wouldn't think of me as Jess. I didn't want her to retire. If you can imagine someone you come to work with every day, they will leave a hole in your life. I miss her."
As with her long-time partner, Varnish's greatest influence is her father, though the relationship between Jim and Jess Varnish is less complicated than that between Max and Victoria Pendleton.
In 1985 Jim Varnish became world cycle speedway champion, a sport where you need sharp elbows and strong nerves. He never let his daughter try it mainly because of the dangers but partly, you suspect, because there is absolutely no money in it.
When Jess goes back to Bromsgrove her father talks cycling to her when they are out in the country lanes of Worcestershire but at home he doesn't encourage it. "My sister wouldn't come back from uni and go through every detail of her course," she said. "There is more to me than cycling and sometimes the best sound is when you close the garage door on a Sunday and put the bike away."
Jess Varnish was speaking at an adidas store appearance to mark the launch of the new British Cycling kit for 2013-14. For more information visit adidas.com or join the conversation @adidasUK.
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