Unlike four years ago there was no physical pain for Shanaze Reade as she saw her second chance of an Olympic medal disappear but this one may hurt even more. Three commanding and controlled runs had delivered her into the final looking every inch the golden prospect long ago predicted by Chris Hoy. Instead, she was never in contention; a poor start proved decisive – this is a sport of no second chances – and that sentenced her to sixth place.
Reade's strength is her power, the speed with which she descends the eight-metre ramp from the starting gate is where she wins races. Hit the first bank at the front of the field and the race is yours to lose, arrive there as part of the pack and there is only the desperate hope that a crash will decimate the field.
"I felt like I was fast enough and I had done all the work that I needed to," said Reade afterwards. "Unfortunately, I just didn't have the start I wanted or needed to win the race. That was it."
Having qualified second for the final, it fell to Reade to have second pick of the starting gates. She chose No 2 – instructively Caroline Buchanan, the Australian who qualified fastest, went for No 1. They were both gambling, which is a fundamental part of BMX's make-up, on getting to the bottom of that ramp first and then from there having the impetus to fly to the first bend. They gambled and lost. Buchanan came in fifth, one ahead of the Briton and both some way behind the medal contenders.
Gold went to the Colombian Mariana Pajon, who had spent all of May out of action due to injury, an occupational hazard. Sarah Walker of New Zealand took silver and the Netherlands' Laura Smulders, the youngest rider in the race at 19, bronze.
"At the moment, I'm pretty emotionless," said Reade. "I do not have any emotion in me yet, but I am sure it will sink in. The Games is the biggest platform you can race at and you've just got to give it your best. The race schedule has been pretty hard, with the back-to-back laps. It's been hard to recover. I just tried to stay focused and do my absolute best, but today it just wasn't good enough."
Reade crossed the finish line one and a half seconds after Pajon, took off her helmet and slumped over her handlebars. In Beijing she never made it to the finish line, instead in a moment of true sporting death or glory the then teenager sought to revive her fading chances with a spectacular attempt to overtake the leaders. There was no glory only a damaged shoulder, a sprained wrist, a displaced pelvis and no medal either.
Ahead of the 2008 Games, Hoy had promoted her as British cycling's best hope of a medal. BMX comes under the direction of the medal hungry British Cycling set-up in Manchester, if not quite under the same roof, which is how they like it. The BMX track is next door to the velodrome and its accompanying facilities are available for their use. To stretch the analogy beyond any BMXer's comprehension, it is like Tom and Barbara popping round to Jerry and Margot's for a cup of sugar.
What appeals to Reade about her sport is its lack of structure – it's her good life. She did move inside for a time, winning two world titles with Victoria Pendleton while still a teenager. She may return to the track in due course, but it would be a wrench.
It is a markedly different skill. What appeals to Dave Brailsford about BMX riders is their explosive power – if they transfer, it is usually as the lead rider in the sprint, to provide the early impetus. But on the track it requires constant and smooth repetition; the BMX rider does not pedal continuously, instead they use savage bursts to gain the momentum to carry them over the jumps.
There is also the question of nerve. One mistake and that is it, as was painfully reaffirmed to Reade and everyone watching yesterday as the Brazilian Squel Stein was carried off on a stretcher after crashing less than 10 seconds into the first semi-final.
Reade had described Beijing as the worst moment of her life (with the accompanying asterix that she knows that does not count for much in the wider scheme of things).
London became her driving force and that she was in a good place when it arrived was apparent from the first semi-final. The riders race three times with the first four in each advancing to the final. Reade, and Buchanan, qualified with a race to spare. Reade finished second in the first and won the second, before adding another second place in the final race. In the one she won, the 23-year-old did so from an inside lane. Buchanan too was swayed by her semi-final runs and they both looked inside for the final.
Over her bruising years in the sport, Reade has fractured a knee, an elbow, a foot, ribs, her coccyx and a hand, as well as that Olympic damage in , but the final cut of yesterday afternoon, seeing the leaders dart out of her reach around that first bend that curves in the shadow of the next-door velodrome, scene of so much British success, may well prove to have the deepest impact of all.Reuse content