Victoria Pendleton’s Olympic swansong could not have got off to a more bitter start after she and GB team sprint team-mate Jess Varnish were relegated when on the point of taking on China for gold.
Pendleton’s error was that she broke the takeover rules when she overlapped Varnish's wheel too early a the end in the opening lap of the semi-finals. The margin was a third of a bikelength, no more, but it was an error which cost the Britons dear. After 15 minutes of deliberation by the judges, much pointing at tv screens and Team Principal Dave Brailsford hovering nervously in the background, the decision was taken: Great Britain were out.
Out, too, at a stroke went Britain’s first possibilities - by that point a certainty, although China had been fastest in both heats so on paper silver looked more likely for GB than gold - of a first Olympic medal in the first track competition final of the 2012 Games. As for Pendleton, out, at a stroke, went what could have been a dream finale of three Olympic golds in one Games. That it should come on home soil, in the velodrome where she and Varnish had won the same team sprint event in the World Cup in February and at a point when Pendleton says she is in the form of her life, can only have intensified the pain.
The relegation verdict, understandably, was greeted with anger by the velodrome crowd, who booed loudly, whilst Pendleton, after Brailsford had stalked across to the GB pen to give the squad the news in person, seemed close to tears. As a farewell to an event in which she has been twice crowned World Champion and once taken silver - and in which for women, was making hits debut in the 2012 Olympics in a belated attempt to ensure parity - this relegation was completely the opposite to the finale she had been looking for.
It was very unfortunate, it was a mistake made in a fraction of a second“ Pendleton told the BBC..
”It happens so quickly when you are full speed in a team sprint. Jess moves up and that's my cue to take over but it was a metre or so too early, unfortunately.
“I'm desperately disappointed for Jess because she has done an incredible job in getting this far.”
“I'm sorry for disappointing all the people that have come to support us and perhaps not offering the ride that we would have done. I'm really sorry.”
Although problems with the changeover are comparatively rare, they are not new to the British camp: in the 2012 Worlds, the GB men’s team sprint trio was disqualified for the same error in March. The women’s sprint team, in that event, though, had ridden comparatively poorly, finishing fourth - but in the deepest of ironies, prior to relegation, yesterday they had bounced back with a vengeance.
Great Britain’s opening qualifier saw them placed second behind China, despite a relatively slow start by Varnish leaving the GB duo timed fourth best after the first lap. Pendleton then lifted the pace radically to allow Britain back into the game wiht a vengeance, briefly claiming both World Record and Olympic Record and bringing a deafening roar from the crowd: That cheer only fell silent when China’s duo of Jinjie Gong and Shuang Guo slashed a further tenth of a second off the World Record.
Into the first semifinals, where Varnish produced a a steadier start, and Pendleton then responded comfortably, placing Britain just behind China on the top of the results board. But as the race judges hustled and bustled around the centre of the track and Brailsford’s face darkened more and more, like the proverbial elephant in the room, the issue of the changeover and the possible GB relegation loomed larger and larger in the Stratford velodrome - until the bad news finally broke.
Whether Pendleton can now bounce back in tomorrow’s [Friday’s] keirin event is now the big question. The only, tineiest of consolations of her relegation is that without having had to race in the finale of the team sprint she will be at her freshest possible for what is., on paper, her weakest event of her three specialities - sprint, team sprint and keirin. Whether she would willingly have paid such a high price, though, is far more debatable.