So near but so far: Vicky Pendleton’s final race ended in disappointment as she was forced to settle for silver when longstanding nemesis Anna Meares of Australia defeated her for one last time in the individual sprint.
Had Pendleton won, the defending Olymnpic champion would have become Britain’s first ever woman athlete to win three Olympic gold medals.
But after a relegation in the first heat of three saw Pendleton fall one round behind Meares, and in the second the Australian then strongly outpowered the Briton to regain the Olympic title she had lost to Pendleton back in Beijing. Meanwhile China’s Guo Shuang repeated her bronze from the 2008 Games by beating Germanys’ Kristina Vogel.
The relegation for Pendleton was particularly painful because it was not the first she has suffered in these Games. That came when she was disqualified together with Jess Varnish in the women’s team sprint on Thursday, the one track race where Britain has not taken any medals of any colour in 2012.
Winning the Keirin on Friday for Olympic gold medal number two of her career seemed to put paid to that setback and Pendleton, oozing confidence, seemed on track for a third before retiriing.
However the relegation from the individual sprint final’s first round - which, to make matters worse, she had won a few minutes earlier by a thousandth of a second over Meares, but a technical fault saw that victory go up in smoke - put Pendleton on the back foot. In round two Meares was clearly superior, dodging past Pendleton before outpowering the Briton, who had all but thrown in the towel by the last lap, to claim a key gold for Australia.
Fighting back the tears, Pendleton rode round and round the velodrome, repeatedly saluting the crowd, who roared her name in response in this most emotional of send-offs.
There is no doubting that Pendleton, who smiled radiantly at the cameras as she clutched her Olympic silver medal, leaves a huge gap.The individual sprint has virtually been Pendleton’s private property ever since 2005 when she won her first World Championships gold. Since then she has netted Olympic gold in Beijing, and racked up no less than six World’s titles in this discipline alone, as well as a silver and a bronze.
But throughout it all, Meares has been the rival who has dogged the 31-year-old’s wheeltracks the most persistently. After first crossing swords at the Olympic kilometre time in 2004, which Meares won, and accusing her of “liking to push the rules” in 2006, at 2008 in Beijing, Pendleton inflicted her greatest defeat on Meares beating her in two straight rounds.
Given they have 19 World titles and three Olympic golds between them prior to today it was almost, but not quite inevitable, that Pendleton and Meares would once again come head to head in the final.
Having set the fastest time and Olympic record in the women’s 200 metre sprint qualifiers, motored through her round of 32 and last-16 races and disposed of quarter-finalist Olga Panarina of Belarus in two straight rounds of a possible three on Monday, Pendleton started the last segment of her path to silver by equally efficiently dispatching Germany’s Kristina Vogel in the semi-finals.
Meares, meanwhile, was also making her way to the top, dipping underneath the old Olympic record in the qualifiers, then seeing off Guo Shuang - her semi-final rival - in two hotly disputed rounds.
The final duel, though, was the most eagerly awaited. And if Pendleton could not quite take the top award in her last ever race, there can be no doubt that with a gold and silver in her possession from London’s Games, not to mention a career in which she has been almost unrivalled in all sprinting disciplines, the 31-year-old form Hertfordshire can leave the sport with her head very high indeed.