Victoria Pendleton stays on course for third gold

 

Nobody can properly predict how the last day of Victoria Pendleton's storied career will unfold tomorrow - she just isn't that kind of athlete - but it is a fair bet that drama, tears and Anna Meares will be involved.

British cycling's track queen takes her leave from the sport in less than 24 hours, by which time the final entry on a glittering CV will describe Pendleton as her country's most decorated female Olympian or an ousted sprint champion.

Either way, you can bank on an outpouring of emotion - from the 31-year-old herself, from an adoring public in the London 2012 velodrome and from her sizeable support team who have enjoyed and endured the peaks and troughs of her career.

Pendleton was already the proud owner of six sprint world championships and an Olympic gold at the start of the Games.

Now, having added the keirin title on Friday, she enters the sprint semi-finals with the chance to go one better than Dame Kelly Holmes, Rebecca Adlington, Shirley Robertson, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb with a third appearance atop the podium.

The bare numbers point towards a glorious swansong, with Pendleton topping the timesheets in qualifying by breaking her own Olympic record in 10.724 seconds.

Australian Meares, her long-time rival, came in second in 10.805secs and both riders secured their semi-final places without being pushed to their peak today.

If Pendleton's best-of-three match-up with German Kristina Vogel and Meares comes past the dangerous Shuang Guo of China, 6,000 baying supporters will have the opportunity to witness one final chapter of what has been one of the sport's most enduring duels.

Both have been eager in the run-up to London to deflate reports of deep-seated antagonism between them, though previous offerings on the subject offer compelling evidence to the contrary.

But take any personal enmity out of the equation and there remains a fascinating sporting story approaching a potentially frenzied denouement.

The balance of power has shifted between the two on more than one occasion, with the Briton dominant in Beijing four years ago, only for Meares to storm ahead after a momentum-shifting World Cup success in 2010.

The form book was harder to read in the build-up to London 2012, even after Pendleton scored a controversial win to take the sprint title in the World Championships in Melbourne four months ago.

The best-of-three semi-final on that occasion contained more excitement than 30 seconds of sprinting should be capable of, with Pendleton violently crashing out in the first ride, Meares stung by a technical relegation in the second and the Briton sneaking the decider on a photo finish.

But while Pendleton's red hot times so far in London hint a similar result is around the corner here, the Stotfold girl's uncanny ability to attract drama is also close at hand.

It is less than a week since she was disqualified alongside Jessica Varnish for an infringement in the team sprint, denying her another realistic shot at gold.

With Meares waiting in the wings - and with a a score to settle from Melbourne - anything is possible.

Acknowledged or not, there is clearly distance between the two. Tomorrow night it need only be a fraction of an inch in Pendleton's favour to secure the dream departure.

PA

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