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Victoria Pendleton: Victoria's secrets

Being honest about her vulnerabilities has never hindered Victoria Pendleton, she tells Robin Scott-Elliot ahead of her third Games

It's the morning after the night before. Victoria Pendleton is sitting in a corner of the Newport velodrome, the base camp for Britain's track cyclists ahead of the Olympics. Another day's training is complete, another ticked off on the last lap of her career, one that has already, ahead of a third Olympic Games, installed her as this country's greatest female rider.

"It's an easy place to be," says Pendleton. "Where you know you can't do any more. Where you know you're going better than you've ever gone before in your life. I'm really quite positive about it. So happy days."

Happy days have not been a constant for Pendleton. She has described the moment of winning gold in Beijing as little more than relief – there appears to have been little joy. Which is where the night before comes in.

The previous evening she had sat in her room in Celtic Manor, where the team are staying, alongside Jess Varnish, her partner in the team sprint and room-mate, and watched the most extraordinarily personal documentary shown at prime time on BBC 1. About her.

A film crew has followed Pendleton over the past three years, on an emotional journey as she struggled to find her way towards an ending that is now a matter of days away. Her Beijing triumph was dampened, perhaps even ruined, by the fallout from her involvement with Scott Gardner, one of the coaching team. The rest of the coaches did not take kindly to the relationship and Gardner, now her fiancé, left the team. He is back now – and his return has coincided with Pendleton's dramatic revival. Except, of course, it is no coincidence. Pendleton is riding better than ever – that afternoon she recorded a personal best in training.

"I was nervous [about the programme]," she says. "I was like, 'Oh my God, how is this going to be received?' because I was filmed in some very dark times over the last few years and I didn't want to come across like some miserable, depressed individual – very dark. That's not me. I've just had some tough times.

"I'm very honest and open. I wear my heart on my sleeve and that's the way it's always been – always will be. Some people like it, some people don't. Some people try and discourage me from doing it because they feel it gives my competitors an advantage over me, knowing I'm sometimes emotionally vulnerable. I think it's quite brave. I think a lot of people are quite scared to do that, but this is how it is, this is what I do. I still win – so it's fine. It's just how I am."

It is, she says, how she has always been. The vulnerability has remained through that Olympic gold medal and nine world titles, the latest snatched dramatically in Melbourne in April in the latest head-to head with Anna Meares, her great rival.

"In the past they have said, 'You shouldn't be like that, you shouldn't be so open, so upfront'," she says. By they she means the coaches around British cycling, with whom she has always had a complicated working relationship. "It makes you look weak. I'm like, 'Well, my legs do the talking.'

"You know I was told originally, 'You haven't got the right psychological form to deal with being an elite sports person'. Someone told me very early on in my career that I didn't have what it takes to perform in elite sport. I guess I've proved I don't have what it takes but I can still do it.

"You don't have to be a robot, unbreakable, entirely self-confident. You don't have to be that to be a winner. You can just do it your own way and if you do have insecurities and vulnerabilities then it doesn't mean on the day you can't produce results. I don't think that's a weakness. I think that's me doing the best with what I've got."

Pendleton will be the only British cyclist going for three golds in London – the team sprint, the individual sprint and the keirin. It is a heavy workload for a 31-year-old. But the events of the last few months will send her into the Games on a high. On paper Meares, three years younger, would appear to have the edge. There is an edge between the two riders too. But Pendleton has that something extra, perhaps it's just sheer bloody-mindedness pedalling side by side with that vulnerability.

"In the past I've won all three world titles – and not many people have done it, there's only two of us, ever," she says. "I've got as good a chance as anybody. You can't add more days in the week and do more training. It's your mental approach. I went into Beijing with one event to get right, an event that if you blink you get it wrong and everyone else had won gold up to the last day and I was like, 'Oh God'. I've got to win gold. I felt a lot of pressure then just to be part of it. It can't be any worse than that.

"The last couple of months have been good. I'm definitely, undoubtedly in better form than I ever have been entering a competition in my entire life. Whether it will be enough on the day – who knows? But I do know I have done the most I can do."

On Friday there will be another notch in the last lap; the last practice session in Newport, where Britain were also based before Beijing. On Saturday it will be into the Olympic village for the last time – her first was in Athens eight years ago. She failed at the 2004 Games and came close to quitting the sport. But she didn't. She nearly called it a day after Beijing too, drained emotionally and physically by events on and off the track. But she didn't.

"I'm pleased with where my career is at. Finishing on a home Olympics – nothing else could inspire me more. I thought in Beijing I was at my peak – there wasn't any more I could ask of myself. If the Olympics had been in any other city then I would have called it a day. The fact that I've continued for four years because it's in London has been a struggle but I feel proud of myself for doing it. To arrive here and be in the best form of my life, you couldn't write that any better."