The near-unbearable pressure caused by rampant British track success could not deter the women's sprint star Victoria Pendleton from taking her country's seventh cycling gold medal yesterday.
In the semi-finals and finals of sprint cycling it is the best rider of three rounds who qualifies, and losing one round before battling back into contention is a frequent occurrence. Not so for Pendleton here. Paralleling Chris Hoy in his attempt at sprint gold step by step, throughout the entire gruelling three-day process the 27-year-old from Hitchin remained undefeated.
Fastest in the 200-metre qualifying event on Sunday, the three-times world champion Pendleton then lived up to her status of overwhelming favourite as she systematically won each heat and each round of the semis and final. Time after time on the three-lap challenge, Pendleton – her eyes invisible beneath her Darth Vadar-like track helmet, the lower part of her face equally mask-like – would shadow her rival until the second half of the race. Then with a flick of the pedals, she would move ahead, hold her rivals at a distance of two bike lengths or so and finally accelerate to the point where counter-attacking was utterly futile.
With a brief flick of her hand – very much in keeping with her status as Queen of the Classics. – Pendleton would acknowledge the applause for each victory.
At times her level of domination came close to being embarrassing. Twice, she was so far ahead by the finishing line that her coach, Ian Dyer, told her to slow down. Finally, the process reached its logical conclusion as Pendleton briskly vanquished Australian Anna Meares in two rounds of the final.
For someone fond of baking cakes and gardening in her spare time, it all seemed like an oddly ruthless process, but as a delighted Pendleton said afterwards, she remains determinedly detached from how she wins.
"It just doesn't feel real; in fact, the whole last week doesn't feel real. In the final I just tried to focus on the fact that my speed was the fastest from the qualification rounds. I tried to stay calm and do the best job I could."
Pooley agreed that there was some "sort of history between her and Meares" – a reference to their numerous two-wheeled duels in the past – but that she tried to look past that and concentrate on the race itself.
"It doesn't matter who the rival is, you just do the best you can. In the qualification she was actually a little bit slower than usual, so that gave me a bit extra confidence."
Cool as the proverbial cucumber on the track, she admitted that off the bike the extra pressure brought by Great Britain's runaway success made it tough at times to focus. "I was an absolute mess at some points and it felt as if I'd been waiting for ever to get my chance. Everybody was getting gold and I just wanted to be part of the team. I didn't want to think about the outcome, I just wanted to think about the process. I didn't even allow myself to think about winning or failing."
Taken on by British Cycling at 16, Pendleton first concentrated on her sports science degree before turning full-time to cycling. After working at a sprint training school in Switzerland for two years, she finished a respectable fourth in the World Championships in 2003, but the same result in Athens in 2004 then led her to think of quitting.
The team psychologist Steve Peters helped put her back on track – "he's the single most important person in my career," Pendleton has said in the past. The series of gold, gold, silver and gold in the past four World Championships confirms the success of his work.
The only sad note about last night was that under different circumstances, like Hoy, perhaps Pendleton – a gold medallist in the team sprint and silver in keirin in Manchester – could have gone for an Olympic triple.
Unfortunately, those two men's events do not have their equivalent in the Olympics, and Pendleton understandably criticised the chronic imbalance. "There are just three events for the women in cycling comparison with seven for the men. It's got to be corrected somehow, it doesn't make sense," she said.
For now, in any case, she will have to settle for Britain's first Olympic medal in the women's sprint. That itself is no mean achievement.
Websites, necklaces and nudes
* Pendleton was voted eighth most attractive female athlete at the Beijing Olympics by an American website.
* She wears a skull and crossbones necklace while competing.
* Entered for first race aged nine – 400m in Bedfordshire.
* She caused controversy by posing nude in a recent magazine photoshoot.
* Likes dressmaking, drawing, having nail manicures and baking.
* Dislikes aggressive drivers. 'It's a risky business being a cyclist in the UK, there are a lot of people who really dislike us. It's the Jeremy Clarkson influence – we're hated on the roads. We just hope people realise we are just flesh and bones on two wheels.