Anna Meares is a singular athlete. Anyone who can recover from a life-threatening neck break to ride in an Olympic final seven months later is made of something impressively tough. The Australian is a talented athlete too; she has an Olympic gold medal to her name and 10 world titles.
But Anna Meares has a problem: Victoria Pendleton. There is something about the Briton that gets to Meares and that something has grown into a major issue that is threatening to leave the 28-year-old's Olympic plans looking as bleak as the Queensland mining town where she first learned to ride a bike. Meares was simply destroyed when the British veteran won gold in last Friday's keirin.
Meares' ruinous start to the London Games is a neat summation of her country's terrible first week. The Australians won their first individual gold yesterday afternoon, via the sailor Tom Slingsby, but that does little to make up for the toils of two of their Olympic team's big three.
Sally Pearson, the world champion hurdler, has begun her campaign well – her final is tonight – but the failure of James Magnussen in the pool and Meares in her first outings in the velodrome are symptomatic of the country's failure to shine. So far.
Meares' next chance comes this evening in the sprint, an event in which she was the world champion until earlier this year. It is not necessary to name the opponent who took the title off her, but it is worth pointing out that it happened in her back yard, at the World Championships in Melbourne in April.
Prior to that meeting it had appeared as if Meares had exorcised her Pendleton demons but that defeat, a typically rambunctious clash, let them all back in again. Quite what Pendleton's annihilation of her rival last Friday will have done to Meares remains to be seen.
Last night they both breezed through to today's semi-finals, beating their quarter-final opponents in straight heats; perhaps inevitably, they were drawn to meet in the final.
Both arrived in London claiming to be at the peak of their powers. Pendleton has had a well-documented dramatic four years since Beijing whereas Meares has had a much more productive cycle, winning world titles in 2009, 2010 and 2011. "I'm in the form of my career," the 28-year-old declared on the eve of the Games. Meanwhile, in Newport, where the British team were putting the finishing touches to their preparations, Pendleton said she had never been riding better.
It is Pendleton's words that are supported by the evidence of their first two meetings. Britain may have been disqualified in the team sprint but there was no doubting Pendleton's speed (Meares and Australia won bronze), and as for the keirin – it's best for Meares to draw a veil over that. Pendleton was already embarking on her victory lap by the time Meares crossed the finish line.
Tonight will be their final meeting. Their first head-to-head clash came six years ago at a World Cup event in Bordeaux – after the Athens Olympics when Meares won gold and Pendleton nothing – and that set the feisty tone that has since surrounded the rivalry.
This is how Pendleton puts it: "Anna and I are very different riders. She's someone who likes to push the rules and I definitely don't. But there's nothing wrong with that. If you get two people in the same room like that, there's bound to be a bit of conflict."
That is the slant Pendleton has maintained throughout – the inference is that Meares plays dirty, and it is one that upsets the Australian's camp. The two women are the same height at 5ft 5in, but Meares is bulkier and she is tactically more aggressive. It would be easy to assume that Meares is also the mentally stronger of the two. Easy, but given the events in Melbourne and then last week probably wrong; Pendleton has Meares rattled, perhaps permanently.
The Australian was upset by Pendleton in Beijing. In January 2008, Meares crashed while riding in a World Cup event in Los Angeles. She fractured neck vertebrae and came close to being paralysed. Yet by August she was competing in her second Olympic Games. It was a gutsy recovery and one entirely against the odds, yet Meares felt Pendleton was overly dismissive of it. The two met in the sprint final and it was Pendleton, a woman who it has since been revealed came close to being crushed by her own emotional struggles, who triumphed.
Post-Beijing the pendulum finally swung in the Australian's favour, and by the time the two riders arrived in Melbourne it was Meares who was dominant. Pendleton, on the other hand, rode like the clock was running down on her career. There is, though, hidden within Pendleton a streak of ingrained stubbornness, a trait that has often been found more commonly within Australia's sports men and women. Meares won the keirin as Pendleton failed to qualify from her heat. In the sprint they met in the semi-final, Pendleton crashed in the first, Meares was penalised in the second – point proven for Pendleton? – and the Briton won the decider on a photo-finish. Not long afterwards, she won a ninth and last world title.
The two women exchanged a brief handshake after the keirin on Friday. They have not spoken at any length for six years, since that meeting in Bordeaux. Pendleton persistently says, not entirely convincingly, that she has no problem with Meares off the track; on the track it would appear Meares does have a problem with Pendleton. Tonight will settle it once and for all.
Head-to-heads: Pendleton and Meares have a long history
* Athens, Olympics 2004 In the 500m time trial Meares becomes the first woman to go under 34sec on her way to gold. Pendleton finished sixth.
* Bordeaux, World Cup 2006 Pendleton, annoyed at Meares for cutting her off during the keirin race, describes Meares as a rider who "likes to push rules".
* Beijing, Olympics 2008 Pendleton beats Meares in the final of the women's sprint with some ease to take gold.
* Melbourne, World Cup 2010 In her home country, the Australian Meares beats Pendleton for the first time in five years in the sprint at the competition.
* Apeldoorn, Netherlands, World Championships 2011 Meares wins the sprint, and again gets the better of Pendleton, who finishes third.
* Melbourne, World Championships 2012 Pendleton crashes into Meares in semi-final, but recovers to win in a tight finish, then beats Lithuanian Simona Krupeckaite to seal gold.
* London, Olympics 2012 In her swansong Games, Pendleton surges to win gold in the keirin, with Meares looking destroyed in fifth place.
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