Sunday 22 April 2018

Paul Kimmage: How much is enough when fame finally finds you?

Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder after the 4.10 St. James's Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup
Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder after the 4.10 St. James's Place Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

"You're not anybody in America unless you're on TV. On TV is where we learn about who we really are. Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?" - Nicole Kidman, To Die For

Some memories never fade. I am sitting in a plush hotel on a warm afternoon in Paris watching TV. The month is July, 1986. The 73rd edition of the Tour de France has ended and the stars have moved from the podium to a purpose-built studio on the Champs Elysees.

The theme is celebration. The set is adorned with bright lights, glitter and balloons. Greg LeMond, the first American in history to win the race, is welcomed by the host and is followed onto the set by the French hero, and five-times winner, Bernard Hinault. But the real star is an Irishman.

Stephen Roche has not finished in the top 40. He's not even the best-placed Irishman (Martin Earley, 46th) but who's going to tell him? He moves across the platform and playfully kicks at a balloon and then swivels like a ballerina to connect with another.

Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?

Victoria Pendleton has spent most of her sporting life playing to empty galleries. It started at age nine in a field in Fordham, when her cycling-obsessed father, Max - a talented amateur from Hertfordshire - entered her in a 400m on the grass.

Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder during the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham on Friday. Photo: Michael Steele
Victoria Pendleton on Pacha Du Polder during the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham on Friday. Photo: Michael Steele

The younger of two girls, her competitive instincts were honed by a rivalry with her twin brother, Alex, and a constant desire for more. More was smoking her brother every time they raced; more was being the best player and captain of the hockey team; more was running faster than all the boys in school.

"Nobody really liked me because I was so good," she said. "I loved being top dog."

At 16, she travelled to Manchester for the first time for a spin around the velodrome and a new ambition was born. Five years later, she won four silvers at the British Track Championships and made the team for the Commonwealth Games. In 2003, she finished fourth at the World Championships and in March 2005, seven months after a meltdown at the Athens Olympics, she won her first world title.

The following December we met for the first time. "Prepare to be bored," she replied, when I asked her to describe her life as a world champion. She was training every day, twice a day, from Monday to Friday in an empty velodrome. On Saturday, for recovery, she rode her bike on empty roads. Atonement for Athens and the chance to win gold in Beijing consumed her.

"What's the goal?" I asked.

"To be the best at something - it's all that I ever wanted since I was a child, to be really good at something, better than everybody else, and this is my opportunity."

"But you have already achieved that," I argued.

"But it's never enough, is it?" she said. "You always want more."

"So what's enough?"

"An Olympic gold medal or two would be nice," she smiled. "I will obviously have to wait four years to try and achieve that but I think that would be enough. That would make me . . . well, no, it probably wouldn't make me happy but you know what I mean."

"Yes," I replied.

But I had no idea.

In 2008, there was a brief flirtation with fame when she returned from Beijing with gold, but so had eight others on the British track team: Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Rebecca Romero, Ed Clancy, Paul Manning, Geraint Thomas, Jamie Staff and Jason Kenny. Track cycling was a niche sport, track sprinting was a niche event, and track medals were dime-a-dozen and did not compare to what the brilliant Nicole Cooke had achieved on the road.

So she started taking off her clothes; high heels and posh frocks in a photoshoot for The Times; bodice and bikinis for the lads' mag FHM; and absolutely nothing for the Observer Sport Monthly.

Because what's the point of doing anything worthwhile if nobody's watching?

The build-up to London 2012 was fraught. She found love with her coach, Scott Gardner, but was ostracised by the team. She tried to retire, won three world titles but seemed flaky at times and vulnerable. She told journalists she hated racing and felt both blessed and cursed to have a talent for it. She got a tattoo on her right arm for her 30th birthday: 'Today is the greatest day I've ever known.'

But what did that mean?

There were a lot of tears in London. She blew the sprint but won the Keirin, and the hearts of the home crowd with an emotional retirement. She appeared on Strictly Come Dancing, was awarded a CBE by the Queen and her wedding to Gardner made the cover of Hello.

In January 2015, she's about to board a flight to New Zealand when an offer (£200,000) arrives from Betfair, to compete at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival.

She has never ridden a horse before but travels to the Oxfordshire stables of Alan and Lawney Hill, two well-respected trainers, with her agent Chris Evans-Pollard to discuss the project.

It's a cold and wet morning and she seems overawed.

"What do you do now?" Lawney asks.

Pendleton seems unsure and looks to her agent: "What do I do now?" It is the saddest thing the trainer has ever heard.

A month later she has a first lesson at Lambourne with the renowned teacher, Yogi Breisner. Five months after that, July 2015, she makes her racecourse debut on the flat in a charity race at Newbury. AP McCoy pays a visit and offers some encouragement. She rides five more races before Christmas and the press are starting to get interested.

In February, she rides the odds-on favourite and her mount for Cheltenham, Pacha Du Polder, at a race in Fakenham but is unseated. The critics are unanimous: Pendleton is an accident waiting to happen and has no place in racing or business at the Festival. But a month later, her participation is confirmed.

On Friday morning, 19 extra news crews - 18 more than had ever been dispatched to cover Pendleton as a cyclist - were sent to Cheltenham for the Foxhunter Chase. A few hours later, it was as if the Gold Cup had never happened and she was the second lead story in The Times: 'Fifth-placed Pendleton Silences Critics'.

It was, without question, a remarkable performance but you watched with conflicting emotions. Was it fair that Pendleton was ushered into the winners' enclosure? Was it fair to Nina Carberry, perhaps the greatest female jump jockey of all time? Was it fair to Bryan Cooper, a brilliant winner of the Gold Cup? Was it fair to Cheltenham? Was it fair to racing? Was it fair?

And what of Pendleton? "One of the greatest achievements of my life," she gushed. "And I hope it's not the last."

What's next? What's more? When will the hunger be sated? How much is enough?

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