between the lines. victoria pendleton with donald mcrae. harper sport. 339pp illus. £20

between the lines - victoria pendleton

"I'm an insecure person. I am emotional. I am a self-critical perfectionist... I'm terrible. I beat myself up the the whole time because I'm striving for something I'll basically never achieve."

the artists and musicians of the world are often viewed as individuals apart from the rest of humanity. it is, of course, something of a sweeping generalisation and an entirely subjective one at that. history is replete with stories attesting to their collective eccentricities. this is all relative; the great majority are easily disposed to view those not exactly like themselves as different, while many of the minority are well disposed towards proving them right. unfortunately, if i might put it in such a manner, the abilities of both categories are not optional; artistry of any type predisposes the incumbent towards viewing or hearing the world in a more rarefied form, a super-power, if you like, that can be either a curse or a blessing, but certainly one that cannot be switched off.

there is a thin and often indefinable line between artistic genius and borderline lunacy. it's a line that can be irregularly stepped over with astonishing frequency, akin, in part, to getting out of the wrong side of the bed in the morning.

sports people, on the other hand, are surely simply fitter versions of ourselves? though an apparent need to drag a body through endless training regimes, dietary and nutritional hardships, accompanied by a healthy dose of pain and suffering can be easily categorised as stoicism, when you consider our more sedate existence, you'd have to admit that such a competitive edge can't be seriously considered as entirely normal. think back to school sports day and the joy that infused your being when you beat several classmates to the loosely held finishing tape. yet, there are sports persons, of whom graeme obree was a notable example, who felt little in the way of positive emotion after speeding round a velodrome at high speed for an hour.

from the pages of between the lines, it would seem that victoria pendleton is yet another. admittedly not entirely in the same manner as obree, but one for whom first across the line is not necessarily the be all and end all. the youngest twin by a few hours and the second girl in the pendleton family, victoria grew up needing to feel approval from a father who was not only, by all repute, an excellent amateur cyclist, but a hard taskmaster. her twin brother alex was diagnosed with leukaemia at an early age, and not entirely surprisingly, he garnered the bulk of the family attention while vicky went to live with relatives for around a year.

when she was old enough to ride a bicycle, she'd ride out with her father, a practice that only increased with age, eschewing regular saturday nights out with friends in favour of an early bed before joining max pendleton on a sunday morning ride. her father comes across as not only an obsessive, but a somewhat heartless individual, who, had victoria been a prospective swimmer, would have likely thrown her in at the deep end and left her to learn the art on her own. on a human scale, his attitude quite frankly stinks, but in terms of inculcating a peerless desire to please accompanied with an ability to overcome physical obstacles, his methods quite possibly shaped the person and competitor that victoria pendleton would eventually become.

the early competitive years were spent racing grass-track against a much recuperated brother alex. and eventually becoming the more proficient victor. regular success endeared her to max pendleton at the same time as bringing her the satisfaction of becoming daddy's girl. nothing ever exists in isolation and it was not long before she was contacted by marshall thomas of british cycling to ask if she'd care to come along to manchester velodrome for an exploratory audition. though very wary of cliches in any shape or form, there is little else to point out other than, the rest is history.

or it would be if the book were discussing a rider other than victoria pendleton. her insecurity, despite growing evidence of an innate ability to ride a bicycle very fast, appears to have invaded her every-off-the bike moment, leading even to several occasions of self-harming with a swiss army knife. so perhaps those sports people on which we have thrown the mantle of british heroes, are less a part of normal society than we had led ourselves to believe.

those who watched the tv documentary about victoria pendleton, aired prior to the extravaganza of track racing that occupied the pringle during the london olympics, will perhaps be aware that she and british cycling sports scientist, scott gardner became, as it were, an item. at this point in the book, just like any good romantic novel, you could be forgiven for thinking that the heroine is about to put all the heartache and agony behind her and live happily ever after. but british cycling, so it seems, is not built that way. fraternisation between the athletes and support staff is officially frowned upon, meaning both pendleton and gardner had to affect an air of personal disinterest, in order that the sporting life might continue undissolved.

in a sport noted for adopting every modern convenience and technique, allied to brailsford's mantra of marginal gains, it seems the british version continued to inhabit the moral and sexist values of an earlier period. apparently it was even stepping over the line to converse with administrative staff in the manchester office, whether male or female. a mediaeval approach i'd venture. scott gardner and victoria pendleton eventually confided their attachment to each other to shane sutton, who subsequently informed the boss, dave brailsford. bear in mind we are discussing a couple aged twenty eight and thirty two respectively at the time, hardly a pair of lovestruck kids with little idea of that in which they had become embroiled. sutton and brailsford seemed, at the time, to accept that such things would happen, an attitude that seemingly changed when the relationship became more public.

in true inexplicable style, gardner subsequently had to resign from british cycling before suffering the indignity of being deported by the home office due to his visa no longer adhering to the conditions on which it had been issued. at this point, backing up a previous desire, pendleton was ready to chuck it all in and move to australia too.

pendleton obviously has more than a grudge or two against the behaviour of those in power at british cycling. it also seems very likely that their story would not corroborate hers, though that doesn't necessarily make hers the subject of disbelief. even to the very last, in the pringle this past august, pendleton still suffered from insecurity and a lack of confidence in her own abilities, despite results that would beg to differ. though i have railed against the writing of autobiographies at such a young age, there is little doubt that she has a story worth telling and quite likely a legitimate grievance against the institution that provided the opportunity to be a world class track cyclist.

but is it a good book?

it is at this point that i find myself in a dilemma, for any story worth telling ought to be worth telling well, and i'm sad to say that between the lines lets itself down just a tad in this respect. the cover states that the book was written in co-operation with author and journalist, donald mcrae, making it harder to apportion credit or blame for the manner of its writing. more than just the once, it descends into melodrama, perhaps appropriately since pendleton is apparently a fan of the tv series downton abbey.

"Don't talk to me,' I said as I walked away from her. In the silence, as I moved as far from her as possible, I could feel something stirring deep in my gut. It felt like a burning sensation - a kind of angry fire inside me. I didn't think I would ever forgive her for what she had done; but I would make her pay on the track. I would burn her by beating her fairly, again and again."

there is no rule against infusing a non-fictional narrative with human emotion, padding it out a bit to offer the reader a more personal insight. but in my opinion, this is hardly the way to do so. in adding these unnecessary (in my mind) frivolities, the book undermines the oft times seriousness of pendleton's situation, bringing it perilously close to an offering from mills and boon.. when discussing the romantic situation developing between herself and scott gardner and the not knowing which way to turn, we are treated to... "Round and round we went, in circles, like two love-struck hamsters on a wheel, or a cyclist and her coach looping round the same old pine track, again and again, one long lap after another."

at the risk of seeming cruel and unkind, it's the standard i'd equate more readily with a secondary school essay. if that were not sufficient to castigate the irregular course of the narrative, witness pendleton's first visit to manchester velodrome to meet marshall thomas. "Marshall explained that the structure of the roof was based on a 122 metre, 200 tonne arch which provided unrestricted viewing for spectators. The roof was covered in aluminium, and weighed around 600 tonnes." there's that high school essay again.

this coupled with some incongruous moments of self-introspection... "I lower the black visor over my face. Only my mouth is now visible, and my lips, usually soft and feminine, are hardened in determination."

doubtless some of the forgoing could be viewed as a means of underlining pendleton's femininity, an aspect of her personality she has done little to conceal throughout her career (and why should she?), one that did little to endear her to certain british cycling coaches at the outset of that career. female sprinters are not supposed to be built like vicky it seems.

the bulk of the book's contents detail each and every competition in which she participated. aside from the frequent excursions into mills and boon speak, these are concisely and comprehensively dealt with and make for, quite frankly, exciting reading. victoria pendleton has now retired from competitive cycling, free to live the life she wants along with scott gardner. no longer are they at the behest of the bizarre, male dominated regime in place at british cycling. in terms of results, she has experienced a most successful career; emotionally that seems far less the case. i don't doubt several riders and members of british cycling staff will be less than enamoured at the way they are portrayed in between the lines but, to ascribe such instances to yet another well-worn cliche, that's life.

victoria pendleton can be justly proud of all her achievements, particularly being able to walk away with head held high on her own terms. i just wish the book was the equal of that career. (and as a parting shot, i'm none too sure about that cover).

thursday 20th september 2012


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