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Victoria Pendleton reveals the demons that pursue her in her quest for Olympic success

World and Olympic champion speaks with less than two years to go till London 2012

Her track specialisation may lie in the sprint events rather than the pursuit, but Victoria Pendleton, one of Britain’s biggest gold medal prospects for the 2012 Olympics, has revealed that it’s a chase of a different kind that plagues her sleeping hours.

Her track specialisation may lie in the sprint events rather than the pursuit, but Victoria Pendleton, one of Britain’s biggest gold medal prospects for the 2012 Olympics, has revealed that it’s a chase of a different kind that plagues her sleeping hours.

"I'm always being chased by a monster,” she told the Guardian in an interview conducted at her home in Wilmslow, Cheshire, following a training session on the Manchester Velodrome track.

“Sometimes the monster is a killer or a murderer. It doesn't really matter because I know exactly what that monster is as it hunts me down. The monster's got a big 2012 written all over it."

Pendleton, who is engaged to Australian sports scientist Scott Gardner, turned 30 last month, a time of self-reflection for many who perform at the highest levels of sport, but reaching the milestone has left her unfazed.

"People kept saying, 'Woahhh, you're going to be 30!' like it's some massive big deal. I didn't feel a sense of crisis because, when I look back at my twenties, I achieved way more than I ever expected. I've pretty much made the most of every year of my life. So on my thirtieth I had a facial, which was nice, and then I got a tattoo and went out for dinner with Scott."

That tattoo, which circles her wrist, bears the words ‘Today is the greatest day I've ever known,’ the opening line of the song today by the Smashing Pumpkins.

"It's a song that reminds me of Scott and that moment we realised how much we've got in common,” she explains. “It evokes a lot of emotion in me. But I couldn't have tattooed in the next few lines: ‘Can't live for tomorrow/Tomorrow's much too long/I'll burn my eyes out/I'll tear my heart out...’”

Talking of the dreams that punctuate her sleep, Pendelton says: "It's probably something to do with being a little bit mental. I have quite vivid dreams and it usually involves fighting, death, being chased. Dreaming of being chased by some killer is normal for me. There's a lot of tension and stress in what I do and so I'll always have these dreams of struggle and trying to escape. It's totally fine. It's just my conscious and subconscious having a little chat."

The cyclist reveals that even when awake, however, she is prone to self-doubt, including at the very point when she has proved her ability. "After winning I spend a lot of time questioning myself, saying, 'Why do I put myself through this?' as I watch people air-punching and having a whale of a time on their victory lap. I don't feel that. It's usually a sense of, 'Phew, I've done it…' It's pure relief.

"People say it must be wonderful, being a gold medallist, and I do fib a lot. I say, 'It's a fantastic achievement, the greatest moment of my life.' But I'm not like Tom Daley. I haven't drawn a little picture of me on the podium. I quite enjoy sport and now I'm an Olympic champion. It's a bit weird, isn't it? It can feel out of my control, like I'm going downhill too fast and there are no brakes. But it can also be fun going downhill. It can be exhilarating."

That detachment was there even at the moment she received her gold medal in Beijing. "I did feel empty,” Pendleton confesses. “I've watched so many people winning gold and I've felt so emotional but, when it was me up there, I was numb. It felt like I wasn't even there.

"But I'm putting myself through it again in 2012 because I owe it to myself – and to my friends and family and coaches. I want to do it to say thank you very much and now I'm done. I want it to be the most amazing exit I could possibly have from the sport. But even this far out there's a huge pressure looming. I'd be fibbing if I didn't admit it's bothering me."

Meanwhile, with changes to the Olympic programme meaning there are now three events – the individual sprint which she won in Beijing, plus the team sprint and keirin in which she is current world champion – that Pendleton could potentially win in London, although she admits that Chris Hoy’s success in Beijing creates additional pressure for her to follow in his tracks.

"Having three medal opportunities is a great thing for the sport: that's the cop-out answer. If Chris Hoy hadn't won all three it would have been an amazing opportunity. But now that he's already done it, that opportunity exerts real pressure. People will expect it to be a strong possibility for me and that makes life a lot harder."

The cyclist says that at Beijing, she felt “unstoppable” as she powered her way to gold. “I went to Beijing in the best physical and mental condition of my life," she acknowledges, but was frustrated by having only one event open to her before the IOC and UCI sought to redress the balance between the genders ahead of 2012.

"It is a predominantly male-dominated environment," she insists, "and I'm not intimidating. I'm quite slight and a lot of other girls are quite sturdy because it's an aggressive sport. So it was hard in the beginning because I used to wear sparkly sandals and mini-skirts with my GB top and the boys were like, 'Oh, this girl cannot be serious.'

"I still love high-heel shoes. I love make-up. I think about make-up all the time. Quite a lot of women in sport take on this very masculine look and I would never do that. I wouldn't shave my head to show my commitment on the inside. No way. Yes, I'm going to win. I'm going to train as hard as any guy and I'm also going to have nice long hair that I can either straighten or curl and it'll look lovely. I'm always going to resist that masculine stereotype. I'm always going to be just me – with all the crazy contradictions."

With each country only able to field one competitor in the track events at the 2012 Olympics, Pendleton is aware that she is not guaranteed a place in all three events, particularly with younger rivals emerging such Jess Varnish and Becky James.

"Jess is 19, Becky is 18 and the fact that I've got more than 10 years on them is scary. But I like the pressure because it keeps me on my toes. They gave me my toughest nationals to date last month but I won again and they're in a tough position. To qualify for the Olympics they have to be better than the current world number one [who happens to be Pendleton]. But they're snapping at my heels and it would be naive to imagine I'm home and dry as there's only one competitor for every nation in every Olympic event."

That qualification process begins next week with the European Championships in Poland, with Pendelton’s preparations for that event keeping her out of the Commonwealth Games earlier this month.

While Australia bossed the track events at Delhi, with their women’s track squad led by an impressive Anna Meares, Pendleton believes that China's Guo Shuang will be her biggest rival in London.

"She's a really talented rider and she was very disappointed to only get bronze in Beijing. She'll have more motivation than anyone to beat me."

Back to her dreams in which her demons pursue her, Pendleton concludes by telling the Guardian: "It's OK. I'm still getting away every time. If I start getting caught we can talk again."

Simon has been news editor at since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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