Book review: ‘Between The Lines’ by Victoria Pendleton

Victoria Pendleton is an astonishing athlete, but her autobiography, Between The Lines, goes well beyond simply documenting her incredible career.

This is a book that could only be published after she had left cycling and includes detailed accounts of events which lead her to falling out of love with the sport that made her.

Between The Lines is a brutally honest account of her life and reveals an athlete who defies convention. Physically she bears no resemblance to the more typical heavy set women she completes against. Her slim build and feminine looks have appeared more suited to the covers of the glossy magazines she has graced, than to the muscle-bound world of track sprinting.

But while her physical appearance certainly made her seem unlikely to succeed as a track sprinter, it was her emotional fragility that was most likely to prevent her from becoming one of the all-time greats. Dr Steve Peters, without whom she says she would not have reached the top of her sport, admits he has worked with more troubled minds – a truly British understatement from a man who has worked in forensic psychiatry and with patients suffering from personality disorders – but still she apparently presents a unique and on-going challenge to him.

Victoria reveals that her motivation to succeed was based on a desire to win the affection of her father, Max Pendleton. Her twin brother, Alex, became ill with Leukaemia at four and she had to work hard for her parent’s attention: “I sometimes had to fight to get noticed as much,” she writes.

Cycling was how she got quality time with her father, but he was a very hard task master. She was regularly riding 50 miles on a Sunday with him, at the age of just 13, and she would find herself turning down invitations to spend time with her friends on a Saturday evening. He never openly said as much, but it was a “masterpiece of emotional blackmail” on the part of her father that left her in no doubt as to how disappointed he would be if she went out and was not rested for their ride the next day.

A glammed-up pose for men’s magazine GC.

Paradoxically, when they were riding together, he appeared oblivious to her. It is such a formative period for Victoria that one of the recurrent themes of the book is “the girl on the hill”, where she recalls how he would ride away from her, never looking back. She would tell herself “he doesn’t love me” over and over again, while she struggled to keep up. She paints the picture of herself at 15, pushing herself as hard as she can not to get left too far behind. “I was sure that if I lost sight of him I would lose a hold of his love.” It is enormously revealing that she admits: “He was tough, but when I pleased him, I felt radiant with happiness.”

It is interesting that despite all of this and a difficult divorce from her mother (with whom Victoria says she has a loving and uncomplicated relationship), Max Pendleton still gets the first mention in her acknowledgements. Her coaches at British Cycling on the other hand are completely overlooked.

As a child she admits to compulsive hand washing. “It was one way of keeping the world at bay and trying to rid myself of the stain I felt on the inside.” This apparently drove her father mad and it stopped because “he wasn’t going to allow me to get away with that for long”. However, when she struggled at the UCI sprint school in Aigle, Switzerland, she progressed to self-harm, cutting herself with a Swiss army knife.

She had in fact almost fallen into the world of track cycling, having shown promise riding on grass in a time long before the current programme of talent spotting from schools existed. She then found herself training in a male dominated environment, where there was no equality between the number of events scheduled for men and women or, in her opinion, the treatment of male and female athletes by British Cycling and the world’s media. By the end of the book she is desperate to get out and to live a more normal life.

Victoria Pendleton in action (Image courtesy British Cycling)

The highs and lows of her career are documented in intimate detail. In particular, there was a dramatic turn in her fortunes when her relationship with sport scientist Scott Gardner was revealed on the day she wins gold in Beijing. The fall out is genuinely shocking: Gardner was forced to leave British Cycling and was subsequently deported as a result, while Victoria struggled on for another four years, working with coaches who felt angry and betrayed by the relationship and the secrecy.

She goes on to dismiss the myth that David Brailsford’s British Cycling is a well-oiled machine, ruthlessly pursuing marginal gains and 100% focussed on allowing every athlete to fulfil their potential. At least, that wass not her experience.

All but the final chapter of Between The Lines was written before the London Olympics and the book hit the shelves just weeks after the closing ceremony. Of course, it competes with books from other successful Olympians, but what makes Between The Lines different is that Victoria Pendleton writes as an athlete who was desperate to leave her sport and who pushed herself to continue training and racing on the world stage long after her passion had died. Despite all this, she still managed to win a gold medal before riding off in to what she hopes will be her happy ever after.

Between The Lines has been criticised for being, at times, repetitive – detailed descriptions of match sprint races can blur together a little – and by its very nature it is one sided, but that does not stop it from being an incredibly compelling read.

Between The Lines: My Autobiography by Victoria Pendleton with Donald McRae is published by HarperCollins
The paperback version is due out April 11, 2013.

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