By Toby Davis
LONDON (Reuters) - Victoria Pendleton bade a tearful farewell to the sport that has caused her pleasure and distress in equal measure, capping her glittering career with a silver medal and a confession that the last four years have been the hardest of her life.
Her dream of ending her career on a golden high evaporated in a simmering velodrome on Tuesday as her heated rivalry with Anna Meares came to head once more in the women's sprint final and the Australian prevailed.
There was a hint of a sour note attached to the unfurling drama as Pendleton clinched the first leg only to be relegated for wavering beyond the sprinter lane as both pedalled furiously for the finish.
That proved a psychological blow from which the Briton could not recover and within minutes she was sobbing as she realised her time on the track had ended once and for all.
"I am just so relieved it is all over, you can't even imagine. It has been the hardest four years of my entire life," she told reporters.
"Coming in as an Olympic champion and having a home games to live up to ... I was crying and people said you must be so sad, but I am just so happy it is over.
"And it is over without a doubt. It would be my worst nightmare right now to have to relive the last week of my life. Just hanging around waiting, the expectation of the team, it is too much."
Pendleton has nothing left to prove after her victory earlier in the week in the keirin event gave her a second gold to add to the sprint crown she won in Beijing and the nine world titles she has accumulated over the years.
Perhaps that is why she can walk away with such conviction. Her relationship with cycling was complicated and was less a life-long partner to her and more a marriage of convenience.
"Cycling fell on my lap, it was never my dream or ambition, my father is a cyclist and therefore it was a way to do stuff with him, to have something in common and I just happened to be quite good at it," she explained.
When Pendleton spotted her father in the crowd, she left waiting journalists to throw her arms around him, saying it was seven months since she had last seen him.
"I feel like I have neglected my friends and family for so long now," she said. "I just wanted to make sure they knew I appreciated just how much they have done."
The poster girl of British cycling seemed happier in front of the lens than going through the gruelling training regime and suffering the unrelenting pressure of expectation.
It was also fitting that her last action on the track would be a showdown with the rival against whom she has provided cycling fans with some of the sport's best tussles.
It was Meares who provided the final opposition when Pendleton sprinted to glory in Beijing and Meares who sent her sprawling to the deck when the two clashed in the semi-final of the world championships in April.
After the final the pair shared a hug and Pendleton put her arm around the Australian as they stepped off the podium.
"It has been epic, I hope it has been entertainment," Pendleton said.
Meares has no immediate plans to retire so would be forgiven for feeling an element of relief that her principal opponent is calling it quits. So will she miss her?
"Track cycling will miss her," the Australian replied. "She is a true champion and arguably one of the best sprinters of all time and definitely one of the best of the modern sprinting era."
(editing by Michael Holden)