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The rewiring of Shanaze Reade

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Ollie Williams | 16:23 UK time, Tuesday, 27 July 2010

"In the gym I'm the strongest I've ever been, on a bike I'm the fastest I've ever been, and BMX-wise I'm the most skilled I've ever been. Mentally, it's getting there."

At the midway point between Beijing 2008, where she spectacularly crashed out of her final, and London 2012, Shanaze Reade believes she now has the mental strength required to win Olympic gold.

One of the most exciting characters in British Olympic sport, in terms of both talent and personality, Reade, now 21, was the teenage hot favourite for gold on BMX's Olympic debut in Beijing.

But she sent herself flying on the last bend and, as she plunged into the dirt, so hopes of what had seemed a nailed-on gold medal went with her.

British Cycling's wild child came back down to earth with a bump. Reade spent much of the next year out with an unrelated shoulder injury, unable to get back on a bike and set things right.

The Crewe racer has had plenty of time to reflect on what went wrong, and why she failed to live up to the hype, much of which she generated herself. And with time have come answers.

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Watch: Shanaze Reade talks 2012

"Sometimes Beijing feels like yesterday, and sometimes it feels like it was 10 years ago," she tells me, sitting on the dirt track at Platt Fields in Manchester, where she trains.

"It depends what place and mindset I'm in. Sometimes it can creep back up on me and bite me on the bum, and that's a good thing, because everything I learnt from that event made me stronger. If I'm having a bad day I think back to Olympics - the pain I went through there makes everything else a lot easier."

Reade, who went to Beijing with back-to-back BMX world titles to her name, knows she talked herself up too much. But, looking back, she insists she would not change a thing about the outcome - which left her sprawled on the floor after clipping the rear wheel of eventual gold medallist Anne-Caroline Chausson, of France.

"I was young, I was favourite to win, I had all the pressure on my shoulders. I believed my life was going to change after that.

"It was silly, I was too young, I'm glad I didn't win the Olympics then. I want it in 2012 and I want to do it in a way that I can feel, 'Yes, I can appreciate what I've just won'."

A few months ago, Reade had a public run-in with former mentor Jamie Staff, winner of a team sprint gold on the track in Beijing. Staff told Cycling Weekly Reade was "very immature and needs to do a lot of growing up" - adding, for good measure, that she was "living in la-la land".

He went on to question her ability to learn from British Cycling's psychiatrist, Dr Steve Peters, a man routinely cited as a key cog in Britain's highly successful Olympic cycling machine.

Neither Reade nor British Cycling are keen to dredge that topic back up, but both may some day look back on it as a turning point in her career. Staff's criticisms drew a measured (and barely publicised) response, and Reade is now philosophical about the episode and its bearing on her mental state.

"A lot of what Jamie said, I pushed to one side. But some of the stuff, yeah... I was immature," she concedes.

"But Steve Peters has done wonders with me and he still is. I see him twice, three times a month. He's an amazing guy. He has a lot to say - it takes a lot of thinking and sometimes gives me a headache because of all the processes - but he's a massive part of my training.

"When it comes to the Olympics, it's not about who's physically the fastest. It's 60-40 and most of it's mental. Everyone's fast, everyone got there for a reason. All of them are able to ride the BMX track put in front of them, they train super-hard to do that. It all comes down to mental strength."

Shanaze Reade falling in Beijing (left) and competing in 2010 (right)Reade crashing in Beijing, left, and back in competition in 2010. Photos: Getty Images

Reade believes she has changed. Unable, as a double world champion, to up her precocious physical game, she has concentrated on refining her previously erratic mental edge instead.

A better judge than Reade of her progress is Dave Brailsford, British Cycling's performance director. Brailsford was on hand to pick up and dust off the mercurial BMX phenomenon after her failure in Beijing, and he is certain she is a changed athlete.

"As an individual she's two years older in real terms, and probably 10 years older in terms of maturity," is his assessment.

"Shanaze is a fantastic athlete but she was very young to go to Beijing. She'd had a lot of success and a lot of people - and herself, probably - thought, 'This is going to be a formality'. But as you get closer you think maybe it won't be, and of course it wasn't.

"She was devastated as she crossed the line in Beijing, but I told her she would look back at it as one of the most pivotal moments in her career, and be better off for that experience, for sure.

"She's certainly developed the psychological part of her racing, and as a person she's matured. She's becoming the real deal in terms of an elite athlete and I think she'll be absolutely ready to go for London: in great shape, mentally prepared and what a great story."

Even Brailsford can appreciate the potential for a fairytale ending. But how about two fairytale endings? Reade has more than one gold medal in mind. Twice a team sprint world champion alongside Victoria Pendleton, she has designs on pairing BMX with track cycling in 2012.

"I'm not blind to the fact I can go and win in two different disciplines," she says, "but we'll see how it goes. The powers-that-be at British Cycling will make a plan and I'll do the hard work.

"It's very difficult to compete in two different disciplines at a world-class level. They are worlds apart. Here in BMX we've got jumps, a starting gate and eight other people around. In track cycling you have a fixed wheel, no brakes - they're completely different sports.

"To be at the top of both in the same year - or same week, at the Games - is going to be extremely hard. But I've proven myself in the past, I've been world champion in the two within three months of each other, and I wouldn't even step on if I didn't believe I could win both."

Shanaze Reade and Victoria Pendleton compete on the trackReade and Victoria Pendleton, twice world champions together. Photo: Getty Images

Brailsford has to be diplomatic, with plenty of young candidates vying for Olympic places on the track, but is receptive to Reade's double gold vision if the right balance can be struck.

"Do you dilute your chances of winning a BMX medal by doing track? We're looking at that very carefully, but there's no reason in our eyes why she couldn't do both," he says.

Reade's immediate goal is to win back her world title at this year's top event, taking place in the South African city of Pietermaritzburg on Saturday. "It's a massive chance for me to become the world champion again," she says.

Beyond that lies the road to 2012. Is she prepared to put her name to as bold a prediction of success as the one which haunted her in Beijing? How does she imagine things panning out in those anxious Olympic weeks, now less than two years away?

"Scarily enough," she recalls, "I sat on a jump just over there before 2008 and someone asked me exactly the same thing. And I said that as long as I did my best, I didn't care where I came. (But) I knew people thought I was going to win, and I thought I was going to win.

"My vision for 2012 is to win two gold medals and I believe it when I say it. In 2008 I didn't know what I was letting myself in for and I was scared, I didn't know what to say or how to approach it. But I wanted to be this strong person and say, 'Nobody is going to break me, I'm going to win'.

"Before Beijing, I used to have dreams where I'd get to the last corner and something (bad) would happen. I spoke to Steve Peters about it. But I've had a dream now, where I've not seen the race but I've been on the podium and won - and that's better than having nightmares about things going on.

"I truly believe in my heart I can win two golds. If I do my best mentally and physically up until 2012, there is no way I should be beaten.

"But life isn't always fair - like Steve says."

Watch highlights from the BMX World Championships, taking place in South Africa this weekend, on the BBC Sport website (UK users only).



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