Becky James at home in Abergavenny among the Welsh mountains
By Bruce Pope
Less than a month ago Becky James was a relative unknown outside the cycling world.
But at the Junior World Track Championships in Moscow, Russia, the 17-year-old announced her talent to the world with two golds, a silver and a world record.
James started the first day of competition with a silver in the 500 metre Time Trial, a result she admits left her "disappointed" despite finishing among the medals.
"I would have liked three golds, but the two golds and a world record were perfect for me really," said James.
"It's probably been the happiest time in my life recently just because it's gone so well and it all went to plan."
In Sprint qualifying, James broke the world record, recording a time of 11.093 seconds on her way to her first gold, and then added another title in the Keirin - each time beating home favourite Ekaterina Gridenko in the final.
What I'm aiming for is to take over Vicky's [Pendleton] place
This was all achieved after a season that had seen James struggle with illness and injury.
"I wanted to perform because I didn't want to let anyone down, because I've worked so hard for it and I've had so much support off British Cycling, my coaches, my gym coach, my family," she added.
"I seem to put a lot of pressure on myself in competitions - I'm not a good loser!"
James' immediate future is to finish her A-Levels and then move to Manchester next June to train full time.
But then the youngster faces the momentous task of likely having to dislodge golden girl Victoria Pendleton in the GB Cycling Team by the time the 2012 Olympics comes to London.
Pendleton took the Sprint gold at the Beijing Games and added her fourth World Championships title in five years in Pruszcow last March.
The women have just three track events to contest at the Olympics, compared to the men's seven.
The Individual Pursuit and Points Race favour the stamina athletes, leaving just the Sprint for out-and-out speedsters such as Pendleton and James.
There is hope that the International Olympic Committee may add the Team Sprint to the women's schedule, but team places will still be at a premium.
"Everyone is saying that 'you're going to be the next Victoria Pendleton' and obviously I train really hard and I want to follow in her footsteps and get an Olympic gold," James added.
"But it's going to be difficult because Vicky wants to ride in 2012 and I'd really like to aim for getting there, so it's just whoever's going best out of the girls - there's Jess Varnish coming up as well - will get the place.
"If there's a Team Sprint event then maybe two girls will go, but that's what I'm aiming for is to take over Vicky's place."
After her success in Moscow, James returned to the family home in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, to celebrate with her parents, four sisters and a brother, although she has had little time to rest on her laurels.
"I didn't really have time for it to sink in, I had the National Championships straight after," James said.
"I had a surprise party on the Monday night, which was nice and I got to relax, but on the Saturday then I've been out to Germany for two weeks' training.
"I've got more competitions coming up this year so I've got to keep my head down and train hard.
"But it's back to school now so it's all sinking in and I'm settling back into the normal routine."
That routine now includes being recognised in public, with the new experience of being approached by autograph hunters and well-wishers.
"It is a little bit strange but I do like it... it is nice to be recognised and have youngsters looking up to me," James admitted.
I'm not really much of a hill-climber or anything, I'm definitely made for track
At least two of those youngsters live under the same roof as James, with younger siblings Ffion, 11, and Megan, nine, showing signs they could follow in the tracks of their big sister.
The pair have already won Welsh titles in mountain biking and finished runners-up in their respective age groups at last February's British Championships.
Given the geography of Abergavenny - surrounded by the mountain tops of Sugar Loaf, Blorenge and Skirrid, with the Brecon Beacons just beyond - it is hardly surprising that James also started her serious pedalling on mountain bikes.
Success racing down muddy tracks and hills as a junior led to James being spotted by the Welsh Talent Team, where she was also exposed to the other disciplines of cyclo-cross, road and, more importantly, racing inside velodromes.
"That's where I found my passion for track and doing track sprint," James said.
"After a couple of years racing and training then I got spotted by the Olympic Development Programme when I was under-16."
With her junior success now under her belt, James is ready to make the step up to the seniors and is already rubbing shoulders with the elite of British cycling.
Her recent two weeks spent in Germany have allowed James to see how the big guns operate.
"It was training with the Academy and some of the senior riders like [triple Olympic champion] Chris Hoy and [Olympic silver medallist] Jason Kenny, so that was a really good experience just to be able to... see how they train," James said.
"When I turn full-time that's what I'll be doing with them, but being on a camp with Chris Hoy is just unreal, it really is - triple Olympic champion - and just hopefully follow in his footsteps one day.
"He doesn't act like a triple Olympic champion, he's just so relaxed and he's like a normal person... he told me he'd been on tv and he told me he was 'biggin' me up after getting a world record and two world titles!"
Wales has enjoyed a cycling renaissance along with the rest of the United Kingdom, with the likes of Nicole Cooke and Geraint Thomas - both Olympic gold medallists themselves - the vanguards.
Cooke is almost exclusively a road racer while Thomas has recently signed to the new British road race squad Team Sky, although his Beijing medal was won on the track.
While it may be tempting to compare James with these two purely on nationality the youngster is certain that her immediate future is in the velodrome, although she stops short of completely ruling out a switch to the road.
"I definitely want to do track sprint for a good few more years yet and if I got to 2012 then I'd definitely want to do more Olympics sprinting after that, like Chris Hoy has done," James said.
"I'm hoping to carry on with the track sprint and then maybe, maybe move onto the road if I get the gold medals I want.
"But I'm not sure, I'm just taking it a step at a time and seeing what comes round.
"I'm not really much of a hill-climber or anything, I'm definitely made for track - maybe one day but definitely not at the moment!"
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