Zoe and Kate are BFFs, lionesses from the same ultra-exclusive pride -- until it comes time to fight over a fresh kill.

The two are medal-winning Olympic cyclists in their early 30s, who met in their late teens at a youth-training velodrome. An emotionally scarring tragedy in Zoe's youth has made her soul as flat as her abs. She thinks nothing of using the dirtiest of tricks to psych out her opponent, as Kate, besotted with fellow cyclist Jack, finds out the hard way early on.

Its release timed to capitalize on Olympic fever in London, Chris Cleave's third novel, "Gold," is shorter on surprise and longer on implausibility than his previous two, the widely beloved "Little Bee" and "Incendiary." But that's unlikely to matter a whit to his fan base, who devour his books for the way he gets inside his characters' heads, whether it's 7-year-old Sophie, going through chemo for leukemia, or her godmother, Zoe, whose sole emotional satisfaction comes from winning at all costs.

Sophie, a "Star Wars" fanatic, has a heartbreaking understanding of the toll her illness takes on her parents, in that sixth-sense way kids have, and she desperately tries to lessen their worry: "If you were in the car, you could kick the back of the seat," she explains. "That made them annoyed, which was the opposite of scared."

As Kate's husband and Zoe's former lover, Jack is likable but one-dimensional in his supporting role to the story's pair of highly trained frenemies. Kate is the martyred saint whose daughter may be dying, and Zoe is the girl with the dragon-sized chip on her shoulder. The two women's mutual respect, underlying affection and competitive spirits escalate to a final nail-biter when a change in the rules dictates that only one of them can race in what will be the final Olympics for either.

Cleave's blow-by-blow descriptions of the races are as exciting and rapidly paced as the real thing. His frequent use of metaphor is as imaginative as ever, now and then careening merrily over the top. Zoe "flowed easily down the stairs, like oiled light. There was an unself-conscious sense of entitlement in her movement, as if space and time had sucked in their guts to let her through, like starstruck bouncers on a nightclub door."

The ending may be topped with more treacle than some tastes prefer. But till then, "Gold" is a tale of two friends confined by the rarefied parameters world-class athletes must live in, and can't help but strain against. Their sacrifices are very different, yet they are bound by shared experience, secrets and love. Kate represents who most of us are, while Zoe is who we'd like to be, if only for a day.

Kristin Tillotson is a Star Tribune feature writer.