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Victoria Pendleton: Electric Bikes, Shane Sutton and Trying to Beat the Boys

We chat to Queen Victoria about retirement, her new electric bike - and gender equality

Victoria Pendleton and I have something in common. Or rather, our mums do: they’re both a bit nervous about cycling with their daughters.

Let’s be honest, when it comes to former Olympic team sprint and keirin champion Pendleton I can kind of understand her mum’s concern. However, the track sprinter turned jockey has found a solution she’s keen to share with me: an electric bike.

Excited by her discovery, the 36-year-old tells me: “At first I was a bit sceptical, like “no, it’s not really my thing, it feels a bit like you’re cheating”… to be honest. But then I was in the States with my uncle, in California. You can hire them everywhere so I had a go. I gave it a little boost on the hills, and it was brilliant – I had so much fun whizzing along.”

What It’s Actually Like to Ride an Electric Bike

So Pendleton worked with Halfords to develop the first Pendleton Somerby E-Bike, testing it herself before letting her mum loose: “I got my mum on the electric bike, she was worried it would whizz away… I had to explain that when you stop pedalling, it will stop. She’s going to get one now, and feels it will give her that extra boost so she doesn’t need to worry about running out of gas – and that’ll allow her to get back into it a bit more.”

“I had to explain that when you stop pedalling, it will stop. She’s going to get one now, and feels it will give her that extra boost.”

She adds: “It also means different abilities can ride together. So I can ride along with it on ‘1’ and my mum can ride alongside me with it on ‘3’. And as you get fitter you can use less power – it’s good training all the same. You’re still turning the pedals and you don’t get the power without applying force.”

The Pendleton Somerby E-Bike will be available come November –and it’s going to be under the magic £1,000 cycle-to-work voucher threshold. And yes, I’m going to suggest putting one on my mum’s Santa list, too.

Pendleton’s range of bikes consists of several children’s bikes, the Initial road bike and the Somerby – a Dutch style sit up and beg. In the past, the retired sprinter has told us the cruiser is her favourite – and I’m keen to find out if that’s still the case. She tells me: “It is still my favourite in the range. I think because it’s so far away from my work on the bike. When I’m on a bike like that, I don’t race. I do sometimes get a bit low behind the basket… bending my elbows… [she mimics getting aero on a Dutch bike – to much hilarity]. My husband says ‘you don’t have to ride it like that’ – and I realise I don’t. It’s a different pace, and a different approach.”

Video: 31 Questions with Victoria Pendleton

It must feel strange to get back on a bike and just amble at an easy pace, after forging a career out of riding full-gas over loops of the velodrome. Pentleton tells me: “When I got back on a bike not long after retiring I just found it really frustrating. I had to take the speedo off, I was like ‘I don’t want to see that’. It took me about 18 months to feel like getting on my bike again because I wanted to. Now I try not to engage with the numbers or data too much – and I think more about the effort than the numbers. Otherwise it would drive me to distraction. It was a change in perspective and it took time to adapt.”

“After retiring… It took me about 18 months to feel like getting on my bike again because I wanted to.”

Victoria Pendleton on the Pendleton Somerby E-bike. Photo credit: Doug Peters/PA Wire

Victoria Pendleton on: Horse Racing

Horse racing is the retired track rider's new love
Horse racing is the retired track rider’s new love

Of course, at just 36-years-old, Pendleton hasn’t packed in all the discipline of being an athlete. In 2015, she announced her intention to transform herself into a jockey. In March this year she completed her goal race – the Foxhunter Chase – to take fifth. She’s just bought a new horse, and shows no sign of slowing down.

Pondering what it is that drove her from one adrenaline sport to another, she says: “It just gives me that purpose to get out in the morning and do my exercise. And it’s fun exercise. It’s physically demanding but it doesn’t feel a chore.”

She adds: “There are a few things that make me happy that I’d underestimated. One was when I got back in the gym [after retiring]… I was constructing spin classes, weight training and doing my Personal Trainer qualification. I just realised how much I love being in the gym.”

The second thing about her jockey life that makes her happy? “Having a routine again. Getting up, to go to work, to do a job that’s physically and mentally demanding. You’re constantly asking questions of yourself, making demands, asking ‘can I jump this?’ or ‘this horse is really difficult and am I going to hold it together?’”

The final key to happiness is improvement – she tells me: “It’s just finding things that challenge me and push me. I realise now that’s something that I need to feel happy, to feel myself. For me it’s trying to attain more, to learn more, to be better. That was what was always driving me as an athlete… it was never ‘I want to be the champion’, it was just ‘I want to be better than I was’. And if that better means best in the world, awesome. But I just want to be better than I was yesterday.”

“It was [always] just ‘I want to be better than I was’. And if that better means best in the world, awesome.”

Looking at the alternative, she adds: “If I just amble along without purpose… I feel rubbish. I need to be jumping to the next thing. And if it’s not big, if it’s not almost impossible, it doesn’t drive me. It’s strange what you realise about yourself with age and experience.”

Victoria Pendleton on: Gender Equality and Shane Sutton

Pendleton wins Gold in 2012
Pendleton wins Gold in 2012

Pendleton tells me she never aimed to be ‘the best’ – but describing her battle with gender barriers as a youngster I wonder if perhaps a tiny part of her will always strive for the top spot.

She explains: “I’ve got a twin brother. We were born on the same day, of the same womb. We’ve had exactly the same experience, exactly the same opportunity. So I was always very lucky in some ways as that gave me a driving force to keep pushing forward – saying ‘I can do it, I can be better, I can be as good as the boys’. But it’s also quite dangerous. It’s kind of heart-breaking when you realise you don’t have the same opportunities in the real world in so many different ways. And there were moments in my career where I was surrounded by big superhuman type, male characters… Then there’s me… wondering ‘will I ever fit in in this world?’”

“It’s kind of heart-breaking when you realise you don’t have the same opportunities [as men] in the real world.”

She adds: “There were times, in certain situations, where I’d think ‘surely we should be equals? Surely we should be treated equally? Given the same opportunities?’”

Those comments lead me very neatly to my next question. Earlier this year we saw British Cycling’s Olympic Development squad almost spontaneously combust over night after criticisms of Technical Director Shane Sutton broke. Sprinter Jess Varnish told reporters that Sutton had made sexist remarks over her time on the squad, and Pendleon supported her, whilst para-athletes levelled similar criticisms of derogatory remarks.

Sutton has now been suspended whilst an independent review takes place – and Pendleton is due to meet the committee later this week.

She told me: “I think with the response… when the floodgates opened [from] male and female, able bodied and disability riders, I think you can’t ignore that there was something that needed to be addressed. And I do think that it’s unacceptable in this day and age to not treat people equally and with respect in the workplace. Just because it’s sport doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have the same rules that apply anywhere else.

“Gone are the dark ages when women’s cycling was just there to fill in the gaps between the men’s races… That’s the way it is now and that’s the way it’s going to stay. Some people keep up and I suppose some people get left behind.”

She adds: “I think the fact that the team did so well [in Rio] without him there [shows] there’s a big team of people behind them [Team GB] and there are some really excellent people that work there. I’m confident that the review will come to the right conclusions and bring about the right changes. So fingers crossed for the future.”

Our fingers are crossed, too. It was a pleasure to speak to an athlete with so much drive and determination – who just so happens to have a mum a bit like mine (but on a slightly different scale).

Read more about Victoria Pendleton and her career on her TWC athlete page here. 

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