Team GB’s cycling queen has hung up her track bike and walked out of the velodrome into a glare of publicity and endless opportunities. We caught up with her to find out what she plans to do with her new-found freedom.
“The most unbelievable one I heard was that I used sex to train for the Olympics," laughs Victoria Pendleton. “I mean, come on!" Gosh, who would believe that? I think.
Erm, did you? “No! What I actually said was that being in a steady relationship, especially with someone who knows the sport, rather than being separated makes it much easier to live this lifestyle of training and racing and so on.
“How they managed to turn that is incredible."
Since winning gold and silver at the London Olympics in the keirin and sprint respectively, this kind of press intrusion into – and assumption about – her life has become something the 32-year-old has had to learn to deal with. We all think we know her because she’s everywhere – Strictly Come Dancing on the BBC, Halfords bike designer, Pantene glamour girl – so it’s easy to forget she’s entitled to some privacy.
“I’ve always been very honest which makes me vulnerable to people making me into what they want," she says. “I try not to take it to heart. People who know me know certain things aren’t true and that’s the important thing."
Grit & style
Victoria Pendleton is one of the best female cyclists of all time. She owns nine world track titles; two Olympic track gold medals; and more first places than should be strictly legal. And when I say own I mean own – she didn’t just win them, she stamped her mark on them riding with grit, style and some serious balls.
In the process she inspired a host of women to get out and ride. Her Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008 played a major part in the rise of women’s cycling – in track and elsewhere. But to say it hasn’t been easy would be an understatement. Since her retirement in August 2012 she has described feelings of relief to no longer be racing and has often spoken of her struggle mentally to keep going with the demands of training up to 2012.
In fact it appears Vicky battled with her job, the responsibilities of it, the impact on her life, the rewards and whether they were worth it in the same way as we do. She is far from a cycling machine. She’s a woman with insecurities, determination, a need to prove something and a strong sense of justice. Which makes her utterly compelling as an athlete because, you know, she’s like us.
In a recent interview with Esquire she was quoted as saying: “People say as a sportsperson, you shouldn’t reveal your weaknesses. But I am vulnerable. I am emotional. What’s wrong with that? As long as my legs are faster than the other girls’ and I hold my shit together, it doesn’t matter."
Turning her back on cycling as a career however hasn’t meant turning her back on cycling as a sport. That would be impossible. “I’m still riding my bike but just for fitness and I’ve been out with my old team mates for rides," she says. “It’s been surprisingly easy to keep up but that’s because I’ve lost quite a bit of weight so I’m still quite fast – my strength to weight ratio is still okay.
“I’ve always enjoyed riding my bike, even now when it’s cold. It’s great for your body and your mind so I couldn’t just go cold turkey."
One thing that really comes across when you talk to Vicky is how much pleasure she gets from being in the saddle, rather than the actual phenomenon of racing. “I’m actually just enjoying rides around where I live with Scott – couple of hours, some road training, stop for a coffee," she says. What, no cake? “Ha!" she laughs. “Scott’s gluten intolerant so no, no cake."
This pleasure in simply riding bikes has transferred into a hugely successful collaboration with Halfords, designing a selection of commuter bikes for women. The first range of three bikes was launched earlier this year becoming the retailer’s most successful selling women’s bikes ever. As a consequence she’s been asked to design a second range.
“We are confident," says Halford’s commercial director Paul McClenaghan, “that her outstanding performance as a gold and silver medallist at London 2012 will continue to inspire female cyclists across the UK." True dat.
But when our Barcelona Olympic champ Chris Boardman designs a range of high performance bikes for Halfords, shouldn’t Victoria be doing the same? “Well, the market is saturated with high performance bikes," she says. “I was more inspired to get bottoms on saddles.
“A lot of what I like about cycling is the pleasure of it. I enjoy training more than racing and I wanted people to get on bikes, to get healthy and these bikes are great for that. It’s fantastic that they’ve sold more than anticipated." Interestingly she rides a Boardman. “It’s a great bike! It’s not the top of the range one though. And it’s taking me a while to get used to the SRAM…"
This desire to get bums on bikes is powering Vicky’s post retirement employment plans. “I would love to be involved with women in sport," she says. “When I was at school, PE wasn’t cool. It didn’t make me many friends but I always enjoyed it and the competition with my brother [twin Alex]. Sport was natural for me.
“I would love to try to inspire people to find something that makes them want to stick to sport, any sport. There’s a lot to be gained socially and fitness wise."
To that end, Vicky has put her weight and considerable profile behind the Cycletta series of women's rides. The 2013 series kicks off in Cheshire in May.
Although sport came naturally to her, track cycling is something of a weird choice. She’s physically not the perfect shape – she’s too slight, too delicate. In fact she’s a prime example of what you can achieve with gritty determination and training.
“You know sometimes I wonder whether I’d even make the team if I was 16 today," she says. “I always wanted bigger legs and I invested A LOT of time trying to make them bigger. If someone said they were looking bigger I’d be so pleased, I’d be like: ‘Yes! The training is working!’ They are the tools of my trade after all."
But ending up in track has been good for a number of reasons, not least the profile that female track riders get and as a consequence, the sponsors. “In track there’s a lot more equality in terms of media reporting. In my personal opinion track is one of the fairest areas in cycling. It’s better than most and I appreciate that.
“To be absolutely honest I don’t know how women in mountain biking and road do it. They train as much as the guys, they race as hard. I’d find it very demoralizing."
And demoralized is not something she seems to be at the moment. “Oh there’s loads of things that I’d like to achieve and I’ve got the time now. The biggest problem is choosing which direction to go in. The Olympics was mindblowing. Winning the gold, being in that velodrome and having that support was very special.
“But right now I’m just looking forward to catching up with family and friends."
We’re looking forward to seeing what she pulls out the bag in 2013.
Victoria Pendleton’s book ‘Between the Lines: The Autobiography’ is out now.