She’s reached the pinnacle of her sport and stolen the nation’s hearts along the way. WF talks to cycling champ Victoria Pendleton
It's 1.30 and Team WF is a little nervous. Victoria Pendleton has just arrived at our studio, dressed in head-to-toe black, shades covering her eyes. Her phone is pressed to her ear and she’s talking quietly, blocking out the bustle around her. The clock is ticking and we’re beginning to wonder if we’ve got a diva to deal with when she wraps up the call and flashes a megawatt smile.
For the rest of the afternoon, the cyclist has us entranced. At 32, Victoria isn’t just an athlete who’s reached dizzying career heights and scored three Olympic medals, she’s also a magnetic woman who, quite frankly, we’d like to hang out with some more. When we spoke to the Olympian, she was getting ready for retirement and overflowing with excitement at the possibilities ahead. ‘I’ve never felt more relaxed,’ she confesses, when we ask her how it feels. ‘I’m looking forward to freedom of choice.’
Not surprisingly, opportunities are flooding in for the golden girl. She’s swapped lycra for sequins in Strictly Come Dancing, and she’s working with Hovis on a range of cycle maps. Her autobiography Between The Lines (£20, HarperCollins) has been released and her wedding to coach Scott Gardner is just around the corner. But, life hasn’t always been so rosy.
No stranger to headlines, Victoria recently revealed how much she struggled with the pressures of elite cycling, admitting to self-harm at her deepest lows. Now, back on top, Victoria opens up about conquering her demons, her next steps and the secrets to that strictly awesome figure. We’re listening!
How are you feeling now that London 2012 is finally behind you?
It’s a huge relief. The Olympics was a fantastic experience, but the last six years or so of talking about it and the pressure progressively building until that one moment has been a lot to deal with. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.
Appearing on Strictly Come Dancing was a big change! What drew you to the show?
I loved the idea of doing something physical and completely different, something glamorous. But I’m rubbish at dancing!
Did it bring out your competitive side?
Oh God, yeah! I mean, I’d like to be good at the next thing I choose to do, but I don’t have to be. I don’t have years and years of experience, but obviously I always try my best at whatever I do – I want to do it as fast and efficiently as possible, and better than anyone else there! It’s just my instinct.
How did you feel about strutting your stuff in those skimpy ballroom dancing costumes on national television?
It’s weird, if you had told me at 16 years of age that I would be doing this, I would have literally wanted to crawl under a stone and die. I was so unconfident about the fact that I felt bottom-heavy, very athletic, not much up top and didn’t feel like I had much of a feminine shape. It would have absolutely terrified me. But you get a bit older, you get more comfortable and accept the way you are. I just think you have to make the most of it and enjoy it – you only get one chance to! I think it comes with age. It’s about growing into yourself. I just wish you could get there a little bit sooner. If you could get to that mentality when you were 18 or 19, the world would be a much happier place.
Do you think a career in TV is the natural next step for you now?
I’d like to give it a go. I don’t think I want a high-pressure job straight away – I’ll probably crave something with a bit of intensity in the future – but right now I just fancy doing something a bit more low-key and taking my time to find out what I want to do next. My only priority for the next year is sorting out my wedding! We’ve been engaged for three years and we’ve been waiting until this moment to have the time to do it, so I’m just going to chill out and enjoy the process.
Will you be a bridezilla?
Actually, I want a quite low-key affair. I’ve been really lucky, I’ve been the centre of attention many times in my life already, so I won’t have to do it on that day!
A lot of athletes struggle to adjust to a life without their sport. Do you think you’ll have any second thoughts about retiring?
No, no, I’m looking forward to doing lots of other sports. I always enjoyed so many different things when I was younger and as my cycling career took off I had to narrow it down. There are loads of things I want to do: tennis, golf, kayaking. Running has always been strictly off-limits because you risk damaging your tendons, and skiing is the most fun ever and I’ve been banned from doing that, so I can’t wait to try it.
It must feel like a world of opportunity…
Exactly, it’s so exciting. I’ll still ride my road bike for fitness of course, but I’m going to enjoy doing sport on my own terms, without any sort of pressure.
Will you still train in the gym to keep your body as toned as it is now?
I looove the gym! To be honest, it’s probably the area of my training that I loved the most. The gym is this pure thing, your improvement is so easily plotted. I find that sort of thing very rewarding. Actually, you know what, I’d really love to be a personal trainer. I love being in that environment and I’d love to work with women. There aren’t many female strength and conditioning coaches out there so I’d love to do that.
What was the biggest lesson you took from your Olympic experience this year?
I feel really proud of myself for sticking with it, because at times I thought, ‘I’m not going to make it, maybe I should just quit now and cut my losses’. I’m just glad I stuck with it and proved I had the determination to get there.
In your autobiography you revealed you self-harmed at your lowest points. Where did you draw the strength to get through it?
I think the biggest thing was meeting (Team GB sports psychiatrist) Steve Peters and being educated about how to manage your emotions and how to work on strengthening your weaknesses – and learning that it’s in your capacity to do so. I was in a situation where I was physically training, but I felt like I was trapped by my emotional weakness. So it was the realisation that it’s actually within myself to fix that.
How did you come to that realisation?
I think it’s understanding the instinctive drives in your brain, where they come from and accepting that when you’re in a high-pressure situation, your worst qualities will be exaggerated. I’m someone who’s very eager to please and I felt my own worth was related to how people perceived me, rather than valuing my own strengths. When Steve said, ‘Give me 10 good things about yourself’ I could list a thousand weaknesses but it never occurred to me that I had any strengths. It sounds simple, but when everyone around you is so involved in your performance and you’re not improving, it’s like, ‘ughh’. The stakes got higher and higher, and I felt less and less worthy.
Did it get swept under the carpet a little?
I think I did a very good impression of coping with it, from the outside. You think, ‘No one else is struggling, so why am I?’ I thought there must be something wrong with me.
Have you ever regretted being so open about your struggles as an athlete?
No. People within the team have criticised me for being so open and expressing my emotions, but you don’t have to be mentally solid like a robot in order to be successful. I don’t feel embarrassed about expressing my low points. I’m sure there are lots of people out there who are embarrassed to say they’re struggling and are putting on a brave face, just like I did for so long. But it doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Quite the contrary. If there’s a girl out there who thinks, ‘Maybe I’m not good enough’, hopefully she might think, ‘Well, actually, Vicky Pendleton quite clearly says she’s struggled at times, and she still managed to achieve a lot in her career!’ Some people might think that’s weak and emotional but I think I’m brave.
Hovis celebrates Victoria Pendleton’s Olympic gold and encourages the nation to get back on their bikes with the launch of a new Smartphone-friendly website and campaign. Visit hoviscyclemaps.com