Victoria Pendleton on Strictly and Cheltenham Literature Festival
Olympic gold medallist Victoria Pendleton is on her way to Cheltenham for next month’s Literature Festival – here she talks to WEEKEND about the tensions that affected her cycling performance, her love for her fiance and the thrill of starring in Strictly Come Dancing
VICTORIA Pendleton is walking around her living room. She’s practising her footwork with the conscientious attention you’d expect of a two-time Olympic gold medallist.
But these aren’t sporting moves. She’s walking in high-heeled shoes, one of the many small pleasures she’s relishing since she stepped off the winner’s podium and retired from cycling.
“It’s such fun. I’ve started out with wedges and now I’m on to the real thing,” she said, as she showed off a pair of patent shoes with sky-scraper heels.
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“I’ve never been allowed to wear them before because I had to be so careful about not damaging my ankles, which obviously could have affected my performance.
“So I’ve only really worn them to pose at events or photo shoots and my evenings out have been pretty limited because of training. Now I’m wearing them whenever I want.”
She’ll have the opportunity to wear them every week on Strictly Come Dancing with her dance partner Brendan Cole.
Victoria made her debut appearance on the Strictly premiere on Saturday, alongside fellow contestants Jerry Hall and Denise van Outen, and is now in three weeks of training.
Victoria, with her model looks – she’s a petite 5ft 5in and has a mane of chestnut hair – has always been one of the most glamorous girls on Team GB, and clearly she’s taking every opportunity to dress up now she no longer has to spend her days in tracksuits.
She was spotted at the Burberry show at London Fashion Week looking every inch the model in heels and a flattering peplum top and skirt.
“It’s great to have time to buy make-up and focus on being a bit girlie,” she said.
At the London Games, she won gold and silver medals and bade farewell to a sport which has shaped her life since the age of nine.
It’s been a long, tough journey to success which has tested Victoria, 31, to the limit, as she’s recently revealed in her new book, Between The Lines: My Autobiography, which she will be talking about at this year’s Cheltenham Literature Festival.
She reportedly describes how the pressure of cycling at a top level drove her to self-harm, cutting herself with a knife.
Today, she sums up her feeling at ending the punishing physical training and shedding the mental stress as “indescribable relief”.
“I haven’t felt this relaxed and happy in ages,” she said.
“There’s always been so much expectation that every time I stepped on a bike I would win, which is draining.
“Now I’m so looking forward to a change in lifestyle. It’s exciting and scary not knowing what’s coming next for me after cycling, but I’m loving being able to be spontaneous and I want to try as many different things as I can.”
“It’s actually like being in a freefall and each morning I wake up and think, ‘Oh, what does the day hold?‘
“I joke with everyone that ‘answers to Victoria Pendleton’s future should be sent on a postcard’.”
She’s madly in love with her Australian fiance, Scott Gardner, and they plan to marry next August.
But their partnership caused friction and tension among Team GB.
Scott, 36, initially had to quit his job as the cycling team’s sports scientist but returned later as her personal coach.
“It did feel as though by falling in love we’d committed a crime and at times it made me feel very isolated,” she said.
“There were days when I dreaded going to work. Certain people didn’t take into account how I was feeling because their opinions were more important.
“Neither Scott or I meant our relationship to happen – and at first neither of us dared admit it, even to ourselves.
“The first opportunity we got to speak properly to each other, we realised we had so much in common. We just couldn’t help getting on.”
Finally, they grabbed a chance for a heart-to-heart and tentatively admitted the depth of their feelings for each other.
“That conversation was so embarrassing and awkward, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” she said.
“We hadn’t even been on a date and yet here we were having to talk through our emotions.
“There was the risk that it might have been a passing affair and not lasting and there was so much at stake.”
She credits Scott’s eventual return to the team, as her personal coach, as fundamental to her Olympics victory.
“We call them ‘our medals’ and I couldn’t have done it without him. I know it sounds a bit soppy.
“But it takes a special kind of patient, unselfish person to date an athlete because everything has to be focused around that person and their career.
“Also, it’s so intense. You are living in each other’s pockets, with hardly any time for a social life or anything else but the sport.
“But now we’re both looking forward to a fresh start.”
That means stepping out on the dance floor as Strictly takes over our Saturday night viewing.
Victoria says: “The press have called me Queen Victoria on a few occasions.
“I definitely don’t think I’m going to be queen of the dancefloor but I’m going to take it very seriously. I can’t wait.”
Despite the problems as well as the sacrifices made over the years to achieve her success, she insists it was all worth it.
“I feel I’ve gone out on a high. Also, I’ve always been driven by people telling me I can’t do something, because it fires me up to prove them wrong and in the past, I’ve experienced a lot of negativity.
“Over the years, I was told I wouldn’t succeed in competitive cycling because I was too small, not psychologically strong enough, too feminine, or too emotional because I’ve cried after races and showed my disappointment at failures.
“Of course, I’d love to be dark and mysterious but that’s just not me.
“I wear my heart on my sleeve, but I think that’s a strength, it’s honest and you can still be open about your feelings and focused and tenacious.”
Her cycling days are not over but now she will ride for pleasure and is currently encouraging others to get on their bikes as ambassador of a new Hovis campaign.
It features 16 suggested cycle routes, expert tips from her and a selection of sandwich recipes.
“I do hope to inspire people with the joy of cycling,” she said.
“Many people own bikes, but all too often they are just left in a shed or garage gathering dust.
“It’s wonderful that the Olympics has got more people motivated to cycle and I want to help boost that even further.
“I can’t imagine a time when I wouldn’t cycle, it’s part of my life, although now it will be for fun in the countryside near our home.”
There’s little hope though of local cyclists being able to boast of overtaking the Olympian, who when she competed pumped her pedals at 200 revolutions per minute.
“Oh, I won’t cycle slowly just because I’m not racing,” she said.
“I always have to have pace and something to test me. It’s just the way I am, anything I do I have to do properly and to the best of my ability. That will never change.”
* Strictly Come Dancing’s next live show is on BBC 1 on October 5.
* Victoria Pendleton is appearing at Cheltenham Literature Festival on Thursday, October 11.