We talk running, cycling, Pilates, irritating body builders and sore lady bits with the Olympic track cycling champion
I’m standing in a layby in Switzerland, bike at my feet. Turns out that strange clunking sound I’ve been hearing for a few miles now was actually a puncture. My back tire is completely flat and I have no repair kit. I shout after the rest of the group to let them know but they’re some way in the distance and I’m not sure anyone hears. I admit defeat and prepare to spend the night sleeping with the cows in the surrounding pastures.
Then, like a mirage, a lone rider crests the brow of the hill. Body low and streamlined, legs pumping like pistons, mountain sunshine glinting off burgundy mirrored glasses. Former Olympic, European and Commonwealth track cycling champion Victoria Pendleton glides up, dismounts and quickly and efficiently repairs my puncture. Amazing. Pub claim to fame story sorted.
No stranger to Switzerland – she spent two seasons training at the World Cycling Centre at Aigle in the Swiss Alps – Victoria is the guest of honour on a trip to Lake Lucerne. The short break is designed to show a group of fitness journalists just how great the country is for active holidays. And it is. It’s stunning. As we cycle past horses and foals, picturesque farmhouses and roadside stalls piled high with pumpkins and squash, I ask Victoria if she’d move back here if circumstances allowed? ‘Like a shot’, she says, and no one from the Swiss tourist board is even around to hear her.
When I was training I was 62kg with 14% body fat. I’ve dropped around 7.5kg. I still look down at my legs and don’t recognise them. I’ve never been so unfit in my life.
We were introduced to Victoria at a dinner the evening before. While most of us had travelled to Switzerland that morning, she flew in the afternoon as she was right in the middle of moving house, leaving her husband of just a few weeks, sports scientist Scott Gardener, to finish packing up the garage. (They honeymooned in Cornwall fact fans. WEdding pic at bottom of page,) Sitting down at the dinner table, no assistant, hardly any make up, she started chatting and laughing with everyone immediately – and didn’t stop for two days. You can say one thing about Victoria, she certainly likes a natter.
Appearing much younger in real life than on TV (she and her twin brother Alex turned 33 on 24 September), her smooth skin, big eyes and constant chatter make her seem almost childlike. She also seems much smaller than her 5 foot 5 inch height. This, she says, is probably because she’s lost weight. ‘When I was training I was always around 62kg with 14% body fat. As soon as I stopped [Victoria announced her retirement after the 2012 Olympic Games] I started losing weight. Fast. I’ve dropped around 7.5kg. I still look down at my legs and don’t recognise them. I’ve never been so unfit in my life. As soon as we’ve moved, I’m getting back in the gym seriously!’
When I’ve finished on a gym machine, guys will go on after me and not adjust the weights. They don’t like the fact that a woman can lift the same or more than them so they’ll go straight into squatting 100kg. Not even [Sir] Chris Hoy would do that without working his way up first!
The couple are relocating from Cheshire to Oxfordshire to be closer to Scott’s new coaching job with GB Canoeing. Their new home won’t be ready for a few weeks yet though, so in the meantime Victoria will be staying with her mum in Bedfordshire and using the local gym. Something she finds a bit different to the GB days.
‘The facilities in public gyms can seem a bit primitive after all the high-tech equipment at the National Cycling Centre. I find some of the body building guys quite funny too. I’ll be in the weights room and they’ll come up to me and tell me my squatting technique is wrong: “don’t put your legs so close together” “don’t squat so deeply”. I just smile and say “thanks for the tips,” it’s not worth it. When I’ve finished on a machine the same guys will go on and not adjust the weights. They don’t like the fact that a woman can lift the same or more than them so they’ll go straight into squatting 100kg. Not even [Sir] Chris Hoy would do that without working his way up first!’
Men will come up to me and tell me my squatting technique is wrong: ‘don’t put your legs so close together’ ‘don’t squat so deeply’. I just smile and say ‘thanks for the tips’
It’s dark and pouring with rain the following morning when we drag ourselves bleary eyed out of bed for a sightseeing run around the city of Lucerne. Everyone looks tired and sleep crumpled. Everyone that is except Victoria. Bouncing around full of beans, chatting away, running ahead then bounding back, she’s like an excitable puppy. She often runs with her two Dobermans, Stella and Mr Jonty, and it seems some of their energy has rubbed off. She’s also ‘not much of a drinker’ and her abstinence at dinner is certainly better suited to an early morning jog than the nightcaps the rest of us indulged in.
‘I wasn’t allowed to run when I was cycling because of the risk of injury,’ she says as we jog along the misty lakeside. ‘Cycling is very quad dominant. All your strength is here and here,’ she points to her enviable quads and glutes. ‘But you hardly need any hamstring or calf strength so running was using muscles I wasn’t used to using.
She often runs with her two Dobermans. Stella and Mr Jonty
‘Soon after I started running I was pushing a trolley round the supermarket and slipped on some water. My quad went in to a cramp. I’d never had cramp before in my life and it tore my quad muscle. I couldn’t run for about four weeks.’
It doesn’t seem to have put her off though. Victoria ran the five-mile National Lottery Anniversary Run at the Olympic Park earlier this year and says she is tempted by a half marathon in the future.
A competent runner, not too bad at the whole cycling thing – what about a triathlon someone suggests? ‘Ha. I always fancied it but I’m not so great at the swimming. I was going to ask Keri-Anne (Payne, Team GB open water swimmer, Olympic silver medallist and a close friend) for lessons but then she moved to Edinburgh. I asked Scott for pointers, he’s Tasmanian and most Australians are great swimmers, but when I swam a length he just laughed at me and said where do you want me to start? So maybe not.’
I asked Scott for swimming pointers but when I swam a length he just laughed at me and said where do you want me to start?
On the bike
After spending most of the morning and previous evening with Victoria, she’s starting to seem like just another one of the gang. That afternoon while we’re getting ready to head off for a cycle we chat about running shoes, Victoria has Adidas Boost but is interested in my Sauconys (good call), she shows us how she wraps her engagement and wedding rings in cotton wool and puts them in a small tin when cycling as the handle bars bend them out of shape, and we even talk bruised lady bits. Victoria has brought her own bike – a Boardman SLR 9.2 – which has a special prototype ladies saddle designed by the British team.
Before I got this prototype saddle I would sometimes be so bruised I couldn’t sit down in a normal chair
‘Before we got this I would sometimes be so bruised I couldn’t sit down in a normal chair. And I was doing short sprint distances, I don’t know how the road girls cope!’ When I admit I haven’t got padded shorts she recommends Rapha. ‘I’m not going to lie, they’re pricey but they’re worth it.’ That’s some Rapha on the kit list then, if it’s good enough for Vicky P…
While on documentaries and TV coverage leading up to and during the 2012 Olympic Games, she seemed a fragile emotional person, often filmed in tears or close to, there has been no sign of this side of Victoria so far. She has said in previous interviews that she is much happier since she retired and she certainly seems it, appearing self-assured and confident it is rare to see her without a smile on her face. She does say, though, that she is a very emotional person and finds it hard to disguise what she is feeling. And this becomes obvious when she talks of her previous career during our cycle ride.
She has previously said she is much happier since she retired and she certainly seems it
Although understandably very proud of her achievements, she talks of the pressure of doing TV interviews and public appearances after winning sprint gold at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. It should have been one of the happiest times of her life but her coach had just announced to the rest of the team that she was dating Scott – the team sports scientist and now her husband. Scott lost his job (although after a serious downturn in Victoria’s form he was rehired as her own personal coach) and some members of the team and staff turned against her for her ‘unprofessional’ behaviour, which meant they could no longer benefit from Scott’s expertise.
But for all the tough times in her career there were also some pretty amazing ones, such as being part of a home Olympic Games, and Victoria starts to well up when she talks about not being ready to get back in the velodrome just yet. ‘I couldn’t cope. It’s such a big part… It would be too upsetting, seeing that the team have moved on without me.’
Under the eye of her father Max, an avid cyclist and grass champion, Victoria has been cycling as long as she can remember. She entered her first competition aged nine and spent weekends travelling the country to races with her father. It’s easy to see how once this massive constant in her life was removed, she may have begun to feel lost, but on the contrary she seems to be relishing living her own life and making her own choices. She’s become vegetarian, something that was a lot trickier when travelling the world as an athlete, and she’s embraced ‘forbidden’ sports that were deemed too likely to cause injury.
Does she have any fear? ‘Not of extreme sports, no. But I’m petrified of germs.’
She went skiing for only the second time in her life and threw herself down a black run full of moguls, she jumped off cliffs into the sea when canyoning, tried motor cross in the mountains… It seems she loves the adrenaline rush of extreme sports. Does she have any fear? ‘Not of things like that, no. But I’m petrified of germs. Germs and dirty water. As an athlete I couldn’t afford to get ill and I meet so many people who may have a cold or bug so I always carry bottles of antibacterial gel around with me.’ I wonder if she has been furiously disinfecting her hands every time she speaks to us but I don’t bring it up.
Victoria talks animatedly about planting a vegetable patch in her new home, making time to experiment in the kitchen and cooking up some damson jam
Extreme sports aside, Victoria talks animatedly about planting a vegetable patch in her new home, making time to experiment in the kitchen and cooking up some damson jam as she’s recently inherited the family jam pot, passed down through seven generations. She even toyed with the idea of training to become a Pilates instructor after it helped strengthen her postural muscles and ease chronic back pain caused by being constantly hunched over a bike (it was so bad she was being administered epidurals. OW!). But as for what she plans to do in the future, for now she’s having fun, making time for herself and just working it out.
Pilates helped ease chronic back pain caused by being hunched over on the bike. It was so bad she was being administered epidurals
I wonder if whizzing around the globe fixing stranded cyclist’s punctures like some kind of bike mechanic superhero is a viable job opportunity?
We went to Switzerland with Human Race. Human Race, the UK’s largest sport events company recommends Switzerland as a great training destination for triathlon, running, cycling and open water swimming. humanrace.co.uk
Words Charlotte Thomas
Photos Switzerland Tourism / Thomas Lüthi