Photography by Mark Hayman
Contrary to her partiality to a good old sob, Victoria Pendleton doesn’t shed a single tear during her Fabulous interview.
It’s almost disappointing.
But then, this retiring Olympic champion, on the precipice of a new adventure, has very little to cry about these days. The pressure is off, the nightmares that plagued her in the run up to London 2012 have ended, and the relief is etched all over her face.
“I just feel so free,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve smiled so much, ever. I’m hoping now that without that pressure it will be easier to maintain a more balanced mentality. Now I’m ready to move on and do something else. Something… normal.”
Well, as normal as possible for a nine-times world champion, a double Olympic gold medallist and the most successful British female track cyclist in history.
Bedfordshire-born Victoria, 31, was already the darling of Team GB after her historic sprint win at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, but it was the BBC documentary screened shortly before this year’s Games, telling the gruelling behind-the-scenes story of her success, which truly captured a nation’s interest. It was the story of an exceptionally talented athlete and endlessly fascinating woman, whose honesty and emotional outpourings made gripping viewing.
And, of course, at the centre of it all, was a love story – the controversial relationship between Victoria and the GB cycling team’s sport scientist, Australian Scott Gardner, 36, who gave up everything so they could be together.
It had the makings of a Hollywood movie written all over it. In short, we became hooked on Pendleton.
She says: “The reaction, especially from women, has been amazing. I’d been in some pretty dark places while they were filming and so I was a bit: ‘Gosh, I hope I don’t come across as really depressing!’
“There are a lot of sports people who are very controlled and robotic. While I’d love to be some kind of calm, mysterious individual, I couldn’t hide my emotions if I tried.”
She loves the idea of having her journey to 2012 documented on film, and says it’s something she will show her grandchildren one day: “The human twist with me and Scott – I’ll be able to keep that forever. And he looks very handsome in it, I thought!”
Victoria’s eyes light up when talk turns (as it frequently does) to the summer wedding she’s planning for 2013. The couple have just started looking at venues, she’s scoped out a few dresses online and she’d like around 150 guests.
But most of all, she can’t wait to be Scott’s wife. He was the one she cupped her hands into a heart shape for as she tearfully (of course) stood on the podium to collect her gold medal for the Keirin event in London. It is Scott who inspired the tattoo on the inside of her right arm, which reads: “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”, a lyric from The Smashing Pumpkins’ Today. He’s her best friend, she says, the first, one and only love of her life.
“We knew if we did start dating and become an item then he would lose his job, his career,” she recalls. Relationships are forbidden between athletes and their mentors. Victoria couldn’t switch teams, so it was Scott who had to give up his dream job.
“Those are the rules. So we had to discuss these feelings we had for each other – which at that time were very young, early feelings – and whether they were worth pursuing or not.
“It was horrible actually. Very serious, awkward and one of the most embarrassing things I’ve ever had to do. In the end we decided that life’s too short and we should give it a try. It was a leap of faith and one with devastating consequences.”
Head coach Shane Sutton became aware of the burgeoning relationship shortly before the Beijing Olympics and advised the couple to keep things under wraps to avoid disruption within the team.
On returning from China, Scott had to leave his job. A crucial member of the tight-knit group was gone and the betrayal felt by athletes and coaching staff cut deep.
“The closeness I had with people I’d worked with for years was all gone,” Victoria says. “I felt at times they could barely tolerate my company, because they were so disgusted at what we had done. They wouldn’t bother trying to speak to me and I just felt isolated. I’d go into training and sit separately and do my own thing. And they’d kind of just ask me what I was doing and then walk off. That was it.
It sounds hellish, and the fallout rumbles on – Scott’s friendship with coach and former flatmate Jan van Eijden has still not fully recovered.
“They’re on talking terms,” says Victoria. “It’s getting better. When relationships have been upset like this, it does take time for people to get their head around it. You can’t estimate how long it’s going to take. Some people don’t take long, other people take years.
“But nobody died, nobody suffered. It was like they felt I had cheated on them. No. I just fell in love with somebody.”
Tellingly, Victoria employs deft diplomacy when asked if the coaching team will be invited to the wedding next summer.
“There will be a lot of staff from British Cycling who have been incredibly supportive,” she says carefully, “and they will definitely be coming to my wedding.”
Others, one imagines, may find their invitations get lost in the post.
A measure of the effect Scott has on Victoria can be seen in her performance. By 2009, her form had severely dipped and she managed just a disappointing bronze at the World Championships. It was only when Scott was brought back into the fold as her coach that her results improved dramatically.
“He was a crutch,” she says. “Just knowing he was there made a huge difference to me. It made it a lot easier.”
Scott proposed that year, beating Victoria to it as she had been planning on asking him herself. “He booked a weekend in London for my birthday – we went to see The Lion King. We arrived at the hotel and when I walked into the room, I thought it was a lot bigger than any I’d ever stayed in before. By the time I turned around he was already on one knee.
“He chose the diamond and had it designed. I was very proud of him as a scientist to do something so creative.”
The relationship works because, says Victoria, Scott gets her. Even when she’s at her lowest ebb, he understands.
“Being an athlete and having a relationship is hard because they have to accept your priorities in life are different,” she says. “Sometimes I find myself closing off and going into my own little world because I know if I let this out, it’s going to be bad. He knows when I’m struggling with something because I become very closed.
“With Scott I’ve never had to apologise for anything. To find a partner who’s quite happy to say, OK I’ll take a backseat, I understand and I’ll be 100 per cent supportive the whole time… I just knew he was the right one.”
Someone else’s dream
There is, however, another significant man in Victoria’s life. If Scott is her crutch then it’s her father Max who made all of this possible and drove her to succeed.
A keen amateur cyclist, he channelled all of his personal ambition into Victoria after her twin brother Alex, and sister Nicola, 37, weren’t as interested in the sport. He pushed Victoria to the brink – “All stick and no carrot”, as Victoria puts it. She says she desperately sought his approval as a child.
It’s made for a complex relationship with Max, which was complicated further when he and her mother Pauline split up three years ago.
“I did question whether my dad’s feelings towards me were linked to how I was performing in cycling. He’d push me and I’d wonder if I didn’t do it or love cycling then would he not love me?
“My mum has always been more: ‘You can only do your best, I will love you no matter what.’
“Dad pushed me very hard physically. I appreciate it now because it got me exactly where I am today. I wouldn’t have met Scott and I wouldn’t be sitting here now with two gold medals and a silver to my name and the world titles.”
But it’s not a method she plans to use with her own children.
“Cycling was his sport, his dream. Not mine. I love riding my bike, but would I have chosen competitive cycling? Probably not,” she says. “If I have children, the most important thing is to give them opportunities to try as many different sports as possible so they can find something that floats their boat and that they’re excited about.”
Victoria reckons her parents’ separation was easier to come to terms with as an adult than if it had happened while she was growing up.
“We’re old enough to deal with it now. People change and move on. I don’t begrudge my dad his happiness,” she says.
“It’s actually given my mum a new lease of life. She always did everything for my dad; she was very traditional. But now she’s got out there and started to live a little bit. She’s become more confident and tried new things. She came to all of the Olympics and watched me and met loads of new people and had a lovely time and I was really proud of her.
“She’s quite shy and I feel that she really took a big step with building her confidence. I’m very, very close to my mum.”
And her dad? “As my cycling became more professional, he kind of stepped further and further out of my life… But now, I get on with him. We just don’t have much to talk about outside of cycling. But we never have, so nothing’s changed.”
Victoria sips on her cup of tea. Her face – aqua-blue almond-shaped eyes and sculpted cheekbones –
is naturally beautiful. A lifetime of abstinence has been kind to her soft, pale skin, which is peppered with freckles. Training and competing have put paid to any social life and Victoria admits she’s not even sure she knows how to have fun, although she’s quite magnetic company.
“Maybe it’s something I’ll learn. I don’t know. I always feel like I’m I standing out like a sore thumb because socialising isn’t really me,” she says. “People thought I was odd at school because I loved sport and that made me a bit of an outsider. There were times when I felt like I didn’t have a lot of friends.
“At uni I went out occasionally, but I didn’t really drink. I like a glass of champagne and that’s it. I don’t really like the way it makes me feel – I think it’s the control thing. Having a lack of control scares me. I’m a control freak.”
The years of cycling and weight training have also given Victoria the most incredible physique: a six-pack, the works.
Despite her retirement, she has already been out on the odd run with Scott and their Dobermans (Mr Jonty and Stella), and she’s determined to keep the definition she grafted for.
“I know I can’t maintain my body to the same level but I think once you’ve experienced being in that sort of physical condition it’s very hard to let it go,” she says.
It’s taken time, though, to learn to love the body that has powered her to so much success.
“I used to feel very out of proportion as a teenager, because my thighs were quite muscly from my cycling, but there wasn’t a lot to balance it out on top!
“I’m still waiting to develop a womanly figure… but I think as the years go on, you become more comfortable with your body. And obviously the work that I’ve done through cycling and the muscle I’ve built I’m very proud of.”
Dressed simply today in black skinny jeans and a pretty crocheted cream top Victoria, who in a bid to retain her femininity refused to bow to coaches’ pressure to cut off her hair so it would fit better under her helmet, has a real passion for fashion. But she laughs off the suggestion that designers must be falling over themselves to dress her.
“I have a few designer pieces, but I mainly wear high street. I love Whistles. Now I’ve got the time, I can shop till I drop.”
So what’s next for Victoria? The obvious move is punditry which she’d rather like to try, but reports also suggest she’s lined up as a contestant for this year’s Strictly Come Dancing.
“I’m interested in taking up something a little bit challenging and a little bit different, and I’d like to have some TV experience,” she says coyly. “I’d give anything a go. I’ve been riding around in circles for the last how many years of my life and I’ve had enough of that!”
So Strictly is a possibility? “Something glamorous would be nice. Something with heels.” And, ahem, sequins?
“That would be lovely, rather than tracksuits.”
Starting a family is also on the agenda once the wedding is out the way. Since the Olympics, Victoria has spent time with her sister Nicola’s 12-week-old son and it’s made her broody.
“There was a time when I was like: ‘No, I’m never having children, ever.’ Now I’m like: ‘Ooh, actually…’ I was having a little cuddle with my nephew when he was all sleepy and quiet and I thought: ‘Yeah, this could be nice.’
“I think things change after you hit 30. My friends have all had babies and their lives have moved on. I’ve been in this time warp of the same routine for the past 10 years.
“Long term, I think we’d like to move to Australia. It’s a great place to live and a fantastic place to bring up kids.”
Whatever Victoria does next, we hope it involves fewer tears. However, Strictly can put its hopefuls through the emotional wringer…
“I feel so much more relaxed but that doesn’t mean there won’t be moments where I’m under pressure or stressed,” she says. “Life will throw whatever it can at you.”
It will. But Victoria’s proved she can handle anything.
- Tell us what you think on Twitter #FabMagPendleton
Get on your bike
Victoria is encouraging the nation to follow her lead and get on their bikes with the launch of the Hovis Cycle Maps website and competition.
The site features 16 scenic cycle routes within the UK suitable for all abilities, ranging from six to 21 miles.
It also includes top cycling tips from Victoria and a competition to win one of five Pendleton Bikes, designed by the lady herself.
Victoria says: “2012 has been a tremendously special year for me and I hope my recent successes will encourage the nation to get back on their bikes in their mission to stay on track towards a healthier lifestyle.”
Hovis Wholemeal Ambassador Victoria Pendleton supports the Hovis Cycle Maps campaign. For info visit Hoviscyclemaps.com.
What’s your biggest regret
I think it would have been if I’d retired after Beijing. But I didn’t, thankfully. Watching London on TV would have been really painful.
What would your super power be?
I’d like to be able to be invisible.
Your greatest achievement?
Winning Olympic gold in London.
Who’s your best friend?
Which living person do you most admire?
My mum. She’s compassionate, thoughtful and giving.
How would your friends describe you?
Competitive, thoughtful… I wouldn’t say I’m funny. But I don’t take myself seriously.
Dream dinner party guests?
It would be nice to have a dinner party with all my best friends, because I’ve never done that before. All the people I’ve been neglecting over the years, perfect.