At last I'm free! Now I might be a rower…I loved canoeing and the sea scouts: Victoria Pendleton on the future, illicit romance and why she'll be the fastest dressmaker in Britain
Two-time Olympic gold medalist Victoria Pendleton describes her relief after retiring from the sport at the age of 31'Leisurely' cycles through the countryside will replace her gruelling training regime as she bids farewell to the velodrome
12:52 GMT, 12 August 2012
Whatever Victoria Pendleton does next, one thing is for sure. She will expend blood, sweat and tears – plenty of tears – along the way.
‘I hate it when others don’t do things to the best of their ability,’ says the world champion cyclist and two-times Olympic gold medallist. ‘I hate it in myself – I feel I am letting myself down – and I hate it in others, too. It is a problem. And my insistence on it is a curse . . . a failing.’
Away from the velodrome, it may well be a problem. But it is also at the heart of why Pendleton is our greatest female cyclist. And as the past fortnight has demonstrated, it is this unswerving dedication that separates the gold medallists from the also-rans.
Freedom: Britain's golden girl cyclist Victoria Pendleton has retired from the sport at the age of 31 – but not before adding two more Olympic medals to her existing collection at the London Games
That she is also brittle and emotional, there is little doubt. She cried for two hours after losing one race a few years back. But Britain looks for flaws in its heroes, and many find Pendleton, with her fragility and unflinching honesty about her faults, endlessly fascinating, particularly when set against athletes who conform more rigidly to the Olympian ideal. In short, Pendleton is different.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that her will to succeed even finds expression in domestic chores. Acknowledging that it might sound bonkers, she says she vacuums her house in Cheshire ‘as quickly, efficiently and clinically as possible’. Not a single particle of dust rests easily.
She attacks the washing-up with the same gusto. ‘When my fiance, Scott, is doing the dishes I hover over him, cajoling him, knowing I can do it quicker,’ she laughs.
‘He’s an Aussie and has that bluntness about him, so he just tells me firmly, “Go away!” And I say, “Sorry, you’ve got me, I’ve done it again” and I leave him alone. I just can’t help it.’
This all makes her sound obsessive, a bit freakish even; controlling at the very least. But that, she says, is really not the case. ‘I’m not even someone who likes order. I’m not one of these compulsive people who needs everything in its place.
‘It’s more that I can’t see the point of doing any task, however menial, half-heartedly.’
Sweet victory: Victoria kisses her fiance Scott Gardner after winning the Olympic gold medal in the women's keirin
Last week, at the age of 31, she retired from cycling, the sport that commanded and shaped her life since she took it up competitively aged nine.
Giving her first newspaper interview since she bowed out of the London Games with gold and silver medals, Pendleton describes the relief from ending the physical toil and mental agony as ‘indescribable’.
And referring to the bitterness among Team GB staff caused by her relationship with one of her coaches, Scott Gardner, she says: ‘I am free now.’
From now on when she jumps on a bike, it will simply be, she says, to ‘enjoy the open air’ on leisurely rides through the countryside. Not too leisurely though. ‘I can’t go slowly. There has to be a pace. Something I can maintain without destroying myself.’
Once, in a dark moment, she described cycling as ‘pointless’ and now says she enjoyed only the training, not competing. ‘I liked going to the gym and lifting bar bells and the clean, clear way you can see yourself getting more powerful with each disc you add.’
The possibilities for Pendleton now appear endless. Her striking looks make her a sponsor’s dream. But if lucrative deals are in the offing she is coy about them. So what will she do next She says she hasn’t ruled out taking up a new sport.
Double scull gold medallist Anna Watkins told her she has all the attributes to compete successfully as a lightweight rower. ‘I think I might do that,’ says Pendleton, smiling. ‘I did a bit of canoeing and kayaking as a Sea Scout when I was younger and really enjoyed it.’
One of her great enthusiasms is dressmaking. She has ‘acres of fabrics’ at home that have remained untouched because of her cycling commitments. ‘I bought a vintage sewing machine, the ones with a treadle, from a charity shop and I am dying to start using it properly.’
Might she launch her own fashion label She doubts it, but with her foot on the treadle she could knock out dresses quickly. For though she is small for an Olympic athlete – 5ft 5in and about ten stone – she generates extraordinary leg speed, pumping her pedals at 200 rpm.
The Olympics brought Pendleton joy and disappointment. She started as Olympic champion and one of Team GB’s most recognisable faces. This, and the fact that she was performing in front of a home crowd, ‘meant huge pressure’.
One more for good measure: Victoria claimed her second Olympic gold medal at the London 2012 Games, and took the silver medal in the individual sprint
Along with team-mate Jess Varnish, she broke the world record in the qualifying stages of the team sprint before being relegated in the semi-finals due to a ‘blink-of-an-eye mistake that felt a little unfair’.
She recovered to win a gold medal in the keirin. ‘The moment I crossed the line I felt a flood of relief, it was so emotional. A lot of people had written me off as I have never been a fantastic keirin rider so it was particularly sweet.’
Finally, it was the individual sprint and the showdown with Australian rival Anna Meares. Pendleton set an Olympic record of 10.724 seconds in the qualifiers but lost to Meares in the final after being relegated by officials in the first run. To the untrained eye this seemed unfair.
‘I watched it afterwards and it looked like Anna moved down and on to me,’ said Pendleton. ‘I got an elbow and rebounded off the side of the track and across the red line you are not allowed to come out of. Anna is an aggressive rider, that’s the way it is in Australia, but I am not going to call her a bully or whatever. In any case, what’s done is done. There is no appeals process, you can’t change anything and I wasn’t going to complain about it.’
It sounds as if she believes it was deliberate. Pendleton smiles and settles for: ‘It looked unnecessary.’
Passing the three medallists afterwards, as they sat waiting to be called to the podium, all seemed tense and silent. ‘We had been having a girlie chat a few moments earlier though,’ says Pendleton.
‘Anna congratulated me on my engagement and told me that her father had chosen her dress when she got married. We had a laugh about this and I said there was no way my father would choose mine.’
Had Pendleton won in that final race, she would have become Britain’s first woman athlete to win three Olympic gold medals.
‘Yes I was disappointed, of course I was. I had trained so hard, put so much into it. I wanted to win so badly. But you know what At the end of the day it is just sport.’ There are other things in her life now. She is getting married – ‘probably next August’ – but only now can she begin the preparations in earnest.
In the months before the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Pendleton fell in love with Gardner, then the British cycling team’s sports scientist – the expert data analyst who works with the coaching team to help athletes maximise their potential.
It was by no means a traditional courtship. ‘As far as the senior management are concerned relationships between coaches and riders are not allowed. It is because the coach is in this position of responsibility. It’s rather like a teacher and pupil getting together, that’s how much of a taboo it is,’ said Pendleton. ‘It didn’t happen without endless agony and hundreds of phone conversations and discussions.
‘It’s almost hard to recall how it started. I do remember thinking that Scott was ignoring me, that he was being a bit odd. I liked him, found it interesting that he would spend much more time with the others than he would with me.’
Gardner was ignoring her, but only because he had fallen in love and, aware of the potential consequences, was trying to suppress his feelings
‘I mentioned it to Chris Hoy and asked him if he thought Scott was a bit weird, but Chris, who is a good friend of his, said no. He said Scott was a great guy. He didn’t tell me that Scott liked me; he wouldn’t have known that then.’
She added: ‘It went on like this for a while – me wondering why he was being so strange, stupidly not realising what was going on – and then after a race one day, while I was with Scott, and completely from nowhere, I just blurted out something along the lines of, “I wish I didn’t like you so much.” He didn’t say anything at the time though he reminded me of all this a few weeks ago. We continued fencing with each other like this, not getting to the point, and then in a text message he said something like, “If only you knew.”
‘It felt like we were drawing closer, but at the same time nothing was happening. I remember he invited me to his place for dinner though.’
Over a meal of chicken in parma ham they begin skirting around the issue like ‘a pair of diplomats. We didn’t even have so much as a kiss that night. I said, “I kind of want to express how I feel but I might be faced with a response I am not looking for”. He was saying similar things. It was crazy really, but it was a horrible situation, we both knew how much was at stake.
‘I was thinking to myself that this man might be the love of my life yet I might not even get the chance to know whether it would work simply because I am an athlete and he is a coach’.
'Love of my life': Victoria and Scott Gardner fell for one another while he was coaching the British cycling team ahead of the Beijing Olympics in 2008
Nothing was resolved that night, beyond establishing that their feelings were mutual. But it was a start, however faltering. They were now faced with a series of scenarios, each as devastating as the next.
They knew the relationship would be a conflict of interest and concluded that the only solution would be for Gardner to quit the team, an agonising decision, and one that Pendleton now recognises was a measure of his feelings for her – even though they hadn’t even been on a date. There was also the possibility the relationship wouldn’t work out. Yet he was prepared to take the risk.
‘Scott is more intelligent than me and has more emotional intelligence than me, he just gets things. It was hellish having to come to this decision but we thought it was the only way we could be together.’
At this point the 2008 Games were only a few months away. Pendleton says they decided to ‘do the right thing’ and tell the senior cycling bosses. ‘We told them we were seeing each other and said we accepted that Scott would have to go but they said to keep quiet about it until after the Games so as not to disrupt the team’s preparations.
‘We were pleased with this. The management weren’t happy but said they accepted these things happen. It’s hardly surprising though is it Cycling, the team, was my whole life – it’s not as if I went night-clubbing every Saturday – so who else was I going to meet’
Overwhelmed: Victoria said her feeling of relief after bowing out of competitive cycling after winning two medals in the 2012 Games was 'indescribable'
After Beijing, when the news was broken to the rest of the team, when Gardner was forced to quit, some of her coaches and fellow cyclists were angry and concerned about whether it would destroy the team set-up.
One coach said there must have been times when comments he made about Pendleton had been passed to her by Gardner. Things he would not have said had he known about the relationship.
‘This is absolutely not true,’ she says. ‘Yes there were times when people must have said things to Scott like, “Vicky’s been a complete pain today, she’s done this or that,” or much worse things. But he was far too professional to tell me. He simply would not do that.’ In the months that followed she became increasingly isolated and had to parry negative comments. During training she was told ‘we wish you had gone and we still had Scott’.
She says: ‘It was hurtful and painful, just the worst time of my life. Yet it should have been the happiest.’
Last week it was revealed that British cyclists Laura Trott and Jason Kenny, both double gold medallists, were in a relationship after they were spotted kissing. ‘I’m pleased for them,’ says Pendleton. ‘They won’t face what Scott and I endured because it is different. The management don’t disapprove of it but they don’t approve of it either. There are strict rules about not going in each other’s rooms, not making it obvious, that kind of thing, though. But no way is it like a coach-athlete relationship.
‘I had been aware of what was going on between Laura and Jason, though I found out only recently. When the cycling team was based down near Newport prior to the Games they would pointedly sit at opposite ends of the dining table and avoid eye contact. It was obvious something was going on.’
Since her last race, Pendleton has been to a dizzying round of sponsors’ parties. ‘It’s not for me though,’ she insists, adding that she was in Mahiki nightclub ‘for only about half an hour when this sweaty guy planted a big kiss on me in front of Scott. It was very unpleasant. We left shortly after that. That’s the downside of all this, the notion that people think you are public property’.
But whatever she chooses to do next it is unlikely that Victoria, Queen of the Track, will melt quietly away from the public eye.