London Evening Standard

Victoria Pendleton should have little reason to complain. Success on the cycling track has won her medals galore, including gold in Beijing, she has an MBE and is much sought after by advertisers, yet she fears she will never overcome being a woman in a man’s world.

“I work in a very male-oriented environment and it is hard sometimes,” admits the 30-year-old from Hertfordshire. “Nobody has ever told me I cannot do anything but you have to do it in a very masculine way. You have to be harder, tougher, develop a thicker skin and emotions have to pushed to one side — you can’t cry. When I do, I have to apologise, say: I’m sorry everyone, I’m just having an emotional day’.”

Pendleton accepts this has made her more “resilient” but she resents the fact that “people don’t take me quite as seriously as they would Sir Chris Hoy. I get frustrated that my voice isn’t as well heard as others. To get my point across, I have to push it a little bit harder. I was talent-spotted at 16 and people still see me as that teenage girl.”

Mihir Bose with Victoria Pendleton: It's so hard to get my voice heard in cycling's man's world

Her discomfort is reinforced when she visits some Muslim countries where women cannot take part in her sport, let alone wear the clothes she does.

“I can’t really get my head round that,” she says. “I can appreciate why people would want to conform to those kind of rules if that’s what their religion dictates but I do sometimes feel bad about the idea of people looking at me and thinking what I’m doing is immoral, as a female in sport, wearing skin-tight lycra and displaying my hair. That upsets me and I feel uneasy. I think to myself: Well I’m not doing anything harmful’.

“And sometimes, when I go to countries like Dubai, I may be just in transit but I would never dream of wearing shorts, even though it’s ridiculously hot. I’d feel bad. I would wear trousers. And I wouldn’t necessarily wear short sleeves. I’d think: Oh well, maybe I should put a long sleeve on’. You just feel paranoid about all that.”

Not that she wants to deny the woman in her. “I like cooking, sewing — it sounds like lots of Women’s Institute stuff. I am inspired by watching cooking programmes, not Nigella Lawson; her food isn’t necessarily great training food but I enjoy Masterchef.”

And the woman who posed for FHM in diminutive sporty lingerie and in black bikini bottoms and basque adds: “It’s nice to get dressed up and look pretty. I don’t think there are many girls out there who wouldn’t enjoy that. I’m still a girl at the end of the day.”

Pendleton may never have been fighting her corner in this man’s world had her twin brother, Alex, cared for cycling. Their father, Max, a British national grass-track cycling champion, pushed all three of his children — she also has an older sister, Nicola — into the sport.

“My twin brother and my sister both decided to stop cycle racing when they were about 16. That’s when you have to race with grown men. It’s a big step, quite hard, and they did not have the enthusiasm to keep the training.”

The result was Max concentrated on Victoria and she acknowledges her debt. “Dad pushed me; wanted me to fulfil my potential, and I wouldn’t have got to where I’ve got to without him.”

When she crosses the line first, Pendleton refuses to punch the air in celebration — “that’s not really me” — and she detests competition.

“Jason Queally, whose gold in Sydney inspired me, was exactly the same,” she says.

“It’s weird. Chris Hoy has the perfect mix. He loves racing and training. I would like to get more from racing, but I don’t. I’d rather stick pins in my eyes than race.

“It’s a difficult situation to be in. You have two or three days in the year when you want to perform at your absolute best. There’s no guarantee you can do it; all you can do is make sure you get the work in beforehand, the rest is out of your hands almost. You only get one chance to do it, there’s no margin for error in the sport industry.”

The lead-up to a race is torture. “I feel sick,” she says. “I don’t sleep, I don’t eat. I felt quite nauseous for most of the time I was in Beijing [for the Olympics].

“Food tastes like cardboard when you’re nervous. You have to eat to fuel your body but, as you put the food in your mouth and swallow it, there’s no enjoyment from it. In the week before Beijing, I lost about two kilos.”

But, if performing is agony, training is all joy. “When you do a squat and lift 2.5kg more than you’ve ever lifted before, it’s a great feeling. I enjoy that physical side of the work.”

Pendleton is well aware that success in Beijing lifted cycling to a new level but does not believe that it was the only reason for the sport’s popularity.

“The success of the cycling team may have inspired a few people but interest in cycling has gone up more because of the economic circumstances, more people considering other alternatives for travel,” she says. “In addition, more people are in tune with their bodies.

“Cycling not only gets you from A to B but you’re doing yourself good and it fits into a lot of people’s lifestyles.”

But are her fellow cyclists responsible road users? “There are a lot of people who cycle well and there are a lot of people who don’t follow the rules of the road. People are always very quick to accuse the cyclist of making the mistakes and there are a lot of cyclists who do run red lights. However, I never do that, ever.

I’m not a rule-breaker by nature, I just can’t do it.

“I get a lot of grief on the road — people shouting abuse out of car windows or telling me to get out the way. It is hard on the roads. Drivers and cyclists are always against the other. It would be nicer if people could all be a little bit more open-minded.”

Pendleton knows that in her sport she will really feel the heat of the competition at London 2012. “London is going to be the biggest weight I’ll ever have to carry on my shoulders.”

Guo Shuang, the Chinese Pendleton beat in Beijing, will be a threat. “The fact I beat her on her home soil means it would be foolish to think that she wouldn’t be coming back with a vengeance. And in lots of Eastern European nations, the riders just come out of thin air. There are big, strong girls from Belarus, Russia and Lithuania.”

But for Pendleton winning gold in London “would be more important than winning gold in Beijing”.

And it would mean, after a lifetime in cycling, she could marry and do something else. She and her fiancé, Australian Scott Gardner, have decided they will tie the knot after London 2012. “That is when I will retire,” says Pendleton, and “I would like to start a family but not straight away. I’d like to have a bit of a life first, a life outside of cycling.”


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