Exclusive: Victoria Pendleton's inside track

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Be prepared

"You have to be very defensive when you're riding in urban areas," Pendleton says. "When I ride I'm prepared for everybody to pull the worst possible manoeuvre on me. So if there's a car coming up the side of me I think they're probably about to overtake me and turn left. I never make moves unless I'm sure drivers have seen me – it's best to get eye contact. You also shouldn't be pushed into the kerb. If you ride too close to the edge someone will overtake you when the gap's barely big enough and then you've nowhere to fall. Ride a bit out into the road and hold your line."

Get out of the city

If you're put off commuting by bike through fear of traffic or getting drenched, then try to get out at weekends. "I go straight into the country lanes in Cheshire," Pendleton says. "If you're prepared to get the maps out and look around to find a quiet route, you can. You can even find one in the car beforehand to make sure there are no major roads or difficult junctions."

Obey the law

Whether or not cyclists should obey every letter of the Highway Code is probably the biggest cause of debate between bikers and non-bikers. Some are convinced that it can be safer to jump red lights at, say, deserted pedestrian crossings (to give cyclists a chance to get away from scary lorries) while others will shout at you for doing so. Pendleton's no rule-breaker. "There are a lot of cyclists out there who give other cyclists a very bad name," she says. "I try my best to set a good example of what we should do – I feel it's my duty. I don't run red lights or try to piss people off."

Pedal right

Pedalling's just pedalling, right? Well, no, there are techniques that will make your cycling faster and easier. Most cyclists "stamp" their pedals, only applying force from about the one o'clock to five o'clock positions. But, says Pendleton, "you should be pedalling in a circle – pulling up, pushing over the top and back round again." Some have compared the movement required to carry a revolution through the lowest part of the cycle to scraping mud off your shoes. "Ideally, your feet should be attached to the pedals in toe clips or via shoes with cleats to allow you to pull as well as push. There should also be flex in your ankle." Selecting the right gear is just as important. "If you pedal faster you will burn more calories and fat, but a bigger gear will help develop more strength," Pendleton explains. "But the faster you pedal, the more efficient it is. My record on the track is 203 revolutions per minute, but I won't expect you to achieve that."

Dress right

Whether you're a Lycra-clad road warrior or a be-denimed fixed-gear hipster, it's important to ride in what you feel comfortable wearing. "I always cycle in full kit," says Pendleton. "I like having padded shorts and jeans restrict my movement. And a builder's bum is never a good look on a bike." At this time of year, Pendleton says it's also important to be seen. "I think it's criminal that so many bike kits are made in black. You have to dress appropriately. I dress very brightly in winter. I've got the red, white and blue kit and am lit up like a Christmas tree. It's the least I can do to make sure people are aware of me on the roads."

Get in the gym

The best way to get fit for cycling is to cycle, but time at the gym can make a big difference. For Pendleton, three mornings a week in the gym at the Manchester Velodrome are a vital supplement to her four days of track and road riding. "I lift weights – up to 130kg, which is way over double my bodyweight on the squats, and do a lot of exercises with a Swiss ball to improve core stability, which helps energy transfer through to your pedals rather than making you sway on your saddle. Spinning classes are also great – I did it a lot at university and it's a great way to train." And don't worry about developing monstrous thighs like Sir Chris "Hoycules" Hoy's. "I wish it was that easy," Pendleton says. "Cyclists with big thighs were chosen because of that, not because they developed them through cycling. I'm not that muscly and most girls will see no gain in thigh size – just better tone and a more pert bum."

Ditch the car

You'd think the fastest woman in the world on a bike would be happy not to cycle to the shops. Far from it. "I've got an ancient little shopper bike from the 1940s sprayed black that was passed down from somebody through my dad. It has big old mudguards and pannier racks and I'll use it to cycle to the shops. For the distance I live from the shops it's a bit naughty to get the car out unless I'm carrying massive bags. Sadly, I can't include those rides in my training."

Try harder

"Cycling is hard to beat as a way to keep fit, but it only works if you push yourself," Pendleton says. "If you can have a chat with the person you're cycling with then you need to get a wiggle on – it's easy to cruise but you have to push yourself, although not as hard as we do, to gain benefit – and that should leave you too out of breath to hold a conversation."

Lock it up

More than 100,000 bikes a year get nicked in the UK (countless more thefts go unreported) and while no lock is too tough for a determined, tooled-up thief, there's much to be done to put off the opportunist. It's best to invest in something chunky – spend more than £30 on a lock with a gold Sold Secure rating (www.soldsecure.com/ leisure). Meanwhile, don't do what David Cameron did earlier this year and lock your bike to a stumpy bollard (a thief simply lifted bike and lock free before fleeing) and be certain to insure your ride. "I'll lock my old shopper bike, but I never leave my roadbike anywhere out of my sight," Pendleton says. "It's probably worth about £3,000."

Eat right

"Food equals power and strength and if I improve that I improve my speed," Pendleton says. "I'm very lucky in that I've got a fast metabolism and have always been able to eat what I want. I also enjoy cooking and eating healthy food. As long as what you eat has the right amount of protein and carbs, you're OK." One of the joys of cycling is that you can eat what you like and, unlike before a big run, it's OK to gorge on pasta and other carb-laden foods before a ride because you won't get stomach cramp sitting on the saddle. Energy drinks and bars will keep you going on the move.

Saddle up (or down)

One of the most common mistakes new riders make is the simplest to correct – having the saddle at the wrong height. "It makes cycling very inefficient," Pendleton says, "especially if it's too low. If you're sitting on the saddle when you're stationary and put your heel on the pedal at its lowest point you should have a slight bend in the knee. It should be high, but not so high that there is any lateral movement in your hips when you pedal – your pelvis should be still."

Maintain it

Bicycles are relatively simple machines, especially if yours is fixed-gear or single-speed; but they can be tricky and costly to fix. There are simple things we can all do to keep things running smoothly. "The most common problem is having a dirty chain," Pendleton says. "It's important to keep it not only oiled but clean. If it's covered in dirt and grit and you put more oil on it's just going to become congealed and resistance will increase, making it harder to cycle. I use engine degreaser to clean my chain at least every couple of weeks – more often if the weather's bad. "Also, make sure your brake blocks are OK – people don't realise how quickly they get worn out. If you don't replace them you'll pull your brakes and nothing will happen. Just be careful when braking after you've replaced them – you will stop abruptly."

Stay safe

"I've never been in a crash with a car, but I've slid off a few times on black ice. It helps if you're also a driver – all drivers doing their test should be put on a bike and have a car pass them at 50mph at six inches to show them how scary it can be. But if you stay upright, it's easier to avoid injuries. Track and field athletes tend to retire in their thirties, but I could go into my forties because I never run anywhere. My muscles are strong but the tendons have never had the impact of running so are weak. Common cycling injuries are the knees – it's important to pedal right [see tip 14] – and the back. I've had inflammation in the back caused by poor posture while doing weights – that's why it's so important to get advice from an instructor."

Reward yourself

It can be hard to drag one's sleepy limbs from bed to saddle. "At this time of year I hate training rides," says Pendleton, who is preparing for the World Track Cycling Championships in March. "My motivation is that it's my job and I want to be best in the world, but on those really bad days, when the roads are icy, it must be hard for people to use cycling to keep fit." Which is why, Pendleton says, rewards are a must. "Set yourself goals. If you lose a kilo, buy some new shoes. I reward myself in training when I achieve certain speeds. If I hit 200rpm [pedal revolutions per minute] on the track behind a motorbike, I'm, like, "yes!", and will probably reward myself with extra cake for tea."

Enjoy it

"When the sun's shining in the morning and you get up it's a joy to go out on your bike," Pendleton says. But Pendleton, the fastest woman in the world on a bike, is happiest on a track. "When I'm training behind a motorbike and hitting almost 80kph (50mph) it's pretty cool. Everything's a blur and you're concentrating so hard on going as fast a possible. When it's going well it feels almost effortless and that's the feeling cyclists aspire to."

Victoria Pendleton MBE is a member of the Sky+HD Trade Team. Sky is the principal partner of British Cycling (www.skysports.com/cycling)

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