Victoria Pendleton: Dig deep for three more golds... then get an allotment
'Queen Victoria' is a regal presence on the track but, she tells Ian Herbert, she is riddled with self-doubt and insecurity off it
It's when you press Victoria Pendleton on what she'll do when the Olympics are gone that the tension really starts to melt away. In her mind's eye there's an allotment, like the one her mother recently took on, with rows of green beans, lettuce and flowers in it. "A lovely big garden with an allotment, just a nice vegetable patch, maybe," she imagines. "People say, 'Oh you'll get bored of that after a few minutes', and I say to myself, 'Oh, would I?'..."
If it sounds like she can't get to this bucolic scene fast enough, then it's because of the mixed feelings and torments attached to the territory of being the woman expected by the British nation simply to rock up at London's Olympic Park Velodrome a year from now and collect three gold medals. The 30-year-old, who has announced that she will retire when the team sprint – the last of her anticipated three competitions – is over, recently described a recurring dream of being hunted down by a murderous monster "who's got a big 2012 written all over it" and there are still large parts of next summer that she has conditioned herself not to think about. "What the event will be like, being part of the Olympics and being in London, is too much to think about," she reflects. "You've no control over those things, so in a way it's wasted energy to think of them."
The phantoms have receded just lately, as the calendar pages have turned over [the Olympics begin a year next Wednesday] and the Games have become close enough to contemplate, rather than being something "hanging around in the background and not going anywhere", as she puts it. Pendleton is feeling excited about the prospect, this morning, as she hangs around in the Manchester Velodrome, awaiting the chance to haul her slender frame on to her bike, climb the vertiginous ramp and whir around the track. She'll reach speeds of 75kph when she's training for the keirin and, despite the usual back pain, will look even more imperious when she's settled into sprints. So imperious, in fact, that you wonder about the source of all the self-doubt and insecurity which have always made this compelling individual so out of keeping with sport's wearying culture of celebrity.
A sport like hers breeds these private agonies, though, because the margins between triumph and disaster are so narrow. Andy Murray could take comfort from those transatlantic telephone calls to David Haye, sharing experiences of trading blows, during Wimbledon's final stages, but Pendleton doesn't have that luxury. "In tennis you can have a bad set and still win," she says. "The part of track cycling that is difficult to find in other sports is that it's so final; there's no second chance if you make a mistake."
And even when we don't discern a mistake, that trait of unsparing self-criticism with which we have become so familiar in Pendleton will locate one. "I've always been like this – insecure – because I'm striving for something that can't be attained," she says. "I don't just want to be OK at this, I want to be the best at it, and I've never achieved that in my mind. Even though I've won numerous titles and an Olympic gold medal, there are still so many faults in my performance that I can honestly hardly bear to watch the videos back." And what does she see when she does view them? "Poor timing, not being quite as quick off the mark as I'd like to be, poor observation, poor speed judgement, all these things I find it excruciating..."
Which makes you wonder: is she ever genuinely contented in her sport? The answer is "yes" but it doesn't involve a bike. "I love the fact that I go into work, put 2.5kg on either end of a dumb-bell and say, 'I've never lifted this weight before' and then do it," she says. "You're just like – 'Oh my God, get in'. The gradual progression you get is so tangible. You lifted it. That's it. You're better than you were last week. That makes me tick."
It is a solitary scene of euphoria she paints – but Pendleton might find more value than she expects from conversations with other British Olympians. The frustrations that come with the unknowing British public's expectation that she only needs to turn up to win is something Pendleton shares with Rebecca Adlington, who recently described how, because the only swimmer people have heard of is Michael Phelps, the general assumption is, "Oh, she won two golds in Beijing so she must be like Phelps, she should win everything." Adlington knocked two seconds off her personal best in clinching bronze in the 400m at the 2009 World Championships, her first big race after Beijing, but people came up to her and said: "Aw, I'm sorry about your bronze."
This experience is frustrating, Pendleton agrees. "It's hard. Because of the limited opportunities on that stage, people won't necessarily remember what you've done. But I've had years and years of work – very unsuccessful at times, unfruitful and demoralising. You're not just good at something and then just roll up and win stuff. It's not like school sports day. People think I must just be hugely talented at this and it's easy for me. I just turn up and it works and if it doesn't then, 'Oh she wasn't trying there – that's why she lost.' If only it was that simple!"
Which only contributes to the pressure attached to next summer. "You only get one chance – so you've just got to pray to God you're OK," is how Adlington has described it and Pendleton seems to feel that even more. "It's such a unique and special opportunity that you don't want to mess it up," she says. "And you don't want to mess it up so badly that it's quite a scary thing. There's no redemption, either. Once it's gone there won't be a second chance. I would like to go out on a high but I've no control over the result of that and whether it happens or not, which is a bit daunting. Everyone keeps telling me if you weren't to win at the Olympics, that [people] would still recognise me as a good athlete. It's not as if that day is wiped clean from my career because it didn't go well..."
The preparations for London include an option, which Pendleton has taken up, of psychological scenario planning including "what happens if you go up and do a time trial and finish fifth?", as she describes it. The answer? "You just carry on. You just don't panic. You just put it in a box."
So now you see why that allotment sounds rather appealing. Pendleton wants to indulge her enjoyment of creative art – she completed a striking Buddha on canvas at home before the last World Championships in the Netherlands – as well as sow that row or two of beans. All that and more lies somewhere over the rainbow. Just another year to wait before she learns whether gold resides there, too.
British cyclist Victoria Pendleton is supported by Holiday Inn, the official hotel provider to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. In return for free room nights between now and London 2012, athletes are hosting masterclasses for hotel staff, giving them the opportunity to try out their sport
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