For a young woman so much in the spotlight, world and Olympic sprint champion Victoria Pendleton is tough to catch up with. BikeRadar's Lara Dunn managed to nab a few minutes to talk with her as she headed home after training for the UCI Track Cycling World Championships in Denmark.
At just shy of 30, Victoria – "I’m approaching 30 now and I feel like I’m more of a Victoria than a Vicky" – has already achieved more than many professional cyclists do in a lifetime.
A host of gold medals from world championships, the Commonwealth Games and, of course, the 2008 Beijing Olympics seem to have done little to blunt her desire to succeed and be the best female track cyclist in the world.
I’m keen to know more about her feelings on becoming a role model for a new generation of female cyclists. Track cycling wasn’t exactly a female friendly sport when Victoria joined; there had reputedly only ever been three other women doing it in the UK.
"We weren’t renowned for our female sprint track cyclists," she says. "We’d only ever had a couple of male world champions over the course of 50 years or so. It wasn’t a sport we were strong in, and the female side even less so than the male. I remember going to a couple of competitions and going, 'Holy cow, this is not me'. It took a long time to gain the confidence to really believe I deserved to be there."
And yet, in this tough, traditionally very masculine world, Victoria has managed to excel, while at the same time maintaining her femininity, often in the face of criticism. "You felt like you had to conform," she says. "People didn’t take me seriously because I didn’t cut my hair short and because I like wearing mascara. It didn’t mean that I wasn’t taking it seriously, it just meant that that was part of me as well. A part I wasn’t willing to change. I wouldn’t say it was easy."
Victoria, seen here at Wimbledon last year, has been determined to retain her femininity
Inspiring the next generation
A lot of effort has been put in recently to encourage more young women to start cycling competitively. Pendleton herself, along with several other famous British sportswomen including Sally Rudman, was involved in the Girls4Gold programme with UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport (EIS). This was designed to unearth female talent capable of winning medals for Britain at the 2012 Olympics. The response was staggering, with over 1,300 applications.
"They got some amazing talent through that," says Victoria. "It just goes to show that if you have a female-specific programme set up, catering for what women would be interested in and the right approach to encourage them, then it can work. The same techniques don’t work with guys as work with girls. Different things motivate them. You have to approach them in slightly different ways, and I think people are still trying to work out what that way is."
With gender parity on course for track cycling at the Olympics in 2012, there has never been a warmer welcome for young sportswomen. "There’s going to be a lot more chance for those girls to become fully funded, full-time athletes, and that’s what you need to want to succeed," says Victoria. "It’s a great thing now for girls to have the same opportunities. I can’t imagine the day it’ll be a 50/50 mixed team but that would be awesome and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t happen."
Victoria with her gold medal from the women's sprint at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games
But it’s not just professional women’s cycling that’s lagging behind the men. Both Sustrans and British Cycling have conducted surveys recently to get to the bottom of why more British women don’t cycle. I ask Victoria for her view.
"I’m still trying to work it out," she says. "I think one of the reasons is equipment. Girls aren’t very techy in general. Guys love it; it’s all about the bikes and wheels and the equipment. Women aren’t impressed by things in the same way. A lot would relate to having a fancy pair of shoes more than a cool bike. That’s perhaps one of the reasons that girls can’t get into it; maybe there aren’t the available products that really appeal to them?"
Judging by some of the new women's kit available at the Cycle Show in London last year, that situation would appear to be improving. "I feel there is some really quite cool and fashionable stuff coming out," says Victoria. "Some of the female casual cycling kit I thought was really innovative and attractive – stuff I’d want to cycle in, if cycling wasn’t my job and I didn’t have to wear a uniform."
Women's cycling kit has improved since Victoria started riding, especially casual wear
Victoria feels that lack of female participation is a problem throughout sport in general. "I think it’s not just a cycle thing," she says. "There’s always been greater participation in sport by boys, because they are encouraged more generally and the opportunities are greater. Also the chances to take it to the highest level are better in most circumstances.
"Sport is essentially a male dominated world, and sometimes I think girls struggle to find a place where they can fit in. It’s a case of, 'if you’re not a tomboy then what are you doing here?', which is ridiculous. Don’t let people try to put you in a box saying it’s not for you. If you want to do it, then you should do it. I think there’s just not the encouragement generally for girls to really just take things on.
"If you look at the actual physical benefits of cycling, they are things that would appeal to women – like nice toned thighs and bottoms and legs, and you can have a chat while you’re doing it! So it’s always seemed to me to be the perfect sport for women to do. It's a very sociable sport, and track cycling especially so. I think that’s one of the reasons I prefer track to road – you can sit around in the centre and have a natter in between circuits. I hope that my involvement and my performances can encourage more girls to take it on."
Cycling's high-tech kit is one of the factors that puts many women off
Is the problem one of image too? "I personally think they’ve just got to make it sexier, it’s got to appeal to women," says Victoria. "It’s a bit of an old man’s sport on many levels. A lot of the people who follow the sport are older males, which isn’t really going to encourage young women to get their Lycra on and get cycling, is it?
"I think hopefully, with the talent in the team right now, as they move through their careers and into other areas within the sport, they’ll be in a position to make changes to the way cycling is perceived, through the media, perhaps in terms of presenting and giving a female perspective.
"It would be great to have female role models within the sport who can really appeal to younger girls. It’s a big battle. There are only a few of us women at the moment and it’ll take years to really make our name and mark – to say that, actually, cool girls can do cycling and be respected for it, appreciated for their hard work and achievements. It takes time though."
Victoria says cycling needs to be made sexier in order to appeal to women
I bring up the infamous FHM cover shoot. A fair bit of criticism for this has been levelled at Victoria from various quarters, with a lot of that from women. Surely, though, If you can make a sportsperson appear conventionally sexy then that might subtly alter the perception of teenage girls who look upon glamour modelling as something to aspire to?
"I’m a normal girl and I like dressing up and looking pretty, and I want people to think I’m attractive," says Victoria. "I can’t help that, that’s just human nature. Doing that FHM shoot was something I was really excited about. At first I was a bit dubious, and worried that people might think less of me, but then I thought, ‘you know, I really want to do it’. I think it looks great and why not? Not many female Olympic athletes have been asked to do the cover of FHM, it’s usually glamorous celebrities.
"Maybe I’ll start something that should continue in my opinion. Apart from the odd tennis player, like Anna Kournikova, sport is seen as an unattractive thing for most girls. If you can portray it as attractive and empowering, and show what you can really gain from it, in terms of self esteem and personal achievement, and that you can also make a living out of it, I think perhaps it would appeal more."
Victoria wants to portray sport as both attractive and empowering
Ready for the new season
I ask Victoria about the Track Cycling World Championships looming large in Ballerup, and how she’s feeling about her chances of defending her title. "Well, if you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m never happy with my performance," she says. "I'm a perfectionist and perfection is something that can never be achieved, so I’m always grumbling about things going badly.
"But realistically, looking at the numbers, I’m pretty happy where I am right now. I’ve had a few injuries this year but I seem to have come round them in better form than I imagined so I'm looking forward to it. But it is hard having a target as big as I have on my back."
That target is one she must be used to wearing though, and she sounds quietly confident, and surprisingly grounded. "You’ve got to aim high anyway," she says. "That’s what I’m going in for. I’m not going in to participate – I want to win. And if another girl beats me on the day, well good for them. It’s not going to stop me from trying to be better and trying to be the best."
Victoria is happy with her preparations for the Track Cycling World Championships
In Victoria’s opinion that girl could well be China’s Guo Shuang. "I trained with her when I was in Switzerland for a couple of years and I know she’s very ambitious, and she’s a bit younger than me," she says. "I think the disappointment in Beijing will fuel one incredible fire for her to do better and better and better. You can never underestimate what that can do for someone."
Victoria will be sticking to the sprint, the team sprint and the Keirin – the three events she currently feels most able to do well in, and, crucially, also the three disciplines she has Olympic medal hopes for. So what are her plans for the future beyond the dazzling horizon of 2012, and where would she like her career to take her?
"I’d definitely like to do something in women’s sport," she says. "Having worked with some amazing sponsors like Adidas, I’d really like to get involved with development of their sponsorship programmes for elite female sport. Perhaps working on how they can approach and encourage more people. There are so many opportunities available and I’ve really enjoyed doing some of the charity bits and pieces like Pedal It Pink (for breast cancer).
Shuang Guo of China, right, has her sights on Victoria's world title
"I really hope that come 2012 I’ll have some real occasion to use my experience and knowhow for the greater good. It’s all very nice having gold medals but it doesn’t fulfil me. I’m a girl at the end of the day, I’ve got a mothering instinct. You know, even if I was to be a personal trainer in some respect, or training an elite group of females, I think I’d get a lot from that."
It may not have been an easy start, but Victoria is now in the enviable position of being arguably the best in the world, and an ambassador for her sport and female athletics in general. "Now I think it was worth all the trouble because I get to do exactly what I want to do and be exactly what I want to be, which is everything all at the same time," she says.
"I can be educated and successful as a sportsperson, and I can also wear a frock and high heels and feel like a lady. I can pose for FHM or borrow dresses from Paul Smith and all these wonderful things. There’s a feeling now that no-one puts limits on me, I think that’s the biggest thing, and I think that’s just maturity." Maturity, and the gold medals that prove her place within that masculine cycling world, with or without long hair and make-up.