The outcome of four years of preparation will be decided in just a few minutes time. The nine-time world champion is in scintillating form, having won both of her qualifying heats. She weighs her options. Some 6,000 spectators roar their support. It is an inner voice, however, that commands her greatest attention. There are numberless ways to approach the race, numerous methods by which it might by won, or lost. The psychological pressure is intense. The London Games will be her last competitive engagement
Fast forward 13 months and Pendleton sits on a small sofa in the lobby of an elegant hotel on a quiet street in Lucerne, Switzerland. It’s not yet 8.30am, but she has already been “sight jogging” with a group of British journalists along the route of the Lucerne Marathon, returned for breakfast, and is now preparing to cycle with them. RoadCyclingUK is among the gathered hacks, and between breakfast and ride, we sit down alone with Pendleton for 20 minutes of formal interview, which by natural charm she turns from interrogation to conversation in about 30 seconds.
“Real life” has occupied her time since retiring on the grandest of stages, another Olympic gold medal, this time in the keirin, in her pocket. Pendleton has been busy, marrying fiancé, Scott Gardner, buying a house in Buckinghamshire, and spending time with her family, activities she says that had always been placed on hold by the demands of training. “It’s probably the most unfit I’ve ever been,” she smiles, “but that’s ok.”
Retirement comes as a shock to the system even for those to whom working life had offered a degree of autonomy. For a professional athlete, whose existence is proscribed by the routines of training and competition, the rush of freedom can be overwhelming. Pendleton’s retirement appears to have been characterised by a surfeit of opportunities, rather than a shortage. She admits to missing the life of an athlete, its structure, and the reassurance of knowing what she would be doing six weeks in advance. A planned existence had been the norm.
Jess Varnish, with whom she set a new world record in the qualifying round of the London Games, before being disqualified in the next round, is one of several whom Pendleton “feeds up” when she and her partner, Liam Phillips, another Olympian, come for tea. It is talk of dogs, rather than of cycling, that dominates, however. Having lived for so long in the cycling bubble, Pendleton is keenly aware of the need to escape, if only temporarily.
Pendleton is under no illusion that she gained from her rivalry with her closest competitor, Anna Meares, and believes the Australian benefitted, too. There is little satisfaction in victory for an overwhelming favourite, she confides; a true sense of achievement comes only from besting an opponent of similar ability and desire. Her rivalry with Meares brought the pair to within touching distance of the men’s times, an astonishing achievement given the difference in physique between Pendleton and her male counterpart as the standard bearer for British track sprinting, Sir Chris Hoy. She talks of the “one second rule”, the division by which top male and female sprinters were separated and of the satisfaction of dipping below it.
Despite being retired for little more than a year, Pendleton has been succeeded at British Cycling by a wealth of female sprinting talent, including double world champion, Becky James. Should any of her successors come close to matching Pendleton’s achievements, they can consider themselves distinguished, but none will match her status as pioneer.
And so, to Switzerland, the country in which Pendleton says she truly began her career as an Olympic athlete. With no programme in place for female sprinters, inconceivable a single generation later, Pendleton found herself packed off to the Centre Mondial du Cyclism in Aigle “to learn my trade”. She speaks now of feeling blessed by the opportunity, although her experiences at Frédéric Magné’s academy were far from universally positive.
Pendleton is an ambassador for the Swiss tourist board, chosen for her affinity with the country, as well as for the board’s goals of promoting Switzerland’s not inconsiderable attractions to amateur athletes. Even track sprinters were not excused grueling three-hour climbing sessions, Pendleton recalls; engagements made tolerable by the “breathtaking scenery” in which they were staged.
Her role obliges her to talk up Switzerland’s attractions, of course, but natural enthusiasm and Pendleton’s famed refusal to conceal her true feelings makes her an asset to the Swiss tourist board. Asked to describe her experience of the country, and the reminiscences of her time as a stagiare tumble out at gathering pace: opening the curtains to postcard scenery, training on “agricultural” roads smoother than the UK’s main
highways, the convenience of carrying bike bags on Swiss trains, the tranquility of ski resorts in the summer, and the suddenly empty roads that lead to them. “And eating chocolate”.
Later, the ride with Pendleton confirms many of her impressions. We roll out from the hotel in postcard pretty Lucerne, and once clear of the town, continue our journey on quiet roads through lush scenery. She chats easily with various members of the group, and when one punctures, is first on the scene, dispensing advice and good cheer. When she pedals, however, the gulf in class is immediately apparent. Remaining resolutely on the inner ring, her legs spin effortlessly. When she needs to accelerate, for purposes as mundane as leading a single file along a bridleway, her change of pace is instant. And all the while, there is her position on the bike: her upper body motionless, legs turning as if by a will of their own. We are all in ‘civvies’ (Team GB kit notably absent), Pendleton in a plum coloured Rapha jersey to match her Oakley glasses, but it would take
precisely no time at all to pick out the double Olympic champion from the scribblers.
Back at the five star Schweizerhof-Luzern, an extravagant Renaissance-style monolith, decorated in the grand style and with commanding views of Lake Lucerne, our hire bikes are collected, while Pendleton performs the packing of her Boardman machine, removing the rear mech from its hanger with practiced ease, before slotting the bike into a carrying bag. Its red and blue saddle is the stub-nosed perch Pendleton used in competition.
When she emerges in the lobby, she is dressed simply but stylishly in blue blazer, dark blue jeans and white pumps, a chiffon scarf at her neck. A cheery goodbye, and Pendleton is off, a helper enlisted to pull her bike bag the short distance to the station to begin the hour-long rail journey to Zurich airport for a flight back to London. The previous evening, Pendleton urged us to enjoy what the country could offer, to use its resources to start a training regime, to prepare for an event, to provide stimulation. Switzerland, with its multitude of attractions to the sporting tourist, from open water swimming to mountain biking, is doubtless capable of all those things, but those who experience it with Pendleton, one of Britain’s greatest and most idiosyncratic champions, are privileged indeed.
RoadCyclingUK travelled as a guest of Human Race, organisers of the Etape Suisse, the Wiggle Dragon Ride, the Wiggle Etape Cymru, and the Macmillan Cycletta Series.