Forty. It’s a watershed age and Victoria Pendleton — one of our greatest ever female Olympians — can’t quite work out what reaching the milestone means to her.
Is she having a belated episode of adolescent defiance, denied to her in her teens because she was so fiercely committed to sport? Or has retirement from competitive cycling precipitated a midlife crisis?
Whichever it is, Pendleton, who had the clean-cut aura of a 1950s prom queen during her cycling career, is now more rock chic than high school ingénue.
She sports several flamboyant tattoos — a Medusa head, a galloping horse and a deer’s skull among them — and plans more. ‘Two full sleeves of them, at least,’ she promises.
Victoria Pendleton, 40, (pictured) who lives in Oxfordshire, revealed it’s taken her a long time to break free from doing what she felt obliged to do
‘But will you wish you hadn’t got them when you’re 85?’ I cry. ‘A lady at Ascot asked me that,’ she laughs. ‘But when you’re 85 you don’t care. You’re opinionated, and say: “Mind your own business!” ’
Her hair, pale lilac today, has been through the gamut of rainbow shades and more. ‘Blue, pink, purple, turquoise . . . I bought some colours online and change it up a bit,’ she says.
She celebrated her milestone birthday in September by driving an Aston Martin to a castle in Scotland (she’d hired it for a big bash which became, because of Covid restrictions, a party for four) while dressed, James Bond-style, in a tuxedo and bow-tie.
And then there are the motorbikes. A brace of them. Today she’s togged out in head-to-toe black: snood, biker jacket and boots, plus full-face helmet with visor. (‘The safest way to travel. I have my own PPE!’ she smiles.)
A year on from her divorce from Scott Gardner (a sports scientist, formerly with the Great Britain cycling team), she also has a new-ish boyfriend she met several months ago on a blind date.
‘Maybe I’m having my belated teenage rebellion or perhaps a midlife crisis at 40,’ she agrees, laughing. ‘I feel it’s taken me quite a long time to break free from doing what I felt obliged to do.
‘I’ve tried very hard to be a good role model for so many years. I’m not saying I’m a bad one now, but I’m free to follow my dreams. You sacrifice a lot to get to the top in sport. Everything else is put on hold: family; friends; the freedom to do what you want when you want.’
Nine times world champion track cyclist, she also carried off a gold medal at Beijing in 2008 and won both a gold and silver at the London Olympics in 2012 before she retired, aged 32, that year.
Victoria was diagnosed with severe depression and prescribed a lot of medication, after suffering from severe hypoxia in 2018. Pictured: Victoria winning gold in 2012
Life behind the garlands and the public approbation has, at times, been almost unbearably hard, however. And not just because of the Herculean physical demands of elite sport.
Pendleton, who says she has a ‘fragile psyche’, has always been prone to depression, and in 2018 it became life-threatening.
She had undertaken an expedition to climb Everest with TV adventurer Ben Fogle but had to return to base camp after suffering from severe hypoxia (oxygen deprivation), which she later learned is a trigger for depression. And her marriage was crumbling.
‘I was diagnosed with severe depression and prescribed quite a lot of medication,’ she said shortly after. ‘Antidepressants, beta blockers, tranquillisers and sleeping tablets. But it didn’t suit me, wasn’t helping me feel myself, so I went cold turkey.’
It was then that she reached a nadir. She stockpiled the pills, ready to take an overdose and was ‘minutes’ away from doing so early one morning.
Instead, she picked up the phone to an old friend, Great Britain cycling team psychiatrist Steve Peters, who talked her out of it.
In your 30s, everyone starts watchtapping. They want you to settle down. But the truth is I’ve got no desire to have children
Rather than going to a clinic, she agreed to stay with her mum, Pauline. Since then, her recovery has been steady. Now, back living in her own home, a converted barn in Oxfordshire, she seems upbeat.
‘I’m more aware of the indications of depression now: feeling unmotivated, uninspired, pessimistic,’ she says when we meet. ‘I wondered whether I’d drop down, because the isolation of the pandemic pushes everyone to the limit. At my lowest, I was most grateful for the support and helping hands of friends and family. But when no one can see you’re struggling . . . ’
Her voice tails off, then she picks up. ‘But I’m quicker to act now on anything that makes me feel that way. I know there will be tough times, highs and lows; times when I can crack on and be positive and times when I’m at the other extreme of the spectrum.
Victoria revealed she contends with depression by doing things that she enjoys, including baking a cake and going out on her motorbike. Pictured: With her ex, Scott Gardner
‘I live with the knowledge that depression may happen at any time, but I’m more prepared to deal with it now. That’s the difference.’
How does she contend with it?
‘I do something that gives me joy!’ she cries. ‘I bake a cake. I get out on my motorbike. Go for a walk. Lockdown made us all aware of how clean the air suddenly was.’ (She is now supporting the Change the Weather campaign — a clean air initiative by energy firm e.on, encouraging people to cycle or walk.)
Victoria also rides, and owns two retired racehorses, having trained and successfully competed as an amateur jockey, notably finishing fifth in the Foxhunter Chase at Cheltenham in 2016. At the time she was euphoric. But the black dog of depression lurked.
I live with the knowledge depression may happen at any time, but I’m more prepared to deal with it now
‘I’ve always had low spells. A lot of people in my family have experienced anxiety and depression. My older sister Nicola, my dad — both of them suffer at times from extreme stress.’ But not Victoria’s twin brother Alex. ‘No, we’re yin and yang,’ she laughs. ‘He doesn’t take life too seriously.’
Her new man — she won’t name him — is doubtless another reason for her current buoyant mood. They spent the first lockdown ‘very happily’ together, although they do not permanently live together.
Neither had she been actively seeking a partner when she met him. She roars with laughter when I mention a Tinder account I spotted in her name. ‘It was a fake!’ she cries.
Victoria (pictured) who took up sky-diving last summer, said it took a while to get to being happy by herself after her divorce
‘After my divorce I’d reached a point — though it took me a while — where I was quite happy by myself. I was independent. I didn’t have to keep anyone else happy. I’d got lots of outrageous hobbies.’
She took up sky-diving, and last summer got her accelerated freefall licence ‘just for fun’.
‘Society makes us feel we need another special person to make us feel complete, but I wasn’t even looking for a boyfriend. Then a friend of a friend set me up on a blind date. And I thought: “There’s no harm in it.” We went for some food at my local pub and that was the start.’
I’m asking her for clues now. What does he do?
‘I can’t tell you that because it’s something so obscure it would identify him immediately!’ she says.
‘He isn’t famous and he’s not in sport. When you’re an athlete, it’s difficult for other people to relate to you — why would you put sport first, before everything else? It’s not that you don’t care about them. You just have to.’ So is it a relief, now, not to have to make relationships subservient to sport?
Victoria thinks for a moment before replying. ‘I would still love to be an athlete more than anything else in the world. I love pushing myself to be faster and stronger. I don’t mind it being hard work and anti-social. But you can’t be an athlete for ever.’
But surely it’s liberating to be able to enjoy life free from the rigid constraints of training?
Victoria said the pressure was unbelievable when she was the reigning world champion. Pictured: Her Medusa tattoo in 2020
‘I really don’t know,’ she responds. ‘Freedom is paralysing in some ways. You have options and you don’t really know what to do.
‘It’s very strange going from all the disciplines of training and living by a set of rigid rules to life now. I love knowing what I’m doing a year in advance. So living with those routines was reassuring. I really enjoyed it.’
There is something affecting about the rawness of her honesty.She recognises that at the heart of elite sport there is a paradox.
After chasing her dad, a successful amateur cyclist, up hills on her bike from her early teens, she dedicated her young life to an enterprise that became an addiction. Even now she strives to replicate the nervy euphoria that preceded those huge athletic triumphs. ‘It is an incredible feeling, like electric within your body, the sense of anxiety and nervousness you get when you’re about to perform in front of huge crowds with high expectations.
I wasn’t even looking for a boyfriend. Then a friend of a friend set me up on a blind date
‘The home  Olympics, when I was reigning world champion — the pressure was unbelievable, the anxiety incredible. And I realise the feeling of nervous anxiety was something I enjoyed pushing myself through. I felt totally alive. I absolutely thrived on it.
‘I’ve asked myself many times: “Why do I still desire this?” I rode round in circles very fast. It was an exercise in futility. But then again, most sport doesn’t really make much sense. And having won gold, you just feel numb. Regardless of the outcome of a race, you feel an anti-climax. There are these incredible highs and lows. All the effort and anticipation has gone. You’re left with nothing except what can you do to be even better in the next competition.
‘There is no space dedicated to enjoying what you’ve just done. The reward is that the lifetime of sacrifice has not been in vain. And there is a sense of pride, of honour in representing your country.
Victoria admits there isn’t anything she wouldn’t try, although many things frighten her. Pictured: At the Strictly Come Dancing 2013 launch party
‘I don’t regret a single moment. It was hard, but even the bad bits are character-building. Then comes life after retirement . . .
‘People are more interested in post-athletic career struggles now, but some sports do it better than others.’ She does not elaborate.
The self-sacrifice, the endless quest for physical self-improvement, has left her with a compulsion to exert herself to extremes.
‘I must keep pushing the boundaries. There isn’t anything I wouldn’t try. I want to eliminate all my fears. Lots of things frighten me — like really deep water, so I want to learn to free-dive — but I don’t believe fear is a deterrent. I feel compelled to face it.’
My divorce was disruptive and torturous for many years and I don’t need another one
However, reaching midlife has brought self-knowledge. She used to think she should conform to what was expected of her; now she can simply do as she wishes.
‘I don’t think I’ll get married again,’ says Victoria. ‘I realise I felt pressured by society to do so. It was a requirement. Now I’m older and wiser I know it isn’t something I genuinely want.
‘I felt it was socially acceptable: you get to your early 30s, marry and have a family. I’d never dreamt of doing that, but I didn’t pipe up and object to it.’
Her wedding to Scott, at a lush country manor house in Cheshire in 2013, featured in Hello! magazine. Team GB mates gathered and the Strictly house band performed. (She was a contestant on the show in 2012.)
‘The wedding itself just got bigger and bigger, and farther away from what I wanted,’ she recalls. ‘I’d have settled for bare feet and a beach in Thailand; something private and simple.
Victoria (pictured) retrained as a jockey and competed at Cheltenham in 2016
‘I’ve got to the point, too, where I realise I’m totally happy not having children. In my 20s I knew people wanted me to settle down and live the fairy tale. And because I spent so much of my life living an atypical existence, I thought I needed to cram it all in before it was too late.
‘Then I retired and an intriguing thought occurred to me: what would it be like not to try to please people?
‘I’d put everything on hold for sport, and hadn’t had the freedom to do what I wanted when I wanted. So clinging onto normality — like getting married — was a form of security blanket. I was fitting into the system.
‘Then you get to your 30s and everyone starts watch-tapping. You’re supposedly pre-conditioned to want children. But the truth is I have no desire to have them, and now I feel much more inclined to be honest with myself and go with my gut instinct.’
She concedes that her divorce was traumatic: ‘It was disruptive and torturous for many years and I don’t need another one.’
For someone so garlanded with success, self-doubt still lurks. Not helped by the attitude of others towards successful women.
‘I consider myself to be sensitive, hugely driven, disciplined, determined and very resilient. I can put up with a lot of suffering before I break. They aren’t bad qualities, are they? But it seems as a woman, I should only have them in moderation. People prefer women to be less successful.’
Victoria (pictured) said she hopes to be still riding horses aged 80, as well as fit enough to get her leg over the saddle of her motorbike
She says this ruefully. It is a theme she explores with Judy Murray (mother of tennis aces Andy and Jamie Murray) in her TV series Driving Force on Sky Sports. Pendleton says she has been judged harshly for showing a surfeit of emotion: ‘I cried on the podium when I won gold. Everyone pointed it out and made a big deal of my being a weak and wobbly female. Did they say anything when Chris Hoy cried?’
It is easy to warm to Victoria. She is open, honest, engaging and funny. I tell her I read that she’d had £1,500 worth of Botox when she turned 40 and she hoots with laughter. ‘If I did, it didn’t work very well, did it?’ she says, corrugating her forehead with a frown.
What does she see herself doing at 80? ‘I hope I’m still riding horses. The Queen still does at 94, which delights me. And I hope I’ll still be hiking, and fit enough to get my leg over the saddle of my motorbike. And if we’re reincarnated, I’d like to come back as a jockey. It is massively dangerous and you’re full of adrenalin. It’s terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. Everything I love.’
Meanwhile, her motorbike is waiting: it’s time to go. As she roars off into the dwindling daylight, you sense her midlife rebellion won’t be over for a while yet.
Driving Force, an 11-part series from POW TV for Sky Sports, is presented by Judy Murray. Victoria’s episode is tonight at 9pm.
Victoria is also ambassador for e.on’s Change the Weather campaign, a clean air initiative.
For confidential support if you’re struggling to cope, call the Samaritans (samaritans.org) on 116 123.