Victoria Pendleton, the golden girl of British cycling, is on a mission to encourage more of us to take to two wheels. She tells Karin Mochan her plans and why more of us need to discover the joys of sport.

MANY of us will have lived and breathed sport this summer – with England’s thwarted efforts in the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow and the first three stages of the Tour de France powering through Yorkshire, Cambridgeshire, Essex and London.

Indeed, cycling in particular is enjoying unprecedented levels of interest in this country, fuelled by the impressive accomplishments of Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins and Laura Trott et al.

For those of us who may still need some convincing about the benefits of pedal power, however, who better to champion it than multiple Olympic medallist, and for years the dominant world-class sprint cyclist, Victoria Pendleton?

Having recently retired from professional cycling at the grand age of 33, Victoria is focusing her talents on promoting this year’s Cycletta events, a series of women-only bike rides raising funds for Macmillan Cancer Support.

When I meet Victoria in the elegant surroundings of the newly-opened Rosewood Hotel, in central London, she has come straight from the ITV studios, where she and former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm were telling Lorraine Kelly about the campaign to encourage more women to take up sport.

The Tour de France has in fact re-introduced a women’s event this year, the first since 1989 when a women’s Tour was run in tandem with the men’s and this is something Victoria welcomes enthusiastically.

“There’s a massive inequality between male and female events for cyclists, especially in road races,” she says, adding that there’s a better balance in track cycling.

“But with road I think the girls get a really raw deal, so it’s nice to see that they’re getting an opportunity to race in a high profile event for a change. I’m all for that, and all for giving younger girls something to aspire to, something to work towards.”

Hers is a discipline that is accessible to all abilities and ages, says Victoria. “I think cycling is something that doesn’t require a particular body type or specific set of skills. As long as you practise and build your confidence on a bike, I think anybody can do it. It’s low impact, too, so obviously in terms of joint pain and wear and tear it’s relatively risk free.”

Not having access to the intense coaching and specialist training facilities available to professional athletes shouldn’t discourage beginners. “I think it’s more of a confidence thing,” says Victoria.

“For a lot of people, riding a bike is not something they’re used to. They just need to practise in an environment that’s safe and comfortable – maybe on a cycle track, or a lane where there’s no traffic.”

Since retiring as a professional athlete, Victoria has been seeking fresh challenges, including skiing – “a huge rush, one of the most fun sports out there” – and golf lessons.

Training for a triathlon has seen her step up her running, too.

“As a cyclist I wasn’t allowed to do any running, just for risk of injury in different muscle groups, so it’s been quite fun doing something completely different,” she says. “And I’ve been running with the dogs quite a lot, which is two birds with one stone really. They love it, I love it – everyone’s a winner.”

Victoria lives in Cheshire with husband Scott Gardner, a sports scientist with the British Cycling coaching team, and the two Doberman pinschers, Stella and Jonty, who have become her unlikely training buddies.

“We run as a little pack, usually off-road, so I unclip them and they’re pretty good – they’re well trained.”

Despite dipping her toe into waters new – she wants to take up hockey, she tells me, and has been promised lessons by open-water marathon swimmer Keri-Anne Payne – cycling is the sport that will always be closest to her heart. “I have had an incredible career,” she acknowledges.

“I feel I’ve been really blessed with the opportunity I’ve been given and what I’ve personally got from sport as a human being.”

It has enriched her life in many ways, she feels, and this is something she’s keen to pass on. “I used to be the most shy, timid, ‘just let me fade into the background’ individual as a child. The only time I got sent out of class was because I didn’t want to read from the book out loud – and I was quite happy to leave because I was so embarrassed.

“Sport’s given me so much confidence, so many opportunities and, for me, that is enough to say ‘get involved in sport’ because it can bring you so much.”

Cycling may not be everyone’s bag, however, as Victoria readily acknowledges.

“I’m a big believer that everybody is good at some sport or fitness activity – they’ve just got to find it. So it’s all about creating as many opportunities to just get involved. It’s very addictive, you know, when you find something new and you enjoy it, and you get your friends involved.

“I’d say more women-only events, more events that cater for the novice right through to the people who take it more seriously, that’s the way forward.”

* This article first appeared in benhealth (issue 28, autumn 2014), the magazine for members of benenden health.

* Visit A Healthier You to read Victoria’s cycling tips for beginners.