In 12 months Pendleton has gone from sitting in a saddle for the first time to competing at Cheltenham
It was a Christmas present from her husband which affirmed Victoria Pendleton’s supreme dedication to reaching the Cheltenham Festival.
A book entitled ‘One Hundred Ways A Horse Is Better Than A Man’.
Pendleton can talk the hind legs off a thoroughbred when discussing her infatuation with national hunt racing - and husband Scott Gardner claims he has ‘lost her to horses for a year’.
Whatever your opinions of a double Olympic cycling champion competing in Friday’s Foxhunter Chase just 12 months after she first sat on a horse, this is certainly no gimmick for Pendleton.
In fact, after the intense pressure of the London Olympics, Betfair’s ‘switching saddles’ challenge has rekindled her love for sport itself.
When discussing her latter years as a track cyclist, Pendleton mentions ‘unbearable pressure’ and ‘of never wanting to feel that way again’.
When she talks of racing, there is passion and joy - despite the unpredictability.
She said: “I’ve gone from a sport in which everything was calculated, predicted, plotted – every warm-up logged in a chart with numbers – to something fundamentally different.
“You’ve got a 600 kilo thoroughbred between you and your performance. If the horse doesn’t have the same idea as you, you’re in trouble and that’s quite frightening.”
Some within racing believe Pendleton’s challenge is either disrespectful or foolhardy.
Yet the former velodrome queen is so hooked that she intends to continue working at the yard of Alan and Lawney Hills even after her year-long challenge expires when she rides Pacha Du Polder in Friday’s Foxhunters – the amateur riders’ Gold Cup.
Pendleton said: “If people think my attempt to do this in a short space of time is me saying ‘it’s easy’, I can assure them it’s the complete opposite. I’ve dedicated myself, physically and emotionally. My body hurts all over.
“But a lot of people think a lot of things are impossible until they are done. I’m tenacious and I wanted to make it work at any cost.
“I never thought this would be long-term but quickly realised I can’t imagine life without horses. After one day off, I miss them. I need to go back with a big bag of carrots.
“Just washing them, scraping them off, going round the contours of their muscles. They are such magnificent creatures, you can’t not be in awe of them.
“After Cheltenham, I won’t need to be any more than a work rider, helping in the yard. The camaraderie and routine is something I’d missed since cycling.”
Yet there are many things Pendleton doesn’t miss about cycling. Having won sprint gold at the Beijing Olympics, she found the build-up to the London games intolerable – before bowing out with a gold in the keirin and a sprint silver.
Pendleton said: “Later in my career I felt so much pressure of expectation. Every time I sat on a bike I felt I had to win. The burden of having to deliver gold medals for your country cannot be underestimated. Every slight hiccup and I was ‘past it’.
“Going into London as reigning champion, I couldn’t escape it for four years – the advertising on buses, in supermarkets.
“A home Olympics is the pinnacle but the pressure is unbearable. Get the flu or a sickness bug at the last minute and it’s done. You’re living on a tightrope.
“Having gone through that and emerged fairly successfully, I don’t want anything to ever make me feel that way again.
“At 32, they (British Cycling) were done with me, anyway. They felt I was past my best before London and continuing for another four years wasn’t in their interests.
“Now I like every day being a learning day. Physically pushing myself is familiar and comforting. Being faster or better than last week fulfils me. Jump bigger jumps, jump them tidier, make fewer mistakes.”
Pendleton admits feeling ‘devastated’ after being unseated on her racecourse debut at Fakenham last month, but she followed it with a convincing victory on her Cheltenham mount at Wincanton.
She speaks glowingly of Pacha du Polder, saying: “If he hadn’t come along - a horse of that experience, skill and intellect – I might not have gone through with the challenge.
“When you’re riding, the faster you go, the smoother it becomes and when you’re galloping you feel like you’re an extension of the horse. It’s nature; the wind against your face, the mane flowing, it’s beautiful, romantic, heavenly...”
Then Pendleton stops herself in full flow. “Blimey,” she says, “if someone had given me a script a year ago of what is coming out of my mouth right now, I’d never have believed them...”
Acknowledgement : This article was written by Dave Kidd Chief Sports Writer and columnist for the Daily Mirror and originally published by www.mirror.co.uk on 15 March 2016
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