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‘To ride as an amateur would be awesome’

20 March 2015

THERE'S something about Cheltenham in March, a monumental presence that has the power to envelop and consume all those who encounter it, be they rookie or lifelong devotee. Even legends from the wider sporting pantheon aren't immune to its effects, as evidenced by a wide-eyed Victoria Pendleton, immersed in the sights and sounds of her first festival.

In a year's time, the former track cycling superstar might be in a rather different frame of mind, as she seeks to add a Foxhunter Chase to her two Olympic gold medals as the culmination of her latest foray into her own psychological outer limits. For the moment, though, she is content to soak up the best jump racing has to offer, watching the McCoys and Walshes of this unfamiliar world brush past her into the weighing room as they prepare for the kind of super-human effort she knows only too well from her days at the pinnacle of achievement.

To some, it may represent an affront, to see this incomer, "past my cycling best-before date" at the age of 34, hop on the fast track to the kind of glory amateur riders everywhere aspire to, with the sponsorship of Betfair and the backing of champion trainer Paul Nicholls and jumping guru Yogi Breisner to help her along the way. One close-up glimpse of the fences and consequent recognition of the enormity of the task, however, should reassure anybody that the target the nine-time world champion has set herself will not be reached by outside influence alone.

To progress from being an absolute novice to competent race-rider in the space of 12 months is far from a foregone conclusion, and Pendleton is approaching the mission with the same respect and dedication she afforded her professional career. As a cyclist, she fed on outside perceptions of her weakness to become the best she could; as an amateur jockey, she has already prepared herself mentally for the same kind of challenge and, although the first steps on her long journey have been necessarily small ones, they have been taken and absorbed.

"I jumped my first fence the other day," she beams. "It was only two-feet high, but it felt good. Yogi didn't warn me I was going to do it, he just set it up and pointed me at it and, although it wasn't very big, it was a starting point.

"To me, it felt like a little win and, although I know getting to where I want to be will be tough, I like the idea of it. I'm going to work hard with a great team, get stuck in and give it everything I can. The idea of having something to work for and train for is something I've really missed."

There's not an ounce of arrogance in Pendleton's belated but wholehearted approach to the National Hunt world. Having been steered away from ponies as a youngster by her cycling champion father, she knuckled down to a working life that spanned 11 years from her first British National Track Championship medals to her triumphal farewell at London 2012; her motivation was always absolute and from deep within herself, and it's the same attitude that informs her latest crusade. The quest is not for glory or for superiority over gifted and hard-working rivals, but for the maximisation of such personal talents as may emerge along the way.

"I achieved way more than I ever expected to as a cyclist and way more than anybody else ever expected me to," she explains, with bristling pride. "I was told at the beginning of my career that I was too small, wasn't muscly enough, big enough, powerful enough and didn't have the right mentality to be a champion, and for me it was the biggest driving force - if you say I can't do it, I'm going to put my head down and do it.

"So for me it was never about the competing or proving that you're the best in the world at something - although that's nice - it was more about the progress, pushing yourself each and every day to get stronger, better, faster, quicker to react, and I find that really thrilling.

"It was the training I loved, the routine, the discipline, developing, pushing yourself. I never struggled to find motivation for that, ever. I never cut corners and I never missed a session, except if I was ill or injured, because I felt it was a gift to be able to do that for a living, to be able to feel like a superhero on a daily basis."

Superhero status as a jockey is a way off yet for Pendleton, and anybody expecting to see a swashbuckling figure emerge from the training camp of Breisner and Lambourn-based eventing rider Chris King to make off with her Category A licence in daredevil fashion may well be disappointed. She has already stood upsides a steeplechase fence at the yard of trainer Lawney Hill and been unfazed by the experience, but for Britain's most successful female Olympian the road from novice status through point-to-points to the festival will be one signposted by professionalism and reality checks rather than blood and thunder.

"To my friends, I'm Captain Sensible," she smiles, shattering the last of our illusions. "You can get hurt cycling, but not that hurt, and this is probably the most dangerous sport there is, so if I don't develop in the way I'm hoping, I'm not going to go crazy.

"I'm not a massive risk-taker, I'm very calculated and sensible and, although this may look a bit stupid, I see it as a great opportunity to learn something I never thought I'd have access to when I was growing up. I wasn't from that background and I was envious of people who were, so having had my life taken over by cycling, to have this chance is a blessing.

"I saw some horses being schooled at the outset, so I knew the extent of it before I said I'd give it a try. They're high, there's no doubt about it, but it looks incredible. The idea of being in motion at that speed with a creature, together in a partnership, I can't imagine what it must feel like."

VERY soon, the 5ft 5in, 9st 8lb Pendleton will know exactly what it feels like. She is encouraged by the fact that, for once, she'll be acknowledged as having a good size and shape for her chosen sport (albeit requiring a little lead in the saddle) and with a head start in terms of athletic prowess. What she will learn along the way is the extent to which steering a framework of lightweight metal around a pristine cambered track differs from being carted around a muddy field by half a ton of muscle, bone and gristle with something unfathomable between its ears. She has the personal attributes in place, of that there is little doubt, but she is already addressing the challenge of melding human and equine capabilities in the heat of battle.

"I'm expecting the same physical experience that I'm used to," she says, "but balance will be the big learning curve. Having dynamic stability on a horse, where you have to relax and feel things, will be very different from having fixed stability on a bike, where you hold it as tight as you can and keep everything controlled and stiff.

"It's dealing with a living, breathing creature with a mind of its own and a desire to do what it wants to some degree, and all you can do is manage it to the best of your ability. I find it hugely appealing because it's not easy, it doesn't necessarily come naturally, you're not born with that gift and you have to work at it to gain a new skill.

"I've already been on an Equicizer to see what the physical requirements will be, and it's very similar muscles, very quad-dominant, and in terms of the physiology, very much a lacto-tolerance effort - you know it's going to hurt and it's going to build, so you've got to breathe, and if you don't breathe you're going to hurt yourself.

"But it's something you can train for, training the mind and the body in the same way through time and effort, and I know I can do that. I enjoy the process of doing things properly and I'll always push myself to do it better than the day before."

With a degree in Sport and Exercise Science to her name, along with honours mere mortals can only dream of, Victoria Pendleton, CBE, has many valuable attributes to bring from the world of elite professional sport to the arena of the amateur equestrian, but she plainly won't be bringing a prima donna outlook with her.

"My first job as work experience at school was mucking out, shovelling poop until I had blisters on my hands, pigs as well as horses," she recalls without distaste. "My family thought I was mad, but I loved it. I love being outdoors, I love animals, I don't mind dirt under my fingernails, I've got a lot of tenacity in me, a lot of fight on the inside, and I like being my best.

"I decided at the beginning of the year that 2015 would be a learning year and then this came up, a whole new learning experience, about keeping your cool on a whole new level. I'll be working hard at it, mucking out, not just turning up and getting on a horse, and to be able to ride as an amateur jockey in a year's time would be awesome."

Victory in the 2016 Foxhunter may be 3m2½f, 12 months and a world of experience away, but for this most impressive of Olympians the journey looks to have begun on the right foot.

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