Anyone who watched Victoria Pendleton’s lacklustre performance on Strictly Come Dancing last Friday will expect her to have spent the week anxiously rehearsing for round two.
Instead the Olympic cyclist has been promoting her autobiography at Cheltenham Literature Festival where she confessed to being distracted by the news that has rocked her profession this week: that seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is likely to be stripped of his titles following a damning report from a US anti-doping agency.
“Listening to the news on the radio today really made my heart sink because the idea of being in a situation where you think [doping] is an option is really sad,” said Pendleton. “I’d rather not have won anything and be clean than won one small race and know deep down in my heart that I’d taken something.”
However, the sportswoman was keen to stress that doping is no longer common practice in cycling. “I personally believe it’s just a very, very small niche of the sport and so many sports experience doping. If you look at the time frame in which it occurred, things have moved on massively since then in dope control. The testing procedures are much stricter and they test a huge array of masking agents – the technology is very, very advanced.”
More “heartbreaking” in Pendleton’s opinion are the repercussions for Armstrong’s cancer charity and for cycling in general. “I do feel it will tarnish the sport and people will be questioning even my performances and saying, ‘maybe all cycling is dirty’,” she said. “I don’t want my success to be tarnished with such negativity when cycling is doing so well at the moment.”
Happily, there was little evidence of tarnishing at Cheltenham Literature Festival last night. Pendleton received a standing ovation as she mounted the stage, proudly brandishing her Olympic medals. Later, she revealed that a principal reason for retiring – a decision she has no intention of reconsidering – was to become an ambassador for cycling.
“While I’m competing, I haven’t got time to do that or the energy. As an athlete you have to be so selfish and strict with your time that I can’t give anything back to the sport – and I would really like to do that. I would love more than anything to help somebody else have the same opportunities that I’ve had because I’m one of the luckiest girls alive, I reckon.”
Her first action as ambassador was to encourage the audience to vote for her old teammate Bradley Wiggins in the BBC’s upcoming Sports Personality of the Year contest.
“I was lucky enough to meet Bradley Wiggins on the first international race that I ever competed in and he was so insightful and so dedicated. He’s an enigma, something very special and a great guy. People will remember what he’s achieved forever. It’s going to go down in records as a key landmark in British sport and British cycling. So I’ve got a lot of love for Bradley.”