Victoria Pendleton is standing in the middle of a field, screaming her head off: “Heel!” And if Mr Jonty and Stella have any sense, they’ll do as they’re told. As her preparations for the Olympics ramp up, I’m glimpsing the part of the Queen of Cycling’s life that usually acts as an escape from anything connected with two wheels or a certain five rings.
“Having the dogs in the first place was a big part of trying to take my mind off the kind of small world I live in, where everything is to do with cycling, and everything is to do with recovery. The dogs help me come out into the countryside without my bike and watch them run around like idiots.”
The view could be described as “picture postcard”, maybe even “romantic” if it wasn’t for the fact that her fiancé and Team GB cycling coach, Scott Gardner, is a few yards behind us. It has to be said, the girl’s done well. He’s a right looker.
Would she trade him for more Gold? “No, Scott wins hands down. Hopefully, he’ll be around for a lot longer than my Olympics, but I’m not one who settles for one thing. I will have both.”
She’s defiant, although she broke down in tears in the BBC1 film Cycling’s Golden Girl, recalling her team-mates’ reaction at the Beijing Games after news broke that she’d fallen for her coach – a line that convention says should never be crossed. “It was the saddest day in my entire life,” she said. “Everyone was so angry with us, that Scott and I had fallen in love, because it was so unprofessional and we were a disgrace.”
The pair are back on track for London 2012. For Pendleton, whether as an individual or with team sprint partner Jess Varnish, the Games are about getting it right on the day, and that comes down to head and heart as much as it does legs and lungs. Pendleton comes alive when the subject of her Beijing sprint title comes up.
“My form had never been better. I’d done personal best after personal best, and just had this unusual level of confidence in my form. I thought, ‘You know what, I am just going to have this today. It’s mine. It’s actually mine.’ I wasn’t going to let it go.”
And there we have our first mention of the C-word, something that has always been a hot topic for her, and due to her brutal honesty in interviews, it has led to a caricature being painted of a woman on the edge of crumbling into dust at any moment.
“I have had to learn to be a lot tougher, a lot harder, almost assertive verging on aggressive, and that’s not my natural character. I’m a right softie. I love looking after people. There’s nothing I like more than having people round and cooking lots of food and everyone’s happy. I just love that. That’s what comes naturally to me, so to be hard and decisive and intimidating – I have had to learn how to do that.
“I’d be better off if I was a more type A personality, someone who is confident, quite arrogant… these are personality traits you see in sprinters so often. It comes naturally to them, but with me it’s more, ‘Why do I do this? It isn’t me!’”
And it’s that contradiction that dictates our conversation. She’ll rarely make eye contact yet there’s no doubting her genuine warmth and honesty. In short, she is much more human than your average world-beater. If you take off the Olympic-tinged glasses, then you’ll be looking at a woman who simply needs to dig a little deeper to find her mettle, and with experience comes perspective.
“With the success of the British cycling team, everyone expects us to step up on any given day and say, ‘There you go, have some Gold’, but it’s nothing like that. It’s about time, training and also a bit of luck, and it doesn’t necessarily come every time.” And at the Velodrome this summer in her home country, Victoria will get one last bite at Olympic glory before turning her mind to matters away from the track, including the man who is currently playing fetch with Mr Jonty.
“There’s no escaping the fact that people are going to ask me the question, ‘Are you going to win?’ but that’s my job at the end of the day. The way I look at it now is that I ride around in circles in a wooden bowl for a living and it’s entertainment. That doesn’t mean I don’t take it seriously, because I’ve dedicated my whole life to training to be really good at it, but at the end of the day it’s not life or death. I am very fortunate to have this as a career.”
But don’t let the more pragmatic Victoria Pendleton fool you. The hunger and motivation she worried had slipped away after Beijing are back. “I want a gold medal in London more than anyone, for everyone who has supported me. I just want to do them proud and say, ‘Look, there you go,’ and goodbye.”
It sounds as if marriage followed by nights cooking for friends and family, without having to worry about that 6am cycle the next morning, is not that far away. So, with her more mature head, what if success doesn’t come at London 2012? Will she be able to accept that her achievements over her whole career make her very special?
“It will all make sense to me when it’s over. I’m a perfectionist, so failing to produce the results that I am looking for will be hard to deal with at the time. When my career is finished and done, I’ll be able to look back and see I’ve done some good stuff, but only when every race is over. When I won the Olympics, I didn’t put my feet up. You always look towards your next goal.”
Since that day in China, there have been injuries, tears and, more recently, something of a return to the type of times she will need heading into the east London Velodrome.
“I looked at myself today and thought, hold on a minute… you know that thing about owners looking like their dogs?” And with that ludicrous suggestion and a booming laugh, we’re too dog-tired to talk any more.
Victoria Pendleton spoke to Colin Murray as part of his quest to meet every living British Summer Olympic gold medallist, for his Radio 5 Live series Colin Murray’s Gold Run. Listen again: bbc.co.uk/5live throughout the summer.
The The Women’s Sprint Final takes place today at 5:25pm on BBC1