In Good Conscience

Still in the saddle, Queen Vic finds 4 legs tougher than 2 wheels

Now-retired British cyclist Victoria Pendleton competing at the London Olympics. With her privileged background, gaming firm Betfair is bankrolling her Switching Saddles journey but more perilous rides lie ahead for sure.
Now-retired British cyclist Victoria Pendleton competing at the London Olympics. With her privileged background, gaming firm Betfair is bankrolling her Switching Saddles journey but more perilous rides lie ahead for sure.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

From being "Queen Vic" in her sport of professional cycling, to being plain lady cleaning up horse manure in the stables is Victoria Pendleton's way of coping with life after the Olympic arena.

From being six times a gold medallist, and 11 times world champion, Chris Hoy has swopped two wheels and muscle power for GT driving which he hopes will culminate in competing in the Le Mans 24-hour race next year.

The Queen and the King of a sport in which Britain's application of carbon-fibre technology and cutting- edge space-science streamlining made their cyclists almost odds-on favourites to win in the velodrome. They couldn't help but win because the Brits threw science at their sport in a way that few other nations had the technology or the means to do.

But once the Pendletons and the Hoys turn middle age, which in sport tends to be the middle 30s, where else can they turn?

They need the highs, and they have become so high-profile that they possibly also need the juice of publicity to empower their on-going businesses which, funnily enough, include in both their cases promoting bicycle designs to corner the market in the glow of their fame.

Pendleton has fallen off, but not so far at racing speed. She has been bruised, but not yet broken. That could very well come when, unlike Thursday's debut race, she attempts to spur a horse over fences.

Hoy has already won a GT race in his Nissan-sponsored car.

Pendleton has chosen a different kind of horsepower - the real flesh, blood and brains of four-legged friends. Her's, I contend, is the more compelling change of lifestyle because until March she had never climbed onto the back of a horse.

Two days ago, she competed in her first race, a 1 mile and 5 furlongs (about 2.6km) gallop at Newbury races. There were 11 starters and Pendleton's mount, Mighty Mambo, trailed in eighth.

She, and the small army of people helping her, were quietly proud that she stayed on and stayed the distance. The aim, though, is to keep on rising at dawn, schooling the horses, clearing out the stables, living the life of an apprentice jockey until she masters the trade enough to ride in the Foxhunters Chase over fences at the famous Cheltenham Festival next March.

A year "Switching Saddles" is barely long enough to gain the experience required to race against top amateur riders of the world.

The word amateur is misleading here. Pendleton calls herself an amateur but Lawney Hill, the trainer of the horse she rode on Thursday, observes: "Victoria puts everything into it. Obviously, she's a true professional.

"After the grind of training to be an Olympic champion, I think she's finding this refreshingly different."

Different, for sure.

"It's the most extreme sport out there," said Pendleton a few months ago. "I've got all the gear, and no idea. It's a strange and challenging battle with an animal that weighs 500kg. It's actually terrifying but exhilarating in equal quantities, it makes you feel alive."

How many people, she asks, get to ride a racing thoroughbred? How many know the feeling of that first gallop?

Actually, when she talks of battling the animal, she is on the wrong track.

Yogi Breisner, one of the top teaching professionals in the world of equine sports, has been teaching her to communicate with the creatures. And Breisner, whom I have been privileged to get to know while he coached the British three-day event riders through several world and Olympic Games, is the best there is in terms of explaining the fusion of human and horse partnerships.

It is about persuading the animal to share the thrill of the chase, the jump or whatever the challenge requires. It is reaching for harmony between two personalities, one of which is not human.

Breisner has lent his experience, along with experts, in teaching jockeys and even with the recently retired 20-time British champion jump jockey A.P. McCoy.

Most have been kind about helping Pendleton in her Switching Saddles adventure.

McCoy, though, put it succinctly as this breed of riders generally do. He suggested Pendleton probably has more than a mountain to climb.

She has a head start in two ways.

First, she was born with the competitive gene. Her parents were both race riders, in cycling. She fell under the spell of horse riding when she visited Newmarket, the world home of the thoroughbred racing industry, and saw the dawn rise on hundreds of aspirant riders out on the heath galloping and schooling horses.

In cold mist, in hot sunlight, the preparation is mandatory. So is rising at 5am, cleaning the stables, saddling up, falling off, jumping back into the saddle, keeping a rein on horses that are not all willing or placid to be ridden.

Pendleton has fallen off, but not so far at racing speed. She has been bruised, but not yet broken. More serious damage could very well come when, unlike Thursday's debut race, she attempts to spur a horse over fences.

Breisner has already identified her bravery, or stubbornness.

"He said I'm very brave, which is not something I've ever considered of myself," she says. "He's seen me come off, dusted me down and given me a leg up - and I've been, 'Right, let's carry on'."

And she feels privileged pain. "I've been fortunate that I have a profile to make a living," she tells reporters. Her name, and past fame, helps to launch bicycle sales. And her racing adventure is spurred on by the company that gets a mention every sentence or so when she speaks.

The "amateur" Pendleton has access to the very best experts, and horses, because Betfair is sponsoring her Switching Saddles journey. The betting company pays for her privileged horse riding tuition, and feeds off the golden aura that she is clinging to.

"When you're moving," she concludes, "it's like, wow."

And when you're not, as seasoned jockeys like McCoy can testify to, it is more than a pain in the butt, the limbs or whatever breaks. Queen Vic is only on the foothills of that mountain the champion rider warns lies ahead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 04, 2015, with the headline 'Still in the saddle, Queen Vic finds 4 legs tougher than 2 wheels'. Print Edition | Subscribe