Victoria Pendleton: ‘Nobody asks Ben Fogle why he keeps going on adventures’

Guy Kelly
·7-min read
Victoria Pendleton - Elisabeth Hoff/Lickerish
Victoria Pendleton - Elisabeth Hoff/Lickerish

The last time Victoria Pendleton gave an interview to this newspaper, a little under two years ago, she was looking back on what had been the worst year of her life. With remarkable candour, the two-time Olympic champion cyclist explained how she had been diagnosed with severe depression on her return from an attempt at climbing Mount Everest in 2018.

That expedition, undertaken with Ben Fogle, had ended early for Pendleton when she had to return to base camp after suffering from hypoxia (oxygen deprivation). Back at home, her marriage to sports scientist Scott Gardner had broken down. Pendleton, then 38, was on Prozac, beta blockers, tranquillisers – so many pills she was “rattling” – and “fantasised” about ending her life, even coming within minutes of doing just that.

But she didn’t. Mercifully, with the support of family and friends, therapy and exercise (particularly when she discovered the healing powers of surfing), Pendleton turned her life around, finding a happiness and contentment she’d not felt in a long, long time.

So, I say in a round-about way when we meet on Zoom this week, you have to wonder why on earth she interrupted that to row the length of Britain for a new ITV reality show called Don’t Rock the Boat. Before I’ve finished that thought, though, she smiles and preempts it.

“‘Why do you keep doing these things to yourself?’” Pendleton, now 40, says, laughing, before repeating it in a more annoying, mock-judgemental tone. “‘Why do you keep doing these things?’ “Um, I don’t know. I enjoy pushing myself, even if I sometimes push too hard. I really enjoy it. It’s what I’m good at, and even if it’s not particularly comfortable I get a buzz from it.”

Don't Rock the Boat - Jon Hall/ITV Picture Desk
Don't Rock the Boat - Jon Hall/ITV Picture Desk

In the best way, Don’t Rock the Boat, which airs every night next week, is straight from the “it doesn't matter if it doesn't make sense, they're famous” school of reality show commissioning that gave us The Masked Singer and Splash!

In August, an impressively random group of celebrities – including Pendleton’s fellow Olympian Denise Lewis, the ever-shrinking former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Tom Watson, and supermodel Jodie Kidd – became a Covid-safe bubble, undertook a week’s rowing training, and were then taken to St Ives, split into teams, and asked to row up the west coast of Britain to the tip of Scotland. (Not all in one go.)

Having seen the first episode, I can tell you to expect plenty of passive aggression, a lot of people saying “it’s getting really choppy now”, and a real insight into the inner workings of some relatively famous faces. In fact, if you’ve ever wanted to see a celebrity expel body fluids – be it actor and funk and soul aficiando Craig Charles doing something unmentionable into a bucket or a Pussycat Doll vomiting into the Bristol Channel – this truly is the show for you.

“It had been so long since I’d done anything outside of home life that it was something to focus on and challenge myself with,” Pendleton says. “It was a real blessing to be in a bubble and have a small amount of normality.”

I’m not sure I’d call 48 hours in a boat with Watson and seasick Charles “normality”, but it certainly must have livened up lockdown. 

“I was under the impression everybody would be fit and capable, because for anyone to undertake a challenge like this who wasn’t would be a bit crazy. So I was a little bit surprised at some of the people who were on the show, I think they had different motives, maybe to get fit or something, which is a bit frightening because it was fairly grueling,” Pendleton continues, with as much diplomacy as she can muster.

“It was really cool to be in a group of women who were really holding the fort. The women on the whole outshone the men in many respects.”

During lockdown, Pendleton was running every day, riding her two retired race horses and going to the gym – all as much to train her mental health as her body. But she remains fiercely competitive, so still managed to overdo it on the first leg of Don’t Rock the Boat between Cornwall and Pembrokeshire, “pulling a whitey”, collapsing into the arms of some doctors and going into mild shock.

She was fine, if embarrassed. Watching it, I couldn’t help but think of Everest and the dark period that followed. But, she says, she has now “turned a corner” in terms of her outlook on life – not least since celebrating her 40th birthday last month.

“I’ve learnt a lot about myself, about what makes me happy and what doesn’t, being more comfortable with who I am, and not feeling persuaded to be what everyone else wants me to be,” she says.

“This sounds awfully clichéd but, now that I’m past 40, for the first time in my life I finally feel myself, and a lot happier. Someone close to me said you have to experience night to appreciate the day, and I do think having gone through some very dark times has made me much more appreciative of all I have in my life.”

In the past two years, she has gained several tattoos (including a large Medusa and deer skull on her arms), bought a motorbike, dyed her hair pink, silver and purple and started a new relationship. Her 40th involved driving an Aston Martin to a Scottish castle with her boyfriend and another couple.

“I think in some ways [turning 40] passed me by a bit. I’m happier now I’m not really conforming to society in terms of being settled down with kids at my age, and feeling that pressure and expectation.”

She has, she says, been “furloughed since 2012”, when she retired from professional cycling as a former Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth champion, making her one our greatest female athletes of all time. But sometimes she feels as if that all happened to someone else.

“You can’t really take it in properly [at the time], over time the way you remember it fades. Someone sends you a video going, ‘Ah remember this?’ and you think, ‘Er no, I don’t.’ And it’s quite frightening in some ways. It wasn’t just a weird lucid dream was it? In some ways I wish I could do it again and be more mindful.”

Victoria Pendleton - Simon Hofmann/Getty Images
Victoria Pendleton - Simon Hofmann/Getty Images

Pendleton won’t go through it all again, though, because she simply has too many other things to do. There is an expectation placed on women, she says, that when they turn a certain age they must be sensible, support their family and cease having adventures. To hell with all that. No one ever asks 46-year-old father of three Ben Fogle why he can’t stay still.

“The opportunities for women aren’t necessarily the same, but there’s no reason why I should be any different from the Fogles of this world. In the adventure scene, you think about all the guys like Bear Grylls and Ben, they’re all older men having all the fun. And I want to have some of that fun.”

She bangs the arms of her chair to stress the point: “I. Want. To. Have. Fun. I’m sure there are so many older women who want to have an adventure, but it’s [television] not an environment where they have ever had a presence.”

The motorbike, the tattoos, the purple-hair-don’t-care, the attitude, even the boat trip – it’s all connected. This is Victoria Pendleton unleashed. So what’s on her bucket list?

“I’d really like to go back to the Himalayas. I think with the right preparation I’ll be fine. I’d like to do more than Everest. Deep water scares me, so I’d love to learn to free dive. Something like the Mongol Derby. Packing a small bag and camping with my motorcycle. A lot more surfing. Oh skydiving, too, on my own,” she rattles off.

I expect she’ll do them all, too. “I’m not going to stop doing crazy things until I physically can’t. I feel as wide-eyed and bushy-tailed as I did in my 20s... Just because I’ve turned 40 doesn’t mean I have to stop.”

Don't Rock The Boat starts Monday 2 November at 9pm on ITV