Between them, Victoria Pendleton CBE and Amy Williams MBE, won three Olympic Gold medals and one Silver, plus nine World Championship golds and six silvers, making these cycling and skeleton competitors two of the most decorated and renowned British athletes in recent history.
At their professional peak, each dedicated their lives to shaving off tenths, if not thousandths, of a second in their respective disciplines with their rigorous daily training regimes pushing them towards their physical limits. Every day these elite sportswomen’s focus was on how to get better, faster and more efficient by listening to their coaches and interpreting instructions, implementing them with precision and understanding what differences, positive or otherwise, they were making.
Afterall, the Olympics only come around every four years and every effort and bead of sweat was not to be wasted.
But when it comes to a new activity, one that requires coordination, concentration and understanding, how would Victoria and Amy get on? How would they take instruction from two of the most decorated British motorcycle racers, and create a process to overcome nerves in an unfamiliar environment, using alien equipment?
We welcomed the decorated duo to a Bennetts Track Day – one of the five annual days open to Bennetts customers and BikeSocial members at a range of MSV-owned circuits – for their first time on track, Donington Park GP to be precise. And their dedicated instructors for the day were none other than Bennetts and BikeSocial ambassadors, John McGuiness MBE and Peter Hickman. With 32 TT wins and the outright lap record between them, there’s not many better-equipped to help a pair of novice track riders out.
Triumph Motorcycles provided Victoria and Amy with a new £18k Speed Triple 1200 RR each, while Alpinestars offered bespoke safety gear for the occasion.
“I’ve not ridden a bike in four months,” said Amy as the realisation of the day crept ever closer, and while the function of a quickshifter was explained by Hickman. The plan to allow Victoria and Amy lose around the Donington Park circuit car park to familiarise themselves with their new steads was quickly scuppered by a finger-wagging official. So back to the garage they crept and began a four-way conversation with Hicky and McGuinness about what to expect and how to approach the first session (9.40am once the Advanced and Intermediate groups).
With both bikes warmed and set with the safety net of Rain mode, Victoria and Amy made their way onto track for two slow sighting laps to familiarise themselves with the circuit layout as well as pit lane exit and entrance. Three further laps with John and Peter by their sides and the adrenaline was already coursing strong with nervous energy evident.
Despite the short initial stint, Victoria and Amy had alleviated pre-event nerves and were desperate for feedback as soon as their helmets were off. Sign of a professional athlete. Amy said, “It was great, I was really nervous beforehand for sure. I haven’t sat on a bike for a little while, but the Triumph was great, I felt really comfortable on it straight away. After three laps, I’m really keen to get back out on it now.
“John said I was just really stiff. I could feel that myself, particularly in the corners, I kept telling myself to chill out and then when I got to a straight and I would loosen off my arms. That was the first feedback John noticed and I totally agree with that.
Victoria added, “It was really good, it’s nice to get a feel for the environment. I think it’s quite normal to feel a bit of anxiety and to feel a bit unsure because it’s something new, something different. I’m sure that with each lap we’ll gain confidence, and we’ll take on little bits of advice so I’m looking forward to getting back out there.
“It’s such a blessing to have Peter and John to give tips and advice, and obviously following legends like them on the track is something only people can dream of doing so I feel very fortunate to have a wealth of knowledge and experience helping Amy and I who are relative novices.
“We’re going to focus on the lines and learning the track, it’s a lot to take in when it’s all new – new bike, new track, new experience – so we’ll take it step by step, little pointers, following a good line and maintaining speed by not touching the brakes very much!
FHO Racing BMWs Peter Hickman also had some advice for Amy, telling to “Forget about gears, just concentrate on throttle and acceleration, body position, track position, and the faster you go the better the bike feels.
“Eyes up is a big thing - you go wherever you look. Just try and be fluid, not stiff.”
Four sessions in the morning were followed by three more in the afternoon as the volume of information available threatened to overload the Olympic duo. Victoria appeared disgruntled after her fourth session where she felt like not enough progress had been made, though that was soon ironed out after lunch with some McGuinness-esque training, and the smile returned. Again, a sign of an ex-competitive sportsperson hardwired to being better at anything they’re turning their hand to. The rate of development, or lack of it had disturbed Victoria. Yet her experience and ability to take-in, understand and apply the feedback had been the cure. Additionally, BSB star Storm Stacey had shared his experiences with a Novices-only classroom session during the lunchbreak.
McGuinness concurred, “You can see they’re both competitive, they want to learn but if you can get through your day nice and safe on your first track day then you’ve ticked all the boxes. That’s where they are at the minute.
Hickman summed up their progress, “It’s been interesting to see how well they’ve picked it up. Victoria had a bit more confidence to start the day, but I did the last couple of sessions with Amy and she’s at least doubled her speed within those couple of sessions. We actually caught other people in that last session. I’ve done a bit of instructing in the past and it’s always good when someone listens to what you say and then applies it. It’s one thing understanding what someone’s telling you and knowing what to do, it’s another thing being able to do it. Both of them have been able to apply what me and John have been saying to them to go faster and safer.”
BikeSocial (BS): Tell me about the process, Amy. The nerves flew away after the first session. You both seemed desperate for feedback after each session, how did you progress?
Amy Williams (AW): Yeah, for sure I was really nervous. I’ve had such a small amount of hours on a bike having taken my test four years ago. For me it was getting into the bike, not even really worried about the track or the speed, but as soon you as got on it and started following people around and to have Hicky and McGuinness out there, who I totally 100% trust, awesome guys, and to have to confidence to follow them and to think ‘if they’re doing it, I’m going to do it’. Every single lap you went around, you’re like ‘ah, ok, that’s a bit better’ and ‘if I do this, that’s a bit better’. I definitely thought too much in those first laps, my mind was boggled, and then the more I went around, the more I just emptied it out, on their advice of course. And it started to feel a little better every time.
Victoria Pendleton (VP): Amy and I are both of the mindset where we’ve both come from a background of sport and training, and we love learning new skills and being in at the deep end and definitely want to push ourselves to make the most of every opportunity. So we were really keen to know how can we improve, take on as much information as we can and focus it on the next opportunity to practice, and it’s like little increments, little steps you’ve got to take, remembering one of two things and focusing throughout the lap. But I’m going to say, the adrenaline has been high for several hours, and I do appreciate that it’s quite a lot to take onboard for your first experience, and it’s been brilliant! There was a few things that fell out of my brain while I was going around, and I then I think, ‘next lap, yes, I’m going to do this corner better and then pick it up bit by bit’. It’s very gradual, really good fun.
BS: It was a circuit you’ve never ridden, on a bike you’ve never ridden, there’s a lot going on here and there’s a lot of pressure early on, but with your professional backgrounds, do you think that helped?
VP: I think we’re good at keeping our cool (on the outside anyway!), we’re both used to pushing ourselves, and our bodies and our minds in the most extreme situation – in an Olympic final, or something like that – so I think we in some ways we were prepared for taking onboard something like this, but that doesn’t mean anyone can’t give it a go. When you have excellent instructors, great equipment, and everything explained to you in the safety briefings, it’s so fun, I love learning new skills but it’s so nice to learn something completely different and to have a buzz on a really good day out!
BS: You were used to going down a Skeleton track at 80mph, are any of the sensations you’ve experienced today similar?
AW: On the Skeleton track, the fastest I got to was 92mph and you’re an inch off the ice, but the biggest thing is that you and your sled move as one, if you fight tat’s when you skid or fall off, and I think that’s why I was so concerned about the bike. I know when you watch the guys and be at the TT, they are at one with their bike, and they move and they glide and I just think that must be magical. The Triumph bike feels amazing and we’ve got these great Alpinestars leathers and I was comfortable when I’m on the bike, everything feels good and that actually was quite a surprise that it naturally clicked into place quite quickly. Then, like Vicky was saying, your brain almost goes into that athlete… you’re trying to perfect yourself almost too quickly, trying to expect so much. You want feedback as soon as you get off that bike, you’re buzz, buzz, buzz. And then you want to get back out and manage to perfect those skills. So I think it’s little bit by little bit and that confidence, I think we’re probably quite good at hiding the nerves, and the butterflies in the pit of your stomach – it's real. I think just that mindset when you tell yourself, ‘I can do this’. I’ve just done it for the last three sessions, I can now go out in the fourth session and just do it. The old athlete comes into play!
BS (to VP): When you were cycling, you’re used to having core strength, being at speed on two wheels with balance and momentum, and of course with your horse-riding too, a lot of those physical skills are translatable to control a bike around here…
VP: The sports I’ve been involved with have a lot to do with core strength and lateral balance, but so many things when you try a new sport come down to the fact that you have to breath, relax, look as far ahead as you can, and enjoy it. Ultimately, as soon as you tense up and you get small in your own little world, it starts to feel uncomfortable but more often than not, if you relax into it, have faith in your instructors, faith in your equipment you can just enjoy it. And hey, who doesn’t want to chase a buzz like that, I can see why it’s massively addictive.
BS: You’re both keen to come back?!
AW: Yeah, definitely! Why would I take a bike out on a road with traffic lights, people and cars… just come on a track day where it’s empty and clear and you only have to think about what you’re doing on your bike. Ok, it’s a bit unnerving when people whiz past but that started to happen less and less!
Like you said, we’ve got amazing instructors here and the confidence that you have in that then it gives you confidence. They’re giving you a thumbs-up, and Hicky’s like ‘come on, come on, come on’ and I was like, ‘ok he thinks I can go faster here’, so I’m going to go faster! That’s a great feeling. I’m feel really chuffed with myself, I’m really proud that I’ve done it!
BS: You swapped instructors too, what were the key take-aways from Peter and John?
VP: First of all, we’re under no illusion that this is the dream scenario, we were being coached by legends. Not just the elite, but legends of the sport! So, thank you. It’s a gift to be instructed by McGuinness and Hickman. The last thing McGuinness said to me, he goes, ‘I feel confident in your ability and your manoeuvring. I would like to see you give me a bit more.’ He felt that I could have given it a little bit more gas, so I would have gone out next time and tested myself a little bit in terms of being a bit more confident, especially after the first bend where it’s a bit blind and you can’t see where you’re going. He said, ‘have confidence in the track and your ability and go for it’, so that’s what I need to do. To float a bit more like Amy!
AW: And I need more aggression!
BS: Going back to your elite athletics days, you were fine-tuning tiny little elements day-by-day, yet today you’ve had a load of information shoved upon you, yet after every session you come back in eager for feedback straightaway, is that how it was back in the day?
VP: I think when you’re someone’s who’s spent your life pushing yourself to achieve a goal, you tend to be very self-critical, you want everything analysed and you want factual, swift, concise feedback immediately. And a lot of people think, ‘oh, you must be really good at it’, but you focus on what you want to improve on, so criticism is really important, getting some pointers and knowing how to improve – I want that information and I think that’s something that is very much inbuilt by being an athlete and being coached, you have to take onboard what you can and make the most of it. And we’ve been like two sponges trying to absorb as much as possible, but there’s always ways to improve and that’s why you’d want to come back and see what you can build on next time.
AW: Yeah, I totally agree. You’re very used to constantly being told negative feedback: you could lift better, you could shift your hips and do this, you can be one cm to the left or the right, I think you are constantly very used to that as an athlete being told the things you can improve on, and then you want to go out and execute that. Yes, here, we’re definitely doing it all the time, and we’re definitely not consistent but I think ahead of myself, I can see how good it could feel. I watch these guys and they’re like magic on their bikes, the way they move and they’re so smooth and I want to feel what that feels like. We’re not near that yet but there were glimpses – that downhill section (Craner Curves), I was like ‘ah, this is really nice’. Now I want to feel that in the really tight corners that I gate, like the hairpins.
Massive respect for these guys, the riders are very skilled, they know what they’re doing, they’ve just got that flowing magic!
It was an easy win knowing that any Track Day novice would enjoy their first outing especially with a pair of Isle of Man TT legends leading the way. The crux of the exercise was to demonstrate that track days aren’t all about speed, overtaking and personal best lap times but a way to enjoy the equipment in a safer environment that the public roads. Everyone’s heading in the same direction, for one. And for these two former Olympic athletes, from the position of being trained and tutored to the highest echelons of their sports, their ability to listen, learn and act was exemplary to witness. It was natural for them to ask the questions, understand the answers, and translate them into on-track actions that would become beneficial to their riding goals for the day. From altering their techniques by miniscule amounts during their respective 2010/2012 heydays, they were now demonstrating significant changes to, in Hickman’s words, double their speed.
Significantly, both Victoria and Amy were desperate to return. Their personal track day goals have just gone large.
PICS: Tim Keaton @ Impact Images