Olympic sprint cyclist Victoria Pendleton

Olympic sprint cycling champion Victoria Pendleton relives the moments when she wrestled a shark in Tasmania, escaped the clutches of a winking pizza chef in Rome and stocked up on soap in Sri Lanka.

You’re planning to retire after the Olympics. Will you be booking a cycling holiday to celebrate?

I think I probably would in the future. Just chilling and having a picnic and going for a gentle ride sounds lovely.

You’re also engaged. Have you booked your honeymoon yet?

I have no idea. We haven’t even decided which country to get married in, let alone book the honeymoon. I’m just waiting until after the Olympics for everything. There are too many decisions to make right now.

Where’s the most naturally beautiful place you’ve ever visited?

Lion temple sri lankaSri Lanka's lion temple is "mind-blowing"
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

The Golden Rock Temple in Sri Lanka. It’s this huge block of mountain, like a really weird lump of stone that’s been dropped from outer space and they’ve built an imperial palace on the top of it.  They’ve still got some very early paintings on the wall, which date back to the first century BC. They even had a swimming pool built on the top of this rock that long ago. It was mind-blowing. And they actually painted a rock like a lion on the side, and it’s got these two massive claws carved at the bottom. It’s phenomenal.

Where would you go on a 48-hour weekend break?

It would be a tough call between Rome and Paris. They’re both just beautiful cities, but neither of them compare to London.

If you were persuading one of your international competitors to visit London, how would you sell the city?

London is great because it’s so diverse. You’ve got the history and there are so many different areas in London that you’ll always find somewhere that appeals to you. And everyone loves everything to do with the royals and visiting Buckingham Palace, including me.  Whenever I’m in London, I can’t resist the opportunity to drive down the Mall.

Which countries would you still love to visit that you’ve not been to yet?

Ele KrugerAn African safari tops Victoria's holiday wishlist
iStockphoto / Thinkstock

I love watching wildlife programmes and it’s my dream to go on safari in Africa so anything that involves wildlife is great for me.

Have you had any interesting animal encounters?

I once went whale watching in a helicopter in New Zealand. That was pretty special. I was with my dad and we got in this helicopter and we were circling round and I thought, ‘Surely, there’s no chance we’ll actually see some whales,’ but we did, which was pretty cool. In terms of other wildlife experiences, I have been scuba diving a couple of times, just south of the Barrier Reef, which was amazing as I saw a turtle swim right past in front of my face. Amazing.

And close encounters with more fearsome amphibians?

I have held a baby shark before, when I was fishing in Tasmania on holiday. My fiancé’s sister thought she’d caught some seaweed but she’d actually caught this baby shark. I had to grab hold of it whilst we got the hook out as quickly as possible as it was a protected species. So I had this shark under my arm and fortunately it had no teeth and it was quite small, but it was so powerful. I was wrestling it, so I could get the hook out and then I put it back into the water.

Are you adventurous with food on your travels?

I stick with vegetarian food when I’m travelling quite a lot. It’s safer to go vegetarian. When I was in Beijing, they brought out a tray of meat like a buffet and the fact that you could see what animal it was because of the beaks and the feet in the tray was a bit of a shock. I was imagining that a chicken foot might be quite crunchy, but thought, ‘Erm… not for me thanks.’

Roma Rome's beauty, and its pizzas, made a strong impression on Victoria

I prefer simple stuff. When I was in Rome, I went to this amazing little locals’ pizza place. It was noisy and the pizza smelt so amazing like you could inhale it. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I was really sceptical about going in there as the place was intimidating and the chef was winking at me, which made it all the more uncomfortable. But even though the pizza was so good, I didn’t go up to the chef to congratulate him. I got out of there pretty fast.

Do you like to bring souvenirs home?

When I was in Sri Lanka, one of my first stops was to a local convenience store so I could get quite a lot of sandalwood soap as it’s so easy to get hold of there. It costs about 15 pence per bar but it smells amazing. My nan always used to have sandalwood soap at home in her bathroom and it really reminds me of her. I really love that smell so I bought loads of soap. The person at the counter must have thought I was really dirty or something. It did make my case smell amazing though and it still smells good.

I also bought a beautiful antique kimono when I was in Japan. I went into this little shop and it was floor to ceiling kimonos. I could have stayed there for days. This little lady who didn’t speak a word of English tried it on me and showed me how to tie it and it looked so amazing, I took one home.

Where would you most like to revisit?

Cyclists BeijingVictoria would love to return to China in the future
Comstock / Thinkstock

I didn’t get much chance to do much sightseeing in Beijing and I’d love to see more of China. I’d love to go to some of the more rural provinces but I haven’t had the chance yet. I think that one will have to wait until I’m not a cyclist any more. I am retiring after the Olympics but everyone says I’ll last a year and then I’ll be back on the bike for sure but we’ll just have to wait and see. 

Anywhere you’d never return?

There’s nowhere really disappointing but having been to Russia a few times, I can’t believe how cold it is there. Minus 25 with a wind chill; I will never forget how that felt. It’s just mind-blowingly bad.

Victoria Pendleton is the ambassador for Hovis Wholemeal, encouraging women to stay active in 2012.

Visa and passport information is updated regularly and is correct at the time of publishing. You should verify critical travel information independently with the relevant embassy before you travel.