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Four autumn challenges for Dan Bigham

September 7, 2021

A busy autumn lies ahead for cyclist Dan Bigham with four major challenges jostling for his attention.

This week he has started in the Tour of Britain for the Ribble Weldtite team. Next, he goes to the World Championships in Belgium, representing Great Britain in the team time trial and hopefully the individual team trial too. Off the back of that he heads to Switzerland with his partner, Joss, where they are both attempting to beat the world one-hour record, for the furthest distance cycled in one hour. Finally, it’s back to the UK for the national championships.

But, an action-packed schedule is nothing new to Dan who was supported by Derbyshire Institute of Sport earlier in his career along with his record-smashing Huub Wattbike teammates.

He joined our business sponsors and DIS managing director Chloe Maudsley on a Zoom call recently to share some of his story. He had not long returned from the Tokyo Olympics, where he worked as performance engineer with the Danish national side.

“I’m actually just outside the Silverstone wind tunnel,” he told them. “Alongside cycling, I have my own business, WattShop. We develop cycle componentry that we sell to the public as well as doing a lot of consultancy and development for other brands. So, today I’m doing some work for Huub Design, who make triathlon and cycling clothing, and trying to find some small gains through fabric. So, we’re in what’s called a small fabric wind tunnel and we’re blowing air over some fabrics to see what the result is.”

All important – for different reasons

But what about those four upcoming challenges, one of our sponsors wanted to know, which is the most important to you?

“They are all important for different reasons,” said Dan.

“For myself personally I think I’d rank them in this order: Firstly, the World Championships in the Team Time Trial. I want to win that. We were third last time, a couple of years ago, and I’m pretty confident we can take the win.

“National championships in the time trial would probably be the next most important because I want to have that jersey and it’s a really good opportunity for it.

“The one-hour record, as much as it’s a big one and one that you don’t do very often, I am pretty confident that irrespective of whether I achieve it or not I can always go again. I can always work towards a having another go at that but you can only ever win the National Championships in 2021 once. An hour record, you can do it a few times and I’m pretty confident that I will.”

The current men’s one-hour record was set on 16 April, 2019 by Victor Campenaerts who completed a distance of 55.089km at the Velodromo Bicentenario in Aguascalientes.

The women’s hour record stands at 48.007km and was set by Vittoria Bussi. Dan said: “Joss has already beaten it in training and I’m within a few hundred metres of beating the men’s record so we’re both going to have a go at that in Switzerland.”

Dan continued: “The Tour of Britain is just an exciting prospect. I’ve never raced it before. It would be nice to take it on and see what I can achieve in such a big race against some of the best riders in the world. That’s more of a ‘Let’s see where I’m at. Let’s actually see where I am in the hierarchy of road cyclists against some of the best guys in the world’.”

Making the leap to be an athlete

So where did his career as an elite athlete and an aerodynamicist start?

“I was at Uni studying motorsport engineering. I wanted to work in Formula 1. That was always my dream. I managed to spend a year working at Mercedes F1 team in the aero dept.”

He recalled that a combination of the intense workload and meeting keen cyclists made him realise that he might be better off tying his passion for sport and cycling with his academic side.

“I left university and finished my Masters and went to work in British Olympic Sport for a little while. I was helping a lot of other elite athletes, I was working at British Athletics with their sprint team and helping them to do awesome stuff and go to Europeans and Worlds and the Olympics and do great things but my passion then was starting to grow.

“I was 23, 24, and I wanted to get all that cool support that these guys were getting for myself and that’s when I really made the leap to be an athlete and to commit to that process.

“It’s very hard. You don’t have those support networks, at least in the first instance, to make that leap. It’s such a hard thing as an athlete. At the time I was winning good races but it’s not just financial but all the things around you, gym access, psychological support the understanding of the networks. How do you progress above where you are? That was really hard to do in the first instance.”

A bit of serendipity

Chloe asked Dan to share how he and his teammates, Jonny Wale, Jacob Tipper and Charlie Tanfield, came to work with DIS.

“Yes, that was such a key meeting in so many ways. It opened so many doors for us and not only doors actually, but supporting us. We’d competed at the national championships we’d won the individual team pursuit, the kilo, the team pursuit, we’d beaten the national team broke the competition record and after all of that had zero interest from the national federation and we were like ‘Well, what do we have to do to step up? And how do you achieve all that?’

“And we knew we wanted to set up in Derby as a trade team so we could compete at the highest level but we needed all that support network around us that you would normally receive within a national federation. A bit of Googling and actually a bit of serendipity really with Dean Jackson from Huub who said: ‘Well, I’m supporting DIS. They are exactly what you need right now. They supply or support you with all of that. They look at where you stand, what you need to progress, where you need to go, who you need to speak to and where your, I guess, low-hanging fruits as an athlete are and address them’ and that was it.”

A special few years

Charlie was still a university student, but the other three had full-time jobs.

Dan recalled: “We moved to Derby, we set up at the velodrome and yes, accessed everything that DIS would or could offer us at the time, whether that was in the gym, whether it was physiotherapy and support with injury management and injury prevention, the team culture and the team dynamics and the psychological aspects of it. This was 2016/2017.”

He continued: “I think that on so many levels, what we received then helped us to understand what we needed to do to really progress as athletes. I mean, we can talk about the results that have come from that on the track and on the road. It’s everything from lower level national championships through to Commonwealth records, Commonwealth Games gold medals, world championships. Yes, it’s been a pretty special few years.”

Dan believes they were helped in the DIS years by their knowledge in their own fields of study and the new ideas they brought to cycling. Dan had studied engineering, Jacob’s field was sports science and Charlie was studying mechanical engineering.

Coming up with unique strategies

“How do you tackle problems, how do you analyse performance, how do you improve performance and what metrics are truly important and I think we approached that really holistically as a group and said, ‘We’ve got all these great ideas. Let’s just apply them. We have this one opportunity as a team to try to succeed and try to do something really big within the sport for our own ambitions and it was a great opportunity to dive in and we definitely approached things differently.

“We questioned the status quo on so many fronts. We came up with unique strategies for our event, which was the 4km team pursuit that has historically been the blue riband event for all nations towards the Olympics.”

Dan and his teammates looked at training, aerodynamic optimisations and the turn strategy, how long a rider stays on the front before they change.

“We just came in with a few different ideas, like doing longer turns, less changes which literally every time you got rid of a change you saved a bike length. So, if we halved the number of changes in a race suddenly we’re six bike lengths ahead of the other team for no more effort. So, ideas like that were just ones we ran with and proved really successful.

Fail quickly – and learn

“We had some hiccups and some bumps along the way like not knowing where to live in Derby and ending up in a neighbourhood where we had three break-ins in a short period of time. DIS were super-helpful in moving us up to Derby college to be in the halls there with a lot of their sports students. So what we were learning, they were learning at the same time. We did a few talks with their classes and we were training in the same gym as them so it was a bit of knowledge transfer at the same time as giving us a safe, secure location to live and train from.

“We learned really, really quickly from all the mistakes that we did make because we were being quite objective in the process and you could see when something went wrong and our approach, or our feedback loop for that, was if it failed, fail quickly and learn from that and keep moving forward because we need to be small and nimble and take advantage of that because everyone else we’re competing against had more firepower and more manpower and had more athletes.”

When their team of four turned up at events they faced a whole heap of challenges that other riders, with massive backroom teams and support staff never had to consider.

Relative nobodies, but going so fast

Dan said: “There were so many challenges… I don’t know where to start. It wasn’t even just not particularly understanding the logistics and the hoops you have to jump through around registration and deadlines. For example we weren’t allowed to have a team manager who was registered as a rider and we didn’t know that so when we first put that, our application got rejected, so we ended up having Jacob’s mum being our team manager.

“We didn’t know what we didn’t know. You were going to all these events without having access to the knowledge of 20 years as a federation: What hotels do you go to? Who covers the cost of travel and when are buses to the velodrome? All these things we were finding out from the ground and finding out the hard way which is not the nicest way to learn in that respect but equally we were going there with new ideas.

“Other people were questioning our different strategies, different positions. So, for example, we had the European champions looking at us going, ‘Why are they doing those long turns? Why are they riding so fast? What’s going on here?’ Then they were following us on Instagram sending us a message to try and find out how we were going so fast even though we were relative nobodies. It was a weird experience of not having a clue about some aspects yet being much more advanced in others.”

The origins of Derbados

Dan Bigham points to a screen over another man's shoulder

After Dean Jackson got involved with the team, they became Huub Wattbike and then along came Derbados. So what was the story behind that?

“A lot of our support has come from Derby, sponsors, partners, people helping us at the velodrome yet we didn’t feel we could fly the flag of GB. We were a trade team and not able to fly the flag as British riders. We weren’t representing GB. We went out for a meal with Dean Jackson of Huub and he used the word ‘Derbados’ and it kind of just stuck with us and we ran with it.

Dean put together a flag of Derbyshire and added the Silk Mill, which is synonymous with Derby, the Rolls-Royce engine and a couple of palm trees and Derbados was born. We had this huge flag that flew from Derby Cathedral when we went to the London World Cup and we went there as these big favourites to win. We’d come from obscurity and formed this nation and won in London and flew the flag of Derbados on the BBC. It was a bit of a surreal experience.

“We didn’t always perform when race day did come round. To try to get four guys to continually be at their best over a three-four month season is quite hard to achieve. I don’t think we ever really had one event where you could say yes, everyone was at their absolute best because for whatever reason the stars never really aligned and when you are trying to target multiple events it’s a hard thing to achieve. If you had one goal every few years and you could build towards that it would be significantly easier to do.

“Managing the feelings of not wining is hard to do and hard to take. It’s about being clear from the start about what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re trying to achieve it and we can’t guarantee performance but we can guarantee that we’re going to try to focus on the process as much as we can because if the process is right and we do everything as well as we can do whether that’s training, nutrition, sleep, equipment, strategy execution we can be confident the result is likely to be what we want but we can’t guarantee it.”

Potential to be outrageous

The UCI, the world governing body, changed the regulations in 2019 that effectively stopped Huub Wattbike as a trade team from competing at the highest level.

“They, for whatever reason, decided they didn’t want us there anymore which was obviously quite frustrating when you’ve built your life and a lot of your sporting ambitions around competing at that level but it meant that everyone had to change their path. We all went down different routes in the sporting world.”

Dan decided to join the Danish Cycling Federation: “I continue to have a huge interest in the aero and technical side of cycling and I wanted to stay in the sport really in team pursuit and be able to help somebody towards the Olympics.

“Denmark were an incredibly strong team but lacking quite a bit on the technical side. They didn’t have the best equipment, the best positions or the best strategy and I thought there’s so much potential there for them to be absolutely outrageous there in performance terms.

“I approached them in 2019 and joined them as effectively a research and development engineer. It’s quite a fluid, all-encompassing role that basically means I can develop whatever we want on positions, on clothing, wheels, tyres, strategy and just have a big influence on a load of world-class guys going to the Olympics and it was successful.”

Olympic controversy with former teammate Charlie

At the World Championships, the Denmark team were winners and broke the world record three times in the process: “It was pretty epic. It was the biggest chunk ever taken off the world record in a single competition. We were very happy about that and went into the Olympics as big favourites.”

But things didn’t go quite to plan. By an incredible coincidence, it was Dan’s former team mate Charlie Tanfield who was at the heart of unprecedented scenes when Denmark faced Great Britain in the team pursuit.

Charlie was a travelling reserve in the GB cycling squad but was called up at very short notice to race against the Danish side when injury forced veteran rider Ed Clancy to retire with a back injury.

“Our lead rider rode into the back of ex-DIS athlete Charlie Tanfield, my good friend, which was an awkward moment to say the least,” said Dan.

Confusion followed. Charlie got back on his bike and finished the race, whereas the Danish rider didn’t. No-one knew who would progress. In the end, Denmark went into the gold medal final against Italy and Great Britain could only take part in the ride-off for seventh or eighth place. A brave ride by Charlie helped them secure seventh spot.

Dan said of Denmark’s final ride: “We led most of the way until literally the last half a lap. We lost the gold medal by just over a tenth of a second which is pretty heart-breaking to be honest. It’s not something you quickly come to terms with.  If we were beaten convincingly then you can see they were the fair winners. But when it’s just a fraction of a second you go, ‘I could have done this, or I could have done that’. There are a million and one little things. But, it isn’t a bad thing to come out of a competition with a list of some 20 or 30 things to improve on – but, yes, that was a bit heartbreaking.

Thankful to DIS

“So, now I’m in this situation where the Olympics has finished and everyone is having some down time and I’m taking it as an opportunity to focus on my own personal ambitions on the bike.

“I’m so thankful for DIS. They’ve been critical to so much of the journey. You can’t even just say ‘Oh, it was just this’ or ‘It was just that’ because there’s so many aspects. Everyone in the DIS team have been helpful and been able to progress us or point us in the right direction or connect us with the right person or even spot things before they become an issue for us. It’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you all and to receive that help and to continue to receive it, with Dave (David Sprot, Head Physiotherapist) and a lot of the others just occasionally, here and there. Having a quick conversation can be really, really beneficial as an athlete, especially when the team knows you so well that you have that good rapport.”

Would Dan ever consider working with British cycling again?

“Maybe, is the answer. If the conditions were right and the culture was where I’d like it to be, then yes, I’d probably consider it. I think, as things are, I’m enjoying my life. I’m enjoying what I get to do. I enjoy the people I get to work with, I wouldn’t change that. It would have to be a very tempting offer for me to consider it. Right now I’m content with where I am and what I do.”

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