Some riders need no introduction, and Topeak Ergon Racing's Sally Bigham is definitely one such rider. With National titles, World Championship medals and course records under her belt, Sally Bigham is arguably one of Britains most accomplished Mountain bike racers. We managed to pin Sally down whilst she prepares for next season to talk racing, recovery and 2014... Enjoy!
[caption id="attachment_1803" align="aligncenter" width="470"] Photo: James Mitchell[/caption]
So, there is no point beating around the bush, let's get straight into it and talk 2014... After a virus scuppered a good chunk of the season, and then for you to unfortunately end the racing year under the surgeon's knife; not how any athlete would want to end their season - but more on that later - I'm keen to hear what positives you are able to take from the 2014 season?
Yes, after my career best season in 2013, 2014 certainly had some low points; a virus led to settling for Silver (again) in the Euros and completely missing the biggest season goal – the World Champs in South Africa. There were some positives though, including winning my second Leadville 100 title, fifth National Champs title and winning two World Series Marathon races to name a few. Although finishing the season with pretty major surgery was not at all pleasant, I also see that positively because the problem was quickly and correctly diagnosed, treated by the one of the few surgeons worldwide who specialise in the condition and the operation was timed perfectly to allow me maximum time to recover for the 2015 season. Two fully functioning legs rather than one will be amazing, even if it did mean substituting my annual holiday with a trip to hospital instead ;)
Looking back on it now, a highlight of mine from last season was following yourself and Ben Thomas (Mountain Trax - Vauxhall Cycling Team) romp home to victory in the Craft Bike Transalp. Just before the start you released a statement expressing your feeling's toward pushing in mixed pairs and how you wanted to inspire women riders to be self-powered - to which I think the vast majority of people have agreed with. How did this go down on the start line? Have you had much feedback from your comments since the Transalp?
Racing the Transalp with Ben was great; it was nice to be able to team up with a fellow Brit to win an international race. Winning the mixed category self-powered has been a goal of mine ever since I first witnessed the unfair advantaged gained through extensive pushing/pulling in the category. Often the winning team comprises a small girl who’s towed and pulled by a much larger, stronger man. This is at odds with my personal beliefs and aspirations: I’m not interested in winning because a man pushed me; I want to win because I’m the strongest, fastest woman who has a great partnership with her male teammate. Winning the mixed category should be about mutual respect and a good professional relationship between the man and the woman, sure the guy can assist the woman, just like she can help the guy if he’s having a bad day! It should not simply be about how strong the man is. Although a lot of people seemed to agree with my stance, at least one of the other mixed teams did continue to tow; it’s a pretty nice feeling to still win. The problem is that not everyone thinks like me, some people will do anything to win especially if there’s prize money at stake.
[caption id="attachment_1791" align="aligncenter" width="470"] Sally and Ben in the Craft Bike Transalp Leaders jersey[/caption]
Seeing as we're on the topic of pairs racing, I am going to put you on the spot a little... Lets talk about your fantasy pairs partner?! Which racer, past or present, would you like to have raced with or would want to race with in the future? And also, what makes for a good pairs racer in your opinion?
Racing and winning the 2012 Cape Epic with Esther Suss (World Marathon Champion) was a dream partnership for me. It was my first stage race where the partnership was well matched and we could both literally go full gas everyday. I really enjoyed that! Racing with a partner who is a little stronger or at least as strong as I am is always my dream. I think I’ve found a great partner for the 2015 Cape Epic – soon to be announced!
Moving onto the solo stuff now. You wore the National stripes well this year; are they something you plan on keeping in 2015?
Wearing the National stripes at international races is important; the colours identify the best rider of each nation. It’s nice to stand on the start line with other national champions. I’d love to be able to wear the red, white and blue stripes again in 2015, however the Nationals is not well timed, clashing with other big annual races so at the moment I am not sure if I’ll be able to defend my title. It’ll be disappointing if I don’t get to stand on the start line not only because I want to win but also because I’ll miss the nice trails at Selkirk! Also, I don’t get to race much in the UK so it’s one opportunity for me to see familiar faces.
Before we go any further, can I ask the reason as to why you ended up on the surgeons table? Can you explain a little about the injury, the recovery process and when you expect to hit 100%?
Three years ago I started to notice that my left leg was fatiguing more quickly than the right, specifically the vastus medialis would feel unusually heavy with a lactic acid type feeling. This progressively deteriorated to the point where in December 2013 the whole left thigh would burn and become painful at higher intensities. If I ignored it and pushed through the pain then I would lose all power in the leg. Throughout the whole of the 2014 season I had to manage the problem, in races I’d have to start much slower than normal because the high intensity from the start line caused my leg to stop working. In training, I’d often have to quit interval sessions. It was a very challenging year from that point of view!
We were fortunate enough to know a good cycling doctor who confirmed our suspicion that the problem was likely to be iliac endofibrosis - a disease caused by cycling, affecting amateur and pro cyclists alike. Repetitive hip flexion combined with high-pressure blood flow causes the lining of the iliac artery (located in the lower abdomen) to become thickened. This thickening reduces the blood flow to the affected leg(s) causing pain and loss of power.
We knew that it was a pretty serious condition requiring invasive surgery with a long, slow rehabilitation period. With that in mind we planned to finish the race season before going for formal diagnostic testing at St Georges Vascular Institute, London. Mr Hinchliffe, a consultant vascular surgeon specialising in the condition, made a formal diagnosis using blood pressure testing, a duplex scan and an angiogram. The blood pressure testing showed a 50% drop in the blood flow of my left leg after just 2 minutes cycling at threshold.
Mr Hinchliffe repaired my damaged artery by basically opening the artery, removing the damaged area and then making the artery bigger by stitching on a patch. I was in hospital for 6 days. After 6 weeks of no exercise other than gentle walking I was allowed on the bike building up from 30 minutes to 2 hours over 3 to 4 weeks but always keeping the heart rate and blood pressure low so as not to put any stress on the artery.
Now I can start increasing the time and intensity on the bike but it’ll still be a few more weeks until I can start to go full gas. It’s taught me many things, most importantly self-discipline and patience. I’ve never had so long without any kind of exercise – in total I’ve had 10 weeks without any real kind of exercise - and now I’ll certainly not worry about taking a few days off because of a cold ever again!
Lets talk World Champs! In 2015 they return to Europe and the magical Italian Dolomite's. Are you already thinking about that point in the season, or is it still to soon after surgery to contemplate being ready for a shot at the gold?
As for 2015 I aim to start racing again in March and I’m already planning and preparing for the World Championships in Selva val Gardena (Italy) at the end of June. The Worlds is a big season goal for me, Sellaronda is a very challenging course with long, steep climbs and two fully functioning legs should stand me in good stead for a great performance!
A topic I always like to touch upon is kit, and your kit is especially important as I have a massive crush on the Canyon Lux and Grand Canyon! Tell us a little about your set up and any personal touches you've made.
Our Team get great bikes! I have a Canyon Ultimate CF (road bike), a Canyon Grand Canyon (MTB hardtail), a Canyon Lux (MTB full suspension) and a Canyon Torque (MTB Downhill). How lucky am I!!??
On both of my race bikes (Lux and Grand Canyon) I use 1 x 11 gears and change the front chainring depending upon the course; for flatter courses I use 32t or even 34t and for routes with long, steep climbs I sometimes use a 30t. Canyon did a great job with the geometry of the size small 29er so I haven’t made any modifications other than using a -25degree stem, which helps to get my weight lower over the front wheel. My bikes are pretty much as you see them on the Canyon website apart from an SRM powermeter – I use one on all of my bikes except the DH bike ;) One piece of advice that I do have for smaller people like me is to use low tyre pressures, I’m 52kg and I use 18psi in the front tyre and 19psi in the rear, this gives me great grip and rolls really well.
Well before I let you go I'd like to get your opinion on the state of UK Cross-Country and Endurance Mountain bike racing. Do you think it's heading in the right direction and how do you think it needs to change (if at all)?
It’s difficult for me to comment on XCO racing in the UK, I don’t really get much opportunity to attend the races because, typically, they always seem to clash with important overseas races. Though it’s possible you’ll be seeing me at some of the National XCOs in 2015, amazingly the calendar seems to have lined up to allow me to turn out for some of them.
As for XCM, well other than the Nationals there are – to my knowledge - no one lap marathon races in the UK. The Scott series do a great job and although they’re not ‘races’ they do allow people to compete over long distances – put a few people on a start line and say ‘go’ then you’ve got a race on your hands! I’d love to see more marathon races but I understand the difficulties with land access that race organisers face. It’s a shame though because, in my biased opinion, marathon racing is the most fun! On a serious note though more competitive marathon races in the UK would allow other people to develop, sign with an international team and ultimately come and help me to fly the flag for GB on the world XCM scene!
It just leaves me to say a massive thank you for taking the time out to answer our questions and to wish you the best possible luck for 2015. Here's to another great season for Sally Bigham, flying in those Topeak Ergon Racing colours!
I am honoured and privileged to have such an amazing trade team, Topeak Ergon Racing Team. I started racing late but they allowed me to develop and progress as a rider over several years without any pressure. As my results improved then so did the support that I received and this eventually allowed me to turn fully professional. It's a cool team with great staff and riders and every year I feel very lucky to be part of it.
Want more Sally?