On Friday August 19 2022, Great Britain’s Dan Bigham became the world hour-record holder, registering 55.548km around Switzerland’s Grenchen Velodrome. The 30-year-old bettered the existing record of 55.089km set by Lotto-Soudal’s Victor Campenaerts at altitude in Aguascalientes, Mexico, in 2019. And bettered his own 2021 British record of 54.723km. It was an astounding effort from Bigham, who’s not even a WorldTour rider.
Though he’s employed by Ineos Grenadiers, he’s their performance engineer. It just so happens that the former-Formula One engineer is incredibly good at practising what he preaches. Which begs the question – Dan Bigham, born of Newcastle-under-Lyme, what was the secret of your success? “I’d say it’s about 50% physiology and 50% equipment,” Bigham tells us from his Andorran home. Which is why our Rouleur exclusive comes to you in two parts. Today, it’s that ‘50% physiology’. Next time, it’s ‘50% gear’…
Dan, congratulations on an incredible effort. How did you feel physically compared to your 2021 effort?
I felt in a nicer place, if there is one in the hour record. Effectively, I rode the first half pretty much the same as a Grenchen practice run back in June. However, whereas in June I started to collapse a little bit and drop back towards 54-55km/hr in the last 15-20 minutes, this time I managed to keep it together, riding around 56.25km/hr in the last half-hour. That said, unlike in 2021, in June I did still break the hour record but it was more challenging.
In Grenchen last year, much was made of your average power output coming in at around 350 watts – around 100 watts fewer than Sir Bradley Wiggins’ record from 2015. This year?
It was pretty much bang in that ballpark, though I didn’t attach a power meter. But my CdA (co-efficient of drag) was good, coming in at around 0.15 [note: this is incredible. World-class riders would be delighted with anything below 0.18-0.20], though it tends to drift ever so slightly in the last 10-15 minutes when you’re really trying to empty the tank.
Ultimately, the idea was never about raising my physiological window and putting more power out. It was about ensuring that I can achieve more with what I have in extreme conditions. Three days prior to my record attempt it rained pretty hard, so the humidity in the velodrome went up to around 52% compared to 38% for my 2021 attempt. Temperature was 27.5°C versus 26°C last time. So from an atmospheric point of view, on one hand it was marginally quicker, but from a cooling perspective it was much worse. I was certainly more thermally challenged, but equally I’d done more thermal preparation.
Tell us about that.
In June’s practice run in Grenchen, again similar to last year’s build-up, I was loaded up with sensors to monitor different physiological parameters. These included thermal sensors, biomechanical sensors, aerodynamic sensors… The team overseeing all this data was myself; Jonny Wale, who’s a friend and former teammate at the Huub Wattbike track team; Teun van Erp, a training scientist at Ineos; and Ben Williams, who’s head of performance support and basically my boss.
When it came to the thermal side, I wore two Core sensors (corebodytemp.com) and ingested a core temperature pill, too. Core’s one of our team partners and we’re doing a lot of work with them around building this comprehensive thermal model. Chris [Blomfield-Brown, Core product manager] lives about an hour from Grenchen velodrome, so was present at pretty much every training session we did there. He’s a really helpful guy.
I endured that full-gas practice, breaking the record by around half a lap, and we came away with a fantastic data set to pick apart. One action between June and August was halving the amount of time from me finishing the warm-up to mounting the bike on the track. Despite that, because I warmed up in a really cold room, my core temperature at the start of the hour bid was around 0.3°C lower than the actual run. So I’d primed my mind and body with the warm-up but then had more capacity to heat up during the hour.
Still, you can’t afford getting hot. In June, my core was over 40°, which is heading into heatstroke territory. That’s why I’d spent so much time heat training beforehand including turbo training in two painter’s suits. Basically, you eradicate evaporative capacity and ride until you get really hot. It’s a really strong adaptive stimulus. I did that two or three times a week for eight weeks.
Back to the record itself, I wore an ice vest beforehand and also ate ice slushies. In short, you train as hot as you can cope with and then, prior to the record, do everything you can to keep as cool as possible.
You mention Teun van Erp. We interviewed Teun many times when he worked at Team DSM and know he was a huge fan of slushies. Did he bring that cooling tool to the team?
He absolutely did. I’m not kidding you, his nickname is ‘Grandmaster Slush’ because he loves it. And he’s really good at making them, not just in the scientific sense but they’re really tasty, albeit uncomfortable, too. You’ve sort of got to spoon it straight down your gullet, which means brain freeze every time. It’s not pleasant, though neither is the hour record.
What about the biomechanical side?
We also looked at pedalling dynamics and attached sensors to my limbs to monitor muscle recruitment. We learnt a reasonable amount there from the practice hour, though much of the fatigue is down to numerous factors rather than simply isolating one muscle that looks like it’s fatiguing quicker than the others and going away to work on that in the gym. From our work and examining other hour record attempts, the point of breaking down is around the 38- to 40-minute mark, so it was about pushing that back as much as you can.
That involved the psychological, too, of course as so much of the hour record is in the head?
We spent a lot of time on the psychological. During the hour record, I focused on three core points: head position, line and breathing. That helped control the demands of each lap: holding that head position is good aerodynamically; a good line means you cover less distance; keeping control of my breathing means I’m in control. Everything else follows these three leading factors, but if something changes – you’re not pedalling correctly, you’re not sitting comfortably on the saddle, you’re not holding your position – it’s a slippery slope to get back. I did have a wobbly about 25 minutes in and thought I’m about to lose control here. But two laps later I’d managed to get my head back straight and take back control.
What else emboldened your mindset?
Breaking the record in practice clearly helped. As did the psychological template I worked on with Jonny [Wale]. It was intentional to have the track completely silent for the first 45 minutes so I could ride in a flow state. Only Jonny would communicate with me as I didn’t want people encouraging me at the point where I’m looking to hold back and maintain a specific pace. The encouragement comes when I’m all in, so the last 15 minutes. That’s when the entire spectating crew – which was about 12 people! – were allowed to offer words of encouragement. But not any words. They were guided by Ben [Williams], who told them what they should say and what they shouldn’t say. All the words had to be actionable, positive and put you in a challenged state. For example, you wouldn’t say, ‘Dan, you need to find something’, because that’s threatening. Instead, it’d be, ‘Dan, keep pushing on, this is excellent’.
In those first 45 minutes, Jonny really coached me, responding to any change in my technique. If there’s loud music and people screaming on the sidelines, it’s hard to physically spot those changes. So it was a very engineered record in that respect. Okay, it’s probably not what the fans of the sport want but, for me, it was about perfect execution. That was what we needed.
Did you lose or add weight between this attempt and last year’s?
No, I’m always fairly stable. When I was more focused on the track, I was around 76kg. Nowadays, I’m around 73-ish. It wasn’t about adding muscle in search of more watts. And in any case, that would have just been more insulation, which I didn’t want.
Clearly, a huge amount went into the record bid and we haven’t touched upon gear yet. Did it make a significant difference having Ineos Grenadiers support you this time around?
It did as I’m used to spinning all these plates myself. But when you want to step up and make those improvements, you need a lot more manpower, a lot more resource. And that’s exactly what the Ineos team brought to the table. I guess everyone in the team saw it as an interesting project to learn from as it was essentially one big science experiment.
Next time, Bigham on the customised gear that helped him to the hour record plus his predictions for Filippo Ganna’s postponed attempt.