"I think it's unique in the history of the Hour Record that the guy who holds the record is also the guy who's trying to help somebody else to break it," Bigham tells Cyclingnews.
The 31-year-old Brit broke Victor Campenaerts' previous benchmark in August, taking the record to 55.548, but he has shared every secret, every last marginal gain, with the rider who has long been expected to knock the record out of the realms of the mere mortals.
Bigham, as well as being an elite-level rider in time trialling and on the track, has held a full-time back-room role as performance engineer at Ineos Grenadiers since the start of this year, having previously used his scientific background to work as an aerodynamics consultant for major teams, brands, and federations.
The Hour Record has been a long-standing passion of Bigham's. He made a self-supported attempt last year that was unratified given he wasn't part of the UCI's drug testing programme, and was given the financial backing of Ineos to have a crack this year.
The catch was that he was to be a pawn in a bigger play, a guinea pig for the much-anticipated attempt from the two-time world time trial champion.
Ahead of Ganna's ride, Bigham tells Cyclingnews about the project, and how the "nerdy engineer" is helping the "flamboyant Italian" to go further than anyone has before.
Cyclingnews: You're in quite a bizarre position - what's that like? I guess there must be some degree of mixed feelings?
Dan Bigham: I started thinking about that this morning actually. I guess, in a way, you could say it's win-win. The process has always been about Filippo trying to break the record. For me, it was a case of having a go at the record in that process as well. I'm very happy with everything I did in mine, it was the best I had and to break the record was an incredible feeling. But then you switch hats from being an athlete to being an engineer. It's nice to see what I can do to help someone else go the furthest they can go. And I'm just excited to see what one of the best athletes we've ever seen in cycling can do.
CN: Can you tell us more about this whole project and when it all began?
DB: The project itself really began when I joined the team [ahead of 2022]. I made it clear from the outset that the Hour was something I wanted to do, and something I'd do off my own back if needed. Filippo made some noises that he was keen for it, so it definitely made sense to use myself as a rider as well as an engineer. There were a lot of discussions through winter, then it began in earnest in February. We had to design a new bike, and five or six months for that is short by any manufacturer's standards. Being able to 3D print the bike saved us a lot of time.
It's been a proper multidisciplinary approach. My record was about creating a blueprint for what Filippo should do. All the testing, optimising, position, equipment, pacing, warm-up strategies, the mental approach... all that kind of stuff is coming off the back of mine and the studies we'd done to really pull it apart. Putting that into the real world on Filippo, who has a WorldTour calendar, who just did the World Championships in Australia, is a challenge, but we've done all we can on the performance side of things to give him the opportunity to break the record.
CN: Filippo wouldn't be going for it if he didn't think he could break the record, but there have been question marks over his form after the World Championships. How do you see it and how confident are you?
DB: In terms of form, that's more a question for his coach. I'm in meetings but it's not my specific area. He's not going bad. He's not going perfect but there were a lot of reasons why Worlds didn't go his way. It wasn't one thing. Maybe it came across that way and everyone was like 'ah he's going terrible'. He wasn't on fantastic form, he wasn't world beating, but he wasn't in a bad place.
Breaking the record is wholly possible. He wouldn't take to the start line on Saturday if it wasn't. We'd all be pretty nervous if it was just a roll of the dice because we'd all look quite silly if it didn't come off, all things considered, especially with myself being involved in the project and everything that's gone into it. It's definitely achievable. I'm fairly confident he can do it. But obviously it's not a surefire thing; you've got to go and actually ride it.
CN: Has he broken the record in training?
DB: He hasn't actually done a full-gas Hour in training. He's done hours, but not full-gas, full equipment, full everything. We've been trying to make it manageable for him, because they're not easy things to do, especially when you've got a WorldTour calendar and everything else. That's why it was important that I could go through all of that, as part of the process. I did seven in the run-up to mine, and you learn from all of them. We can take that and predict how far he can go. The numbers stack up, I'm pretty confident about that.
CN: What are the main lessons you learned from your attempt that are applicable to Filippo?
DB: Having a strategy - a strong strategy that you trust and believe in, and stick to. Whether that's around pacing, the feedback mechanisms, the music you listen to, how you warm up, the gearing you run... There's a lot in the hour that you can mull over when you're on the track, so keeping calm and knowing you're just going in there to execute is key. There should be nothing in your head in terms of stresses or worries that could manifest itself through your legs on the track.
Another big thing is thermal physiology – that's something we've really looked at. No one truly appreciates how hot you get. It's an intense environment – warm, humid, and there's lots of radioactivity from the lights and the broadcasting. Your core temperature breaks 40 degrees and you lose kilos in weight. It's understanding that and how you mitigate it.
We've worked a lot with staff and partners because it's an aspect of performance that hasn't been well understood in cycling, and it's not going away – not with climate change the way it is. As much as I'd love to talk about all the cool things we've done in that respect, sadly I can't. But I can say we've definitely seen a step forward, and that it transfers across to the road.
CN: What about the bike? You rode a prototype for your record and all the details have just been revealed. What are the key features and has anything changed from your set-up?
DB: The only things different are the saddle and the pedals, and obviously all the the contact points. The actual frame, wheels, tyres, crank, chain, chainring, cog are all the same. Actually, the main thing we have improved is the drive train. Muc-Off have developed a new coating for the rear cog, which adds around 20-25 metres. It all adds up. Beyond that, it's basically the same bike. That's more a reflection of the optimisations we did into mine. We were very happy with it and there wasn't much to do.
Aerodynamics is everything on this bike. The mass of the bike is not important, it's worth next to nothing – single-digit metres – so there's no point worrying about how heavy the bike is. The only thing that matters is how aerodynamic it is, so it's all super narrow. We also have the tubercles [ridged pattern] on the seat tube and seat post. I thought there might be a bit of potential but not as big as it was. OK, we're not talking 500 metres but still 200 or so – that all counts.
It was a great process developing the bike in that way. It was a very open design process. The 3D printing made it a lot easier too. Normally you're constrained with carbon fibre and what you can do. But we had a lot of freedom.
CN: What's the biggest weapon yourself and Filippo have over, say, the previous record holder, Victor Campenaerts?
DB: There's no one silver bullet. I don't think there ever will be. It's a cumulation of small but significant improvements, and that's all it's ever going to be. You're not going to have that watershed moment again like 10 years ago when people started to realise the importance of aerodynamics. For me, it's about about chipping away and understanding how my drag was being generating on the bike and how I could influence that, with geometry, contact points, position, and that's been literally years in the making.
This isn't a project that even began with Ineos; it's something I've been doing since I started track cycling but in earnest since just before COVID began. I did my first proper Hour Record on an indoor velodrome and chipped away, tried to test, refine and improve. It's literally chasing and chasing those half percent-ers. 100 metres, it's basically nothing in drag terms, but it all matters. And that's what got me from riding a 52.6km back in 2020 to 55.5 now... It's not been one thing – this tyre, this skin suit – it's the accumulation of all of the above. It's the willingness to look for the smallest improvement in every single place.
CN: If the equipment and everything is largely the same, how do you account for the differences between yourself and Filippo as athletes?
DB: We're very different mentally. He's a lot more subjective – emotion, feeling. I'm the classic nerdy engineer and he's your flamboyant Italian. But in terms of physiology we don't differ a huge amount, so the pacing strategy is very very similar. Filippo is very understanding of why that matters. He's keen on that anyway.
Look at his rides on track, in the individual pursuit; he rides a negative split anyway. It will obviously require him to be comfortable at different cadences, taking things up in the back end, but he's very happy doing that.
CN: How have you prepared him for the mental challenge of the Hour itself? Obviously you can go in with the best plan and equipment in the world but once the pain takes hold...
DB: It's about knowing exactly what's possible and creating an environment that makes that as easy to execute as possible. For me, being objective, it's relatively easy to build these models that predict your performance. Then you go out and see how it feels and you can start to ask sharper and sharper questions of the models. Then obviously you have to go and prove that to Filippo.
So, it has taken a few different runs to really get his head round it and appreciate it. But once you understand the physiology, the psychology, and the aerodynamics and how they all tie together, you buy into it. He's on board, for sure.
CN: Finally, we understand you won't actually be there in Switzerland for the attempt...
DB: No, I'm getting married on Friday. Not ideal on the timing front, but it is what it is. I think I'd be hung drawn and quartered if I left early to make my way over to Switzerland.
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