Meet Sally Bigham, European MTB Marathon Champion: "When the going gets tough, I get even more focused."
As the UK's most successful mountain bike racer, Sally Bigham, know also as 'Iron Sally', won gold at the 2016 European Marathon Championships and silver at the Worlds. Sally has won some of the world's toughest and enduring stage races, including the famed Cape Epic and the Transalp.
During a short trip back to the UK, Sally talks to us about her rise to success in the sport, the challenges of equal pay at Elite level racing and also shares her advice on training for marathon and mountain bike stage racing.
You took up the sport at 28, later in life compared to other racers. Do think being outside of the traditional ladder helped your rise to success?
Yes - I think it’s had its advantages and disadvantages - for me the advantages are that I really knew what I wanted. I came from a background in academia having done a PHD in psychology and researching autism in young children and continued to lecture and research in a number of universities. I enjoyed it a lot, but being an outdoor person at heart –once mountain biking entered my life it very much took over. Being stuck in an office wasn’t quite as thrilling as the opportunity to race my mountain bike around the world!
Knowing the alternative, it massively motivated me to achieve my goals in cycling. Having that background as a perfectionist in everything I did within my academic career also fed through into cycling. Being older, I’d experienced the office life. Perhaps being younger, you don’t have the same insight and potentially realise how lucky you are to have the opportunity.
My husband has been a huge help too. He really backed me and we travelled together, in fact, he is now the Team Manager for Topeak Ergon. That’s made it much easier. If I’d been a young teenager alone it would have been much harder. I’m not sure how successful I would have been without his support. Training is so intense too. Starting so young there is the danger of burn out and also you might be more susceptible to injury.
Looking at your results, they’re incredible – taking gold at the European Marathon Champs and Silver at the Worlds last year. What does it take to achieve at that level?
It’s taken a lot of sacrifice and hard work. I’ve had to become very selfish and made a lot of sacrifices over the years, but when I set out I never imagined for a minute that it would be a possibility. I entered the first National Champs and never thought I could win – I was still on flat pedals and trainers! Initially it more a competition with myself. When I got a silver in the Euros, I realised "Maybe i'm actually quite good at this!".
I adjusted my goals and was aiming for a medal at the World Champs and to earn a gold at the Euros. Last year I finally got the gold after 4 silver medals. The process has been a massive journey and it can be exhausting too. We rented out our house and haven’t been back for 4 years. I also miss out on seeing my friends and going out with them regularly. Small things - I adore animals - so I would love pets but I just can’t right now. When I do retire, I’ll be excited to have those things in the future.
How much of cycling talent is nature versus nurture?
I’ve always been very sporty and passionate about the outdoors; as a child, I was out playing in the rivers, the streams and the forests. I also had horses and would do long rides in the countryside. At university, I was very interested in aerobics and running and I started competing in races, but I was never at my potential as I kept getting injured. That led me to the mountain bike, so I’ve always had the passion to take on endurance sport and found happiness on the bike.
You need to have both nature and nurture to succeed; the desire to be out for long hours and to explore, as well as being prepared to work damn hard at it. I can’t just pick up the bike without training and expect to perform.
What inspires you as a woman in cycling?
I read a recent article and shared it on social media; it was about how women are stronger than men when the going gets tough and the duration of the races gets longer, where now women are beating men. It’s inspirational to see what we can do. I enjoy lining up at the start of races next to the guys, competing on the same course and over the same distance. It’s encouraging to know I can come ahead.
A lot of women can feel intimated by mountain biking and I was the same in the beginning – but now I can see that we can do it a lot better sometimes and we get things like pacing and nutrition right. Men tend to go out too fast and blow up spectacularly. Women race a lot more with their heads.
I see it in stages races – it’s hilarious! The men try to destroy each other – the stronger one will take off and so their partner blows up, then the faster downhiller will get to the bottom and just wait. It makes me laugh as the whole point of paired racing is to get to the finish together. They actually perform worse than if they’d worked together. Women tend to help and support each other during these stages races.
Strongher is a community of likeminded women, here to support and grow cycling across all disciplines – do you feel that there is growth and equality for women at Elite level?
It’s definitely getting better and the prize money is equal in many races. So to that extent, it’s improving. The salaries are certainly not equal, which is hugely frustrating. My team are great and I get a good salary compared to other female riders, but compare to the men? It’s absolutely nothing. I’ve got bills to pay too and I’m work as hard or harder and they can be paid 2 – 5 times more than me. I’m bringing in more consistent results, but I’m not earning to reflect that. I do well and I can save, but men do get the share and that makes you feel devalued.
I have to put that out of my mind though, I have to stop thinking about that as it’s demotivating. I am lucky to be able to do what I love and I’m doing better than most other female cyclists. Do men get paid more as they get more publicity? I wondered that but I don’t think so, as women get a huge amount of coverage too, certainly now. Mountain biking does offer more financially as we don’t have to share the money like road riders do. We also race amongst the men in many cases - like the Cape Epic – so perhaps it’s harder to discriminate.
What do you think to the level of coverage of marathon and stage versus other disciplines?
In the UK, the coverage is terrible but in Europe, it’s actually very good. I see a lot of coverage and my interviews on TV over there. Cape Epic gets great exposure as does the Sella Ronda mountain bike race. They showed my race for a good hour and I do see marathon racing and women’s racing on Eurosport. Maybe that also explains why I encounter less British women in mountain bike racing. Women’s road cycling gets much greater coverage in places like Italy compared to the UK.
You’re named Iron Sally after a gallant effort to finish in your first stage race following a serious crash – what does it take to be so focused and determined that you can still carry on?
If I’m in a race and it’s really hard or I’ve got a problem – like the Swiss Epic where I fractured my femur – something seems to switch in my head. I become much more focused and much more driven. I find I can push through the pain. Maybe it’s the increased stress and the sense of a greater challenge? There’s a survival mechanism there that when the going gets tough I seem to get even more focused and toughen up! If it’s too easy, I’m not that into it. Something switches in my brain.
If I’m out hiking and I’m lost for example, I get really excited – most people might panic – but for me, something changes and I get my teeth into it. I am worrying, but it’s the worry that motivates me. In a race, if I ran out of water, then it would feel like the challenge was truly on!
The Cape Epic is one of the most recognised and gruelling stage races in the world and you’ve raced there 7 times – what is it about that race that keeps you going back?
With the Cape Epic, it first got my attention 10 years ago – when it was originally a point to point from Knysna to Cape Town. I wasn’t really a cyclist at that stage, but I saw an article and showed it to my boyfriend – who thought I was insane! I never imagine 10 years later I’d be talking about having done it 7 times!
Initially it was the journey that appealed and all that you’d get to see along the way. It’s not a journey anymore and I wouldn’t even say it was the hardest in terms of climbs, but it’s the brutal conditions and the heat that make it fierce – it's all of that at full on race pace.
What do you think about the rise of marathon and stage racing? If you could recommend one stage race to do – what would it be?
What’s really exciting about marathon distance is that the mass participation is much higher. Compared to XC, which is on Red Bull TV, but doesn’t have the same uptake by the general public, marathon mountain biking has much more mass appeal. Often the races I do there are 2- 3,000 riders taking part in one event. Because amateur riders are also participating alongside the professionals, it’s much more exciting and inclusive, as they get to compare themselves against the Elite. Marathon and stage are also much more accessible, unlike XC or downhill. The atmosphere is incredible too, like the Sella Ronda Hero, where the streets are full of people celebrating.
In the UK, it’s sadly not the same. If I’d not gone to mainland Europe I would never have known it was a real option as a career in cycling. People at home don’t know what I do. I know I earn more than road cyclists but people don’t see it as a profession and that you can make a good living from it. That’s a real shame.
You are offering coaching for others looking to get into or progress within the marathon discipline – what do you think is the biggest mistake people make when training for long distance?
I’ve just started this recently and want to start off slowly – as I’m still racing myself. From my own experience, I’ve always been coached by men who are road riders or from a sports degree background, I’ve never been coached by someone who has actually done marathon and stage racing themselves. Hence there’s a need for it and I’ve got so much knowledge to share.
One of the biggest mistakes is not doing the intensity. Marathon isn’t about going steadily all the time; the training is like XC. The intensity is there but it’s mixed in with longer riders too. As Jolanda Neff said – “it’s just a bloody long XC race!”. I rarely do 6 hour rides, often it’s 2 hours but with intervals. Long rides also create fatigue, preventing you from recovering.
What’s your favourite piece of bike kit that you can’t be without?
That would have to be my power meter, I couldn’t train without one. With a power meter you can measure the gains and see the results. Heart rate is a measure, but the more tired you become, the more the rate is supressed. Unless you understand that, it can be difficult. I could survive without it, but it’s such a powerful tool.
What’s ahead for you in 2017?
This winter’s been a little tough so I’m just recovering from that, but the next race is the BMB in Belgium, a 3-day stage race, hopefully with better weather! I’ll be focused on the World Championships in Germany – not my favourite course as it’s flat and a lap course with sections of tar. The Euros are in the mountains of Slovenia and it’ll be a great climbing course. I’ll be back at Transalp too, but the focus is the Euros and the Worlds.
Sally is part of team Topeak Ergon Race Team.
About Catriona Sutherland
Catriona is an avid mountain biker from the UK, favouring endurance events. She has competed in various 24 hour, marathon and stage mountain bike races around the world including the Joberg2c, Epic Israel and the Strathpuffer. Currently working as freelance marketing consultant, mountain bike guide and serial adventurer, Catriona is happiest riding her bike, drinking coffee and planning her next trip!
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