As the world prepared for the delayed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to begin, each nation took the opportunity to identify their best chances of winning medals. Historically for Team GB, they have been a dominant force in cycling events and this year was no different, topping the table with 12 medals. Jason Kenny is now the most decorated British Olympian in history, winning seven gold medals in track cycling, followed by Sir Chris Hoy, with six and Sir Bradley Wiggins, with five (eight medals overall).
In the previous track cycling events at the last three Olympic Games, Team GB has won 20 out of 30 gold medals contested. But in Tokyo, there were lower expectations. British Cycling’s performance director, Stephen Park, said that the technical advantages that the team has previously enjoyed over its competition have narrowed; in particular, making up the gap with faster equipment to try and end the team’s dominance in the sport. Other teams and nations have either sought to exploit areas of weakness, chip away at marginal gaps, or devise new methods and strategies which deviate entirely from the norm.
One person who falls under the third category in particular — although he would argue that he comfortably sits in the other two as well — is Dan Bigham.
Dan Bigham is a British racing cyclist. In 2017 he won gold at the British National Track Championships as part of his amateur team. He won gold at both the 2017 and 2018 editions of the UCI Track World Cup in the blue riband Team Pursuit race, rising from obscurity to beat several national teams. He subsequently rode for his country at both the Commonwealth Games and the World Championships in 2018, although he has never worked as a coach for British Cycling.
Instead, he is currently working for the Danish national team, and supported them winning a gold and two silver medals in Tokyo. The team, with Bigham’s support, beat the world record three times in two days at the World Championships in Berlin.
Bigham credits his engineering mindset and ambitious goals for his success. His book, Start at the End: How Reverse-Engineering Can Lead to Success, illustrates how this approach can be applied to problems outside of the sporting world. His forensic mindset not only beat the more financially-backed outfits, but it persuaded them to adopt some of his techniques, completely dismantling the normal behaviours the entire sport had conformed to over the years. Later, riders from other teams, including the U.S. national team, were desperate to join Bigham as they felt it was a step up.
How did it start? How did a group of 24–25-year-olds, fresh out of university and starting much later than other riders (who would typically begin at age 14 or 15), reach the heights that they did?
“It all began with a bit of a moan in group text chats,” says Bigham. “We questioned some of the decisions these professional teams—sometimes national teams—were making, asking ourselves why they chose a certain strategy or certain equipment.”
Each of the riders were newly qualified with degrees in engineering, psychology and sports physiology. Bigham, in tandem with teammates Charlie Tanfield, Jacob Tipper and Jonathan Wale, spotted an opportunity to invest their time and ideas into a project: to beat these teams that they considered to be performing sub-optimally.
Bigham stresses that his approach is different to the well-established ‘marginal gains’ theory adopted by several sporting outfits, from Formula 1 teams to British Cycling, notably under the direction of Sir Dave Brailsford.
“Those in the sport had always approached it in a different way. With marginal gains, you are looking to make incremental improvements, making yourself slightly more powerful or slightly more dynamic. You are looking for 1 or 2 per cent improvements. Instead, we quite literally started with the end—to win gold—and then we were able to break that down into its constituent parts. It was something that felt quite natural to me as an engineer; it is a process my mind goes through.”
Track cycling has a more controlled approach to it than road cycling. Firstly, it’s indoors, so there is no requirement to factor weather into any calculations. Secondly, it’s far more structured. If you get caught out on the other side of a crash on the road, it can completely wreck your race.