Question everything

How an amateur track cyclist reverse-engineered a strategy to beat national teams to gold – and how it can be applied to organisation’s work and place strategies too.

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.

Team track cycling is reliant on an understanding of power and aerodynamics, and how to optimise those and ensure they are as efficient as they can be.

“From a physics perspective, cycling is so simple to objectify. You have the power meter: how much energy is going in, and you know how fast you’re going. Those two are literally linked by physical equations. Once you know your equations, you can put coefficients of drag to each. You know how aerodynamic you are, how efficient your tyres are, how efficient your drive train is.”

From finding ways of increasing wattage—the power a rider puts into the bike—to ensuring the bike and the tyres are designed aerodynamically, teams historically would look at ways of finding an extra few percentage points. Instead, Bigham looked at his target of a certain time in the race and set about calculating what percentages and wattage was required.

“If you want to go this fast, we need to put this amount of energy in and we need to be this efficient on our other metrics [such as aerodynamics].”

The discrepancy between marginal gains and reverse-engineering is in the amount of freedom that the latter allows you. You’re not limited in your thinking because you’re not building on a foundation that’s already in place; in fact, you can break that foundation down entirely and build a new one.

Perhaps the clearest example is in race strategy. Within the team pursuit, there was an accepted way of riding. With four riders within a ride train ‘slipstream’, the rider at the front needs to exert more power to slice into the wind in front of them. The lead rider would then dip out of the train, moving higher up the velodrome track, before slotting back in at the back, recovering in the slipstream.

Most teams adopted a similar strategy to spread the workload out evenly. Teams would generally cover three or four laps at the start of a race before switching. Bigham’s team calculated that it would be faster to cover five or six laps at the start.

“Each change costs the team in pace consistency. Each switch requires an acceleration: more power. By reducing the number of changes throughout a race, the team doesn’t need to accelerate as much in order to keep up the pace.”

By cutting the number of changes from 10 to five across the course of a race, Bigham calculated that the team saves around a second of additional effort. When races are decided by such minuscule differences, it’s a considerable amount of time.

“For no more effort, you’re going one second faster. People argued against us, saying that it’s much harder to do, but the physics and maths showed it works, and we were able to beat them in competition with it.”

Bigham’s meticulous mentality also allowed him to extract extra performance through carefully interpreting competition regulations, pushing them to their limit. For example, in the team pursuit race, the four riders complete several laps of the velodrome. But the rules state that only three riders are required to cross the finish line. This interpretation was fed into the team’s calculations, from which Bigham deduced that it was a wasteful use of a team’s overall energy. The fourth rider can effectively put in more effort at the front of the train and then peel away, which is more efficient than continuing at the back of the pack.

Bigham and the team, time rich but relatively cash poor, decided to focus on where the largest improvement could be made for the financial and personal investment inputted.

“You’re often led to believe that your wheels, frame and equipment are hugely important,” says Bigham. “Some would focus on ensuring the bikes were the most efficient they could possibly be in terms of drag and aerodynamics.”

But he calculated that the majority of the drag is down to the rider itself.

“The equipment counts for around 20% of your total drag. It made sense for us to focus on the rider; it’s the best bang for our buck.”

Bigham spent a lot of time developing test systems in order to make the rider more aerodynamic through optimising ride positions to the margin of what the regulations would allow. Everything was geared towards getting the most out of the rider.

“We needed to remove that old school mindset, instead following the numbers which said that the rider is physiologically capable of doing this.”

Removing that mindset also allowed Bigham to work with a number of manufacturers to develop more efficient equipment.

“You both want to achieve the same goals, and once that’s clear the R&D teamwork becomes easier and you can both make big steps forward.”

The success was immediate. So much so, that other nations began taking the same approach.

“To get to where you need to be, you might need to lay the foundations very early on with a totally different approach.”

Stripping back a strategy in whichever field, says Bigham, helps you to understand what actually matters in achieving the goal. By breaking down traditions, a one per cent improvement could become five per cent, or more, because you are able to begin the journey heading in the right direction, akin to course-correcting at an early stage. And clarity on the goal itself is critical to this.

“People are obsessed with data; there’s so much technology that enables you to measure things. But if you don’t have an objective that you need to achieve, in a particular timeframe, and you haven’t understood all the performance determinants of that objective, then you’re just measuring for measurement’s sake.”

But, like working with his manufacturing partners and his teammates, empowering everyone in the team to work with the same mentality to get involved and think about things differently will result in a performance far outweighing the sum of its parts.

“Historically, athletes were the people who sit on the bike, ride it and get the result. Everything else was decided around them; they weren’t involved in the process. I found that if I created the tools and the network for the rider to do their own testing, they can analyse their own training and they’re empowered to make their own improvements.”

Bigham put this theory to work with the Danish cycling team. He has supplied the team with the right information and data, to help them get an understanding of which elements are more important.

“They’ll come back to you with so many more ideas than you could ever think of, because instead of one person thinking about it, you’ve got 10 or 15 people mulling things over.”

The team, instead of employing Bigham full-time, employs three members on a part-time basis. “You get more than three people’s worth of performance because of the interactions and how those ideas can propagate.”

His attitude to setting goals, collective progress and testing the boundaries all stem from Bigham’s engineering background, including his time working for the Mercedes Formula 1 team in the aerodynamics department.

“Every department has their own metrics. Each metric is on the big screen when you walk through the front door, so everybody can see the target that everyone is working to.

“There was a willingness to question absolutely everything; nothing is ever a given. It might be some incredible work that the entire team has worked on for a decade, but the culture allows you to consider doing things a different way. It’s always done with a positive mindset because everyone is pushing in the same direction, and that’s so motivating.”

What’s next for Bigham?

“I’ll have the Tour of Britain, the World Championships in September, before my season finishes with the National Championships.

“Oh, and I’m trying to beat Bradley Wiggins’ world hour record.”

Fair enough. Wiggins set the record in June 2015, cycling 54.526km in an hour at the Lee Valley VeloPark in London. The world record has since been broken; it is now held by the Belgian rider Victor Campanaerts, who hit 55.089km in April 2019.

Bigham intends to head to Bolivia for his attempt, as his calculations show it is faster to go at altitude.

“You lose a bit in power, but you gain so much more in a reduction of drag.”

It is a case of pure reverse engineering. He knows he needs to reach a consistent speed of 55 km/h. He can deduce what amount of power he must input, and what he needs to do to reduce drag by enough.

There are no outside influences; it’s one rider against the clock. It’s where Bigham is his most comfortable – with a clear goal in sight and an ability to plot his journey with delicate precision.

Bigham’s advice

– Have a clear goal that you wake up feeling passionate about. That passion drives the innovation. And the clarity allows you to understand what really matters.

– Don’t focus too much on the competition; if you concentrate on them and try to copy them, at best you’re going to be a step behind.

– Be as objective as possible. Subjectivity can cloud your judgement and ingrain those incorrect assumptions even deeper.

Dan Bigham’s book, Start at the End: How Reverse-Engineering Can Lead to Success, was published in May 2021

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