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Speed dating: Joss Lowden and Dan Bigham profile

In-depth
14 Feb 2022
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Joss Lowden and Dan Bigham celebrated their engagement by breaking Hour records, moving teams and relocating for an Andorran adventure

Words James Witts Photography Alex Wright

‘I can show you our beer collection. We’re quite into collecting them.’

It’s not what you expect to hear when you pay a visit to a pair of elite athletes, but then Dan Bigham and Joss Lowden, two of Britain’s standout performers of 2021, are anything but your archetypal pro cyclists.

Bigham, 30, is an aerodynamic pioneer and athlete who wears his large heart on his sleeve. Lowden, 34, is a cyclist who arrived on the world stage late into her career. The engaged couple’s performance potential has simmered for years. In 2021, it reached boiling point over two days in Grenchen, Switzerland, where both rode to Hour records.

Up first came Lowden on 30th September, reeling off 48.405km to break Italian Vittoria Bussi’s existing Hour record of 48.007km. A day later, on the same boards, Bigham swept past Sir Bradley Wiggins’ British record of 54.526km with 54.723km. It was two hours of effort 18 months in the making. Lowden picks up the story…

‘The idea sprang from the Huub-WattBike boys’ [Bigham, John Archibald, Jacob Tipper and Jonny Wale] failed Cochabamba trip in April 2020. They were looking to head to Bolivia to break the team pursuit record, but Covid put paid to that.

‘Dan crunched some numbers and thought I could break the Hour record so I was going to come along, but just for the British record. Costs would have prevented me going for the world record.’

Those costs are what prevented Bigham officially challenging the world record of Victor Campenaerts (55.089km). Even if he’d ridden further than the Belgian, it wouldn’t have counted in the UCI’s eyes because you have to be on the biological blood-passport programme to attempt the record.

Bigham races – or raced, as we’ll find out – for British outfit Ribble-Weldtite at Continental level, which doesn’t follow the same anti-doping rules as the WorldTour. To join and maintain the programme would have cost around £8,000.

That’s nothing for division one squads, but in division three that’s nearly everything. The domestic Hour, however, isn’t subject to the same rules, hence Bigham’s British attempt.

‘As it transpired, Covid prevented another chance we had pencilled in for early 2021,’ Lowden says. ‘But Dan and I thought we’d do a full-on practice session instead at Manchester Velodrome and involve a team of analysts to determine what would and wouldn’t be limiting factors.

‘Physiologists came along from the Royal Dutch Cycling Federation including Mehdi [Kordi, one of the world’s most esteemed track coaches]. He was at British Cycling and helped us at Huub-WattBike. Delsys [a data company] was there too.

‘They applied EMG sensors to us to learn more about muscle activation. Plus we recorded core body temperature and analysed biomechanics and aerodynamics, all to figure out what goes into the Hour record.’

The diagnostic rehearsal went well. Very well.

‘I did 48.16km,’ says Lowden. ‘After that my team, Drops-Le Col, said we need to make this an official world record: “We’ll pay for everything.”’

Post-Flanders flagellation

After liaising with her coach, the inimitable Sean Yates, it was decided the double record assault would take place after late September’s World Championships in Flanders, where Lowden finished eighth in the time-trial, fifth in the mixed team time-trial (alongside Bigham) and DNF’d in the road race. Bigham, incredibly making his UCI road debut for Great Britain, came 16th in the time-trial.

Several days later, now in Switzerland, they’d make cycling history. Lowden says, ‘I felt sick, dizzy and I kept thinking, hold your shit together.’ Bigham adds, ‘It’s a unique effort because it’s all on the limit. Throw in racing on a fixed-gear bike, maintaining that aero position and fatigued muscles, and it’s really hard to lift your pace. That was shown from the EMG work. But obviously you feel it.’

According to Lowden, you feel it in the glutes, calves, quads, heart and lungs, but nowhere more so than the lips. ‘The last ten minutes felt longer than the first 50, specifically because your mouth is so dry,’ she recalls.

‘Despite using tons of Lypsyl, your lips are sore because you don’t take on fluid. There’s nothing to drink and you’re just wilting. Snot’s pouring down your face and you can’t wipe if off. It’s all so unsexy.’

The Hour also burns through glycogen like wildfire. It’s why Lowden ‘shovelled the carbs in beforehand’, which ultimately contributed to the sickness. Bigham, on the other hand, the man of science, turned to the journals.

‘Before the effort I swilled carbs around my mouth, conning my brain into thinking it’s getting more carbs than it is. I didn’t want to put 200g in at the start line as I was already pretty high.’

What wasn’t particularly high, however, was Bigham’s average power. He didn’t use a power meter but he calculated it at around 350 watts – impressive, but around 100 watts lower than Wiggins’ 450-watt Hour effort. Lowden came in at around 260 watts.

‘People didn’t think that was right, saying I was undeserving of the record,’ Bigham says. ‘Well, I rode that far! I’m just extremely aerodynamic.’

That’s his speciality. Off the back of studying motorsport engineering at Oxford Brookes University, he worked as an aerodynamicist at the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 team. Away from the Formula 1 track, he also pursued his hobby of cycling.

Ultimately F1 provided a brief pitstop before he dedicated himself full-time to two wheels, applying his drag-reducing knowledge to his own racing and setting up WattShop, ‘a high-performance cycling boutique specialising in waxed chains, carbon fibre armrests, aerodynamic testing and other watt-saving solutions’.

He has mastered the science of cheating drag and has calculated that he’d need to find seven more watts to overtake Campenaerts’ 55.089km. ‘Can I find that in another six, nine, 12 months? Maybe 3.5 watts in the legs and 3.5 watts more in aero? There are many ways to skin a cat but I’m not a million miles off.’

New horizons

The chance to challenge the Campenaerts time on a global stage is now fiscally possible too, as Bigham is joining Ineos Grenadiers in arguably the British team’s biggest backroom shake-up since its formation in 2010.

Sir Dave Brailsford is rumoured to be heading upstairs for a broader role across the Ineos sports portfolio, while head of performance Tim Kerrison has departed after 12 years. Rider-wise, six new recruits have come on board. Bigham has an aero shoe cover in both camps.

‘I’m joining as an engineer, test rider and rider, who they’ll support to race but not at WorldTour level; instead it will be select races and challenges like the Hour record. It’s pretty cool and has been in the pipeline for a while.

‘In fact I had offers from several teams, primarily on the engineering side, albeit the combination of theory and application does help when you’re working with these guys. They have more faith in what you say if you’ve raced against them rather than being just solely an engineer.’

Bigham has cut ties with the Danish national track programme, for whom he cultivated his growing aerodynamic reputation, and will no longer provide services for Jumbo-Visma. Bigham and Lowden are both upping their Staffordshire sticks and moving to Andorra, home to many Grenadiers and an environment that, when the snow thaws, provides the pro cyclist’s holy trinity of silky-smooth roads, peace and mountainous terrain.

Which will place Lowden in good stead for her own career-changing move to new women’s WorldTour team Uno-X. It’s a move that will present the 34-year-old with a belated problem.

‘As a professional cyclist I finally have to start thinking about paying tax! That’s unusual in women’s cycling. Uno-X is great and into minimum-salary parity with the men’s team. The contract also includes maternity leave. In fact it’s treated like a proper job.’

Teammate Elinor Barker has already benefitted from this long-awaited development, the Norwegian team happy for the pregnant Barker to begin racing in 2023. The British contingent at Uno-X also stretches to Hannah Barnes with the overall roster numbering 12. Lowden was hooking up with her countrywomen and colleagues on a team-bonding wilderness camp, Scandi-style, the week after our interview.

‘I’m looking forward to it, I think,’ she says nervously. ‘But I’m more looking forward to living the life of a full-time cyclist for the first time.

‘I’ve been working for a company called NTT Data for the past ten years. I started in analytics before moving into project management. The last couple of years, since my cycling’s taken off, it has taken more of a back seat, but it was proving stressful to balance the two.

‘I’m used to cramming, and I used to spend hours on a turbo trainer behind my car before starting work at seven. But my bucket began to overflow. I’m a big believer that until a certain point in your sports career, you can do both; that youngsters coming through should still have a job on the side and not just ride.

‘But there comes a point where you’re doing a huge amount of travelling and it’s unsustainable. I’ve been in this house fewer than ten days since July. Come in, unpack, pack, head out. Always on the road.’

Targetting the Tour

Lowden’s breakthrough arguably came in 2019 with team time-trial bronze at the Yorkshire Worlds. The following year was a relative non-event because of Covid, leaving her hungrier than ever for success in 2021.

That came in the form of the overall win at the Tour de Feminin in the Czech Republic and fifth at Brabantse Pijl in Belgium. Her results piqued Uno-X’s interest and precipitated the move from Continental team Drops-Le Col.

Lowden is hoping her move to Uno-X might give her a shot at racing in the newly revived women’s Tour de France, the eight-day event that starts in Paris on the same day the men’s edition finishes (24th July).

‘I’d be looking to target it if possible, although it’s a shame it doesn’t feature a time-trial. Still, it will be a great race and interesting to see how my training pans out as I’m leaving my coach [Yates] of many years. Sean has been great and we’ll keep in touch but I’m always up for trying new things.

‘It will also be refreshing to race and look specifically at stages and say, “How will today pan out or where will the big time gaps come?” I’ll have to put myself in the best position for GC and train accordingly. Or, as Dan says, reverse engineer it.’

Cue one of Bigham’s recent side projects, penning a book with ghost writer Paul Maunder entitled Start At The End: How Reverse Engineering Can Lead To Success. The 2021 release chronicles Bigham and his track team Huub-WattBike’s record-breaking exploits that upset the equilibrium to such an extent that the UCI rewrote the rulebook and banned trade teams.

Bigham’s outspoken nature led to friction with British Cycling, although the relationship now seems to be on a better footing since Bigham’s selection for the British team at the World Championships in Flanders.

‘They were great at the Worlds, driving all of my gear down,’ he says. ‘Joss had two road bikes, two TT bikes and then I had my two TT bikes. And we had both of our track bikes, three sets of track discs and all of our spares. And they were like, “Fine, we’ll drive it to Switzerland.” Some of it’s in Manchester now but we’ll get it at some point.’

That’s if they can find the time. Beyond the move to Andorra at the start of 2022 and settling in at their respective teams, the couple are due to wed in October at Joss’s parents’ abode in Norfolk. ‘I proposed in Sierra Nevada,’ says Bigham. ‘I scouted a location but figuring out how to get Joss to 3,000m was hard.’

Lowden interrupts, ‘I’d been doing threshold efforts at altitude and was exhausted. I wanted to do them at sea level but he insisted they’d be better high up. I wanted to go home and he was like, “No, no, no!” It was gale force at the top.’

‘Thankfully Joss waited,’ Bigham adds. ‘I was following her up the climb and saw a friend of Harry Tanfield’s at a petrol station. I explained to him what was going down and he agreed to film it. Thankfully, after all that, Joss said yes.’

The secret to love, it seems, is a shortage of oxygen, dangerously low glycogen levels and the occasional artisan beer. The secret to speed? Curious minds, a scientist’s attention to detail and a commitment to maximise every pedal stroke at every session and every race.

We suspect the data will conclude that 2022 will be an even more memorable season for Britain’s fastest couple than 2021.

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Lowden and Bigham on… 

Pandemic training

Lowden: ‘During Covid I’d spend hours on the turbo trainer watching appalling television. I really got into Bling Empire. It was crazy-rich characters spending crazy amounts of money in LA. It was dreadful but got me through.’

Not racing WorldTour

Bigham: ‘I’ve never had the ambition to. Even though I’m joining a WorldTour team I’ll have a pretty free rein. I’ve never wanted to do a tour here, there and everywhere. I want to target this race, that one and that’s it.’

Women’s racing

Lowden: ‘We’ve shown that women’s racing can be as exciting if not more exciting than the men’s. Our races are shorter. There are more fireworks, less dead time, more drama. We don’t have 220km of soft-tapping before a sprint.’

Homebrew

Bigham: ‘I made cider at uni. I bought around £100 worth of kit and used 30 litres of cheap apple juice. You put in as much sugar as you wanted, some yeast, and left it for a couple of weeks, job done. Some tasted OK. Some was terrible.’