Last week, we spoke to Elite amateur racing Naomi Hansen, and semi-professional racer Catherine Williamson, about their entry into mountain bike racing, and how they ended up in the position they are in now. To get insights from a full time professional mountain biker, we spoke to Sally Bigham. The pal mares of Sally Bigham has lengthened considerably since racing full time as a professional, and includes numerous stage race wins, National titles, and wins or podiums in just about every big marathon event.
What prompted your start in competitive cycling, and was it straight into MTB?
I was chatting with a friend in a pizza restaurant and we decided we wanted a challenge. After discussing our options we decided on a 24-hour race, a few months later we lined up at Sleepless in the Saddle. That was my first year on an MTB, I immediately became hooked and ditched competitive running – I was always injured anyway!
What sort of involvement has your national federation had in your progress?
Absolutely nothing, well apart from the odd ‘good job’ email and sending me National kit every year to race the World Champs. Marathon is not an Olympic discipline so sadly BC aren’t interested.
How quickly did your move to competitive cycling lead to gaining a level of sponsorship?
My first race – if you can call it that – was in 2006 and I signed with Topeak Ergon Racing Team two years later after taking my first national marathon title.
Did your initial sponsorship involve a support structure for attending races, or with training and preparation? Or was it something that developed with time?
During my first year I received some financial support as well as team equipment etc. but I continued to work full time as a University Lecturer. It wasn’t until the second year that I reduced my hours at the University, first to 4 days and then 3 days per week. The following year I had the opportunity to turn professional and I haven’t looked back!
How much are you now able to rely just on your sporting performance and sponsorship support, how long did it take for this to develop?
Now I rely 100% on cycling. The transition from full time University Lecturer to full time cyclist happened gradually over 3 years.
With a higher level of support, has it been a positive motivator, or does it ever feel like extra stress with greater expectations? How have you adapted?
My motivation is intrinsic. The day it isn’t will be the day I stop. I don’t think it would be possible for me to do what I do if my motivation came solely from external sources. For sure, having such a supportive team adds extra motivation in a very positive way, but I don’t feel any added pressure since I turned pro – the pressure has always come from me, even in my very first race!
No doubt there are still lessons you learn each race, or each season. What are some of the most valuable things you have learnt about your training, recovery or racing as your career has progressed?
Absolutely, I continue to learn all of the time. This year I started with a new trainer, which has seen my training change massively, so it’s been an interesting year from a training perspective – and it’s also been a very successful year. I think that one of the most valuable things I’m learning is not to panic when injury or illness strikes – 1 or 2 weeks out of training can seem awful at the time but the reality is rarely that bad, in fact it can sometimes be a blessing in disguise.
With where you are now, in terms of support, is it allowing you to achieve your sporting goals? And what are the goals you still want to achieve?
I feel incredibly lucky to be able to make a profession out of what started off as a hobby. Topeak Ergon Racing Team has allowed me to develop gradually as a rider; year on year their support has increased and my results have reflected this. I’ve had an amazing season this year and it has surpassed my expectations, but I still have very clear goals that I want to achieve over the next couple of years: I’ve had 2 silver European Championship medals (2011; 2012), which is great but now I want to win; I’ve never made the podium at the World Champs so that is definitely on my list of ‘to do’s’ and, ultimately, ‘to wins’.
With the UCI Marathon World Championships just a month away, we wish Sally good luck in Ornans!