Will Dan Bigham break the World hour record? Here's why our aero expert thinks so
An aero authority - supported by Ineos Grenadiers the masters of marginal gains - has likely found those seven extra watts required.
Dan Bigham has announced that he will attempt to topple Victor Campanaerts’ hour record on Friday, August 19.
Since Campanaerts broke Bradley Wiggins’ mark of 54.526km - which Bigham has already bested - in 2019 at the Aguascalientes velodrome, five riders have attempted, and failed, to break Campanaerts' record.
Most recently, Alex Dowsett attempted in November 2021 - and failed. Bigham's attempt will take place in Grenchen, Switzerland, which is 450m above sea level.
Bigham's past ‘attempt’ and the form book
In 2021 Dan Bigham took to the same velodrome in Grenchen, the day after his fiancé Joss Lowden broke the women’s record, to have a go at breaking Bradley Wiggins’ then British record. Bigham rode 54.723km putting almost 200m into Wiggins’ mark. The current World record, held by Campanaerts, is 55.089km.
That's less than one per cent Bigham needs to find: doable.
At the recent Commonwealth Games, Bigham took a silver medal in the team pursuit as part of a strong English quartet. He also caught his minute man and ex-teammate, John Archibald, in the time trial - just before doing a front flip over the barriers. He did get back on his bike to finish 12th however.
This year, Bigham also achieved a silver medal at British TT championships, although finishing quite a way down on Ethan Hayter - who was on imperious form that week.
When the UCI announced the attempt on Twitter, Bigham quote tweeted with a short thread providing a bit of context. The second tweet in this thread thanked INEOS Grenadiers for their ‘full support’. Something he didn’t have when he took on Wiggins’ mark late last year.
While details of ‘full support’ weren’t given, I would speculate this amounts to a reduced workload as a race engineer for the British team, as well as help regarding equipment and nutrition.
Given how INEOS Grenadiers is the team that popularised the notion of 'finding the one per cent' in cycling, to receive their full support must be heartening - especially given that Bigham only needs a little less than that to cinch the hour record.
The only preparation hiccup seems to have been - at least from the outside - the crash in the Commonwealth Games. It’s also possible that the support INEOS has given Bigham is a practice run for their time trial specialist, Filippo Ganna, putting the record out of touch at some point in the near future - which Ganna has hinted at in the past. Bigham has previously alluded that this is the case.
Hour record attempts tend to take place at altitude. The reason for this is that riding a bike at altitude is significantly faster. The density of air varies with barometric pressure which decreases with an increase in altitude - and with fewer air molecules in front of you to push out of the way, the faster you will go.
Unfortunately, as we go up, an athlete’s ability to extract oxygen from the air is also decreased (as there’s less of it to extract). This means, there’s a drop off in power output - however as you’re more aero at altitude, the power needed for any given speed is lower than at sea level.
The reduction in performance is quite individual, but on average, an athlete’s VO2 max (a way of measuring an athletes' aerobic capacity) will decrease around 5% at 1500m above sea level.
Dan Bigham broke Bradley Wiggins’ record at the same velodrome (thus, altitude) that his attempt on Friday, August 9 is taking place at. That previous attempt, Bigham said that he only needed an extra seven watts to beat Campanaerts’ mark.
The question is: have those seven watts been found through improved preparation and support, with INEOS's help regarding equipment and training? It seems to me that this is quite likely. Bigham has displayed excellent form this year, already breaking the British individual pursuit record in March 2022.
Victor Campanaerts put out around 330W at 1,900m of altitude to break Wiggins’ record - according to reports from the time. Bigham, in 2020, was able to ride at 357W for an hour in Derby - completing a distance of 52.631km. That was further than Rohan Dennis’ record setting mark from 2015.
If Bigham rides close to this level - and consider that he’s had two years to build strength and make aerodynamic optimisations since then - he will break Victor Campanaerts’ mark in Grenchen this time round. Even though the record is taking place at a lower altitude than Campanaerts’ attempt, Bigham’s power to aerodynamics ratio does seem favourable compared to that which Campanaerts managed in 2019.
Scheduling and the mental game
A pacing plan is key for any hour record attempt and Bigham is proven in this aspect. Looking back to his successful attempt on the British record in 2021 we can see that he managed to ride a negative split. A negative split is where the second half of the time trial is ridden at a faster pace than the first and is a pacing strategy seen across many sports.
While an even split is usually faster, physiologically speaking, a negative split is easier to execute and allows more margin for error. The mental aspect of this pacing strategy is a tricky one, spending time underneath record pace can be daunting. On this, from his previous record, Bigham said, “It was quite a scary way to ride it because you know you’ve got to pick it up”. Having experience of this associated with a successful attempt will allow Bigham to remain confident in his strategy and not bottle it by starting too hard.
It seems clear that the previous attempt on the national record has provided Bigham with ample confidence for this attempt. Simply put, he wouldn’t be doing it if he didn’t think he has a realistic chance of beating the record set by Campanaerts. Given the imperfect prep that went into his previous attempt, and the fact that his partner, Joss Lowden, had done a successful hour record the previous day (which I imagine was a stressful day for him) it’s possible those seven extra watts could be found purely from preparation alone.
So will he do it?
Yes, he probably will. It seems this is a practice run for Ineos's Fillippo Ganna to do something obscene, perhaps in 2023. The simple reality is Bigham is likely to break the record and the question is, provided nothing goes wrong, how much will it be broken by? He will likely be on faster equipment, is significantly better trained and has a more focussed preparation this time round. All of that is easily worth the seven watts he needs. I’m going to nail my flag to the mast with something around the 55.300km mark.
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Tom Epton is a freelance writer and data scientist. Originally training as a scientist after completing his studies in physics he realised that cycling was what he wanted to spend his life thinking about. Now he works with manufacturers, athletes and teams using cutting edge data science methods to find performance gains. Tom writes primarily about sport-science and tech!
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