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Face of the Race: Sally Bigham


Five years ago, Sally Bigham left the world of academia to make a go as a pro. In 2014, she became the Leadville Trail 100 MTB female champion for her second time. But despite being a serious bike racer, she insists it’s really all about having fun.

Congratulations on winning your second LT100 MTB! How did it feel to cross that finish line in first place once again?
Thanks! It was amazing; it’s such a buzz to win the LT100 MTB. To be honest, it’s a relief just to finish because so much can conspire against riders over so many hard miles and hours at altitude. Turning the last corner, cresting the final hill and seeing the finish line in the distance makes the skin tingle!

We love that both your life and riding motto is all about having fun. How do you stay in that mindset when the going gets tough during a race?
Life should be about having fun and if you can achieve that then you’re winning! Riding bikes in beautiful places is an honor and it’s a privilege that must not be overlooked. Sometimes, especially during dark moments at the LT100 MTB, it can be easy to forget why we are doing it, but during those moments I look around at the mountains and nature – that reminds me how lucky we are!

Your progression from being a non-cyclist to pro rider happened very quickly. What were some of the biggest changes that took place for you within those two years?
Turning pro was a bit of a gamble at first. I took a two-year sabbatical from my academic career to see if I could get the results I needed to make it as a pro. I packed up my office and sold my car. I’d worked hard to reach my academic goals and it was weird to walk away from it – in some ways it felt like a regression, but I needed to know if I could make it as a bike racer. I reasoned that it was better to try and not succeed than to have not tried at all and forever wonder. It was a gamble that paid off; I’m just embarking on my fifth year as a full time pro.

You have the opportunity to travel the world with your Topeak-Ergon Racing Team. What are some of your favorite locations to race in? What makes them unique? 
It’s an incredible opportunity and we’ve seen so many beautiful places. There aren’t any places that I dislike going to, but the highlights are definitely South Africa, the Dolomites and Colorado. All three have distinct cultures, wildlife and climates.

How did you develop the nickname “Iron Sally”?
It was during the Trans Germany – one of my first-ever races for Topeak Ergon. At the beginning of the penultimate stage of the seven-day race I crashed on a tarmac descent. After finishing the stage we went directly to the hospital. There were threee deep holes in my elbow and I’d lost a lot of skin. Gauze was put inside the holes and stapled in place. The next day I raced to second position in the general classification. A couple of other similar scenarios the following year led to the nickname “Iron Sally.” Hoping there’ll be no additions to the list!

What events would you like to race in the future?
There are so many, which is why I’m still so motivated to train and race! I get a thrill from new adventures and experiences. In the future I’d love to ride the Great Divide, but in the meantime I’d be happy to race Sea Otter, the Whiskey 50, BC Bike Race and any others that I’ve not heard about on that side of the Atlantic. Meantime, I’m pretty excited about the 2015 World Championships in Selva val Gardena, Italy. It’s a truly spectacular place in the Dolomites and I can’t wait to race for the rainbow jersey there.

You once worked as a university researcher and lecturer after receiving your PhD in Psychology. What convinced you to leave work and become a full-time mountain biker?
There was no need for convincing; I just had to give it a go! One day I can return to academia, but for the time being I’m going to carry on exploring the world with my bike. It’s a privilege that I’m wholeheartedly embracing. Despite the hard work and dedication, I’m reaping the rewards!

Did you switch up your nutrition plan at all this year?
The Leadville Trail 100 MTB is the longest race I do each year. Normally I race for three to five hours and during that time I typically don’t eat solid food – just gels and energy drink. The LT100 MTB is different; it’s full-on racing for more than seven hours. This year, I focused on eating more solid food – bars and bananas – than the previous year, especially during the first half of the race. Admittedly, I do find it difficult to chew and swallow bars when I’m racing at high intensity, but I made a plan to eat something every 20 minutes alternating pieces of banana, bits of bars and gels.

Were you able to stick with your plan throughout the race? 
Not 100% because you also have to go off feeling and what’s easiest to eat at that moment. Sometimes it’s not possible to eat a bar either because of the terrain or racing tactics, and sometimes after a very hard effort a gel might be better than a bar, for example. During the last couple of hours it can also get to the point where you just have to eat what you can tolerate because your appetite changes.

What will you focus on this winter?
Two months ago I had surgery to treat a condition called iliac endofibrosis that affects cyclists, both amateur and professional. In simple terms, repetitive hip flexion combined with high-pressure blood flow through the iliac artery (located in the lower abdomen) causes the lining of the artery to thicken. This limits the flow of blood to the affected leg and, in my case, the flow to my left leg was reduced by 50%. Surgery basically involved opening the artery and removing the thickened area, while a patch was then stitched on to make the artery bigger. It’s a big operation and for the first six weeks it is not possible to do any exercise at all. Now I’m eight weeks post-op and I’m starting to ride again, just one hour at a time and slowly. In two more weeks I should be riding for longer and at higher intensities.

So, this winter my focus is on rehabilitation in the sunshine in Gran Canaria! Warm weather, tapas and nice wine… It could be worse.

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