Our Inspiring Women interview series has featured a wide range of people doing impressive things in the world of mountain biking. This month we feature our first professional rider: Sally Bigham. Sally is probably one of the most successful British MTB racers of the current day and yet is possibly someone that the great British mountain bike public is less familiar with than it should be.
She’s been racing professionally for the last 10 years, mainly on the marathon and stage race scene in Europe and further afield, and in that time has won the European Marathon Championship and twice a World Marathon Championship silver medal. Despite a massively successful decade of racing, one goal still remains: to win gold at the World Championships. And if this wasn’t a challenge enough for anyone, she’s now aiming to do it after having had her son Max at the start of this year.
[RS]: To start at the beginning, how did you get into marathon racing?
[SB]: I started off as a runner but used to get injured all of the time and get so frustrated with it. One day when I was injured I took my boyfriend’s mountain bike out and went exploring around Dorset on this mega long ride. That’s really how I got an idea of it and a taste for how far I could go. From that I got the idea to do a 24 hour race so gave that a try, that was 2007. I did Sleepless in the Saddle that year and then won Mountain Mayhem the following year. As part of my training and preparation for Mayhem I did the national marathon championships and won an entry into the World Marathon champs.
Racing at the World Champs in the Italian Dolomites was just so inspiring: to race in one of the biggest international races, to see the whole race scene, the atmosphere and the scenery; it really did grip hold of me and give me the marathon bug. Even to this day I love going back to do the Dolomiti Superbike race, it’s just so incredible. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s really hard to explain, you just don’t get that sort of race in the UK – the atmosphere, the massive landscape – it’s really hard to describe. One thing that I’d definitely say is that if you’ve not done one go and experience it. It’s amazing to do one of these mass participation races in the big landscape, it really is quite incredible. It really grips me.
Are women as supported into top level racing as the men?
The race scene for the men is far, far bigger and it’s well known that the salaries are much bigger for the men than for the women. I definitely get a disproportionate salary compared to the men and it is one of my real frustrations that we don’t earn equal money. Often people comment that “you do get less prize money and salary than men because there are fewer women in the race and so it’s easier to do it”. But I train just as hard as the men so why should I earn less money? Now there is more frequently equal prize money which is a start but it’s still really unequal.
I think Red Bull TV is doing a lot to help women’s cycling, streaming the XC and DH. On the continent there are a few of the marathons streamed, like the Sella Ronda Hero is on EuroSport, and the women’s race is featured which is good to see.
For women starting out marathons are a really nice place to start. XC can be quite intimidating and some of the courses a bit scary, but with marathon there’s the opportunity just to ride in a more relaxed manner and have an adventure too plus it’s a really supportive environment.
Marathon racing doesn’t seem to be as popular in the UK. What might get us more interested in it?
There are some really popular marathon type events in the UK like the Scott Marathons and lap-based races like Brighton Big Dog. I think it’s more that there aren’t the races to do in the UK rather than it not being popular.
A lot of it all comes down to the problems racing on public land so most of the time races have to be multiple laps. With one-lap races it’s much more exciting – to feel like you’ve gone on an adventure and journey rather than ridden round in circles for hours. It feels like you’re exploring in the mountains and having a brilliant experience with lots of other people. It was that which gripped me.
You gave birth to your son Max at the start of this year. How have you managed being a professional mountain biker in pregnancy and as a new mum?
I’ve had a lot of time off, the last thing I did was get a silver medal in the World Champs in September 2016 before having about 15 months off in total. Even though I rode throughout my pregnancy it wasn’t training and I was still losing my fitness all the time, but at least I was able to keep some fitness, keep my sanity and keep moving.
There are no maternity leave rules or entitlements for pregnant athletes and I was so lucky to have the continued support of my team. The year I was pregnant was the second year of a two year contract with Topeak-Ergon and the team continued supporting me even though I wasn’t training or racing, on the basis of having such a good year in 2016. To have my contract honoured and the team to be so loyal was amazing, I don’t think you see that much in professional sport, and I’m so grateful to them for doing that for me. So I actually had my maternity leave when I was pregnant.
At the start of 2018 the team changed to Canyon Topeak Factory Racing and I was in the fortunate position that they trusted me, even though no one knew how I would get on, and they are supporting me now. I know not all women in professional support are similarly supported. This year my husband Dave has given up his job so he can look after Max. If he hadn’t done that then I wouldn’t be able to get back into training and racing.
I had Max in January and was back on the bike about four weeks later but again it wasn’t training, it was just moving. I started proper training in the middle of March so about two months after he was born.
I didn’t have a plan for getting back to training at all because I didn’t know how things would go, whether I’d have a complicated birth or have a caesarean, so I just needed to play it all by ear and be completely flexible with it. I was fortunate to be able to get back on the bike so soon after he was born.
Winning the World Champs is the one remaining goal that I have to achieve in marathon racing but at the moment my goal is trying to get back to where I was before having Max, I don’t even know whether that’s achievable. Although I’ve returned to racing very early after having Max I’m definitely not in top shape and I’m curious to see how well I can come back, at the moment it’s a bit unknown.
Racing at a top level and continuing doing so after having a baby certainly inspires others but who or what inspires you?
Sharon Laws. Ever since she told me about her diagnosis and ever since she died, I think about her regularly, almost every day when I’m training. She was just so happy and motivated in what she did. I get so much inspiration from her. I often ask myself “What would Sharon do?” and I know that each time she would do it and have a smile on her face and so that’s what I do. She was an incredible woman and a big motivation to me when I’m on the bike.
I’ve always found Sally’s achievements alongside her friendly and down-to-earth attitude inspiring. The fact that she’s now balancing all of that with having alongside the demands of a new baby and recovering from pregnancy makes what she does even more motivating.
But who is it that motivates and inspires you? We want to hear from you who we should be featuring next in our Inspiring Women feature. Which female rider inspires you (whether you’re male or female), or who has done lots to support women’s riding? They could be a pro, a local coach or someone next door. Let us know in the comments below who it is and why and maybe it’ll be your nominee that we choose to include in the next ‘Inspiring Women’ feature.