October 09, 2018

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Student Digs & Skinsuits: How a track team from Derby are taking on the cycling world

Team Interview

With 32 medals over the last three Olympic Games, the velodrome has long been the preserve of British Cycling. How do you challenge that? Step forward Team HUUB Wattbike...

Words: Tim Heming

It’s rare the established order is rocked in cycling, especially when it’s by a group of young track riders with none-to-little velodrome experience and a shoestring budget. Yet while the odds were stacked against the fledgling Derby-based outfit, a national title in their first event and a World Cup win just months later meant they couldn’t be ignored.

Originally Team KGF, now rebranded Team HUUB Wattbike, as momentum and support grows, this unlikely story is about far more than the ability to push a pedal. Led by aerodynamicist-turned-track rider Dan Bigham, it centres on the hunger and disruptive mindset to challenge the status quo at every level - from training to tactics, attitude to equipment, socks to skinsuits - to deliver much more than marginal gains.

It started at the nationals in Manchester last January, where it was Bigham’s idea to pull together four riders at a month’s notice and give it an optimistic crack. The name, KGF, came from a link with the charity, the Karen Green Foundation, that’s set up to give respite to families whose loved ones are battling long-term illness. As the underdogs with crowd support, everything came together on the day.

“We beat the Great Britain senior academy team in the final and broke the competition record with a time that would have placed us eighth in the Olympics,” Bigham says. “Even the Great Britain coaches didn’t have a clue who we were, where we’d come from, or how we’d done it. And it was all from four weeks of training. What if we’d had four months?”

That was the intriguing question that led to Charlie Tanfield, Jacob Tipper and Jonny Wale not just joining Bigham for a one-off experiment, but forming a competitive trade team that could compete on the World Cup circuit through the winter. It was to be a close-knit group, not least because they’d all squeeze into two-bed student-style digs in Derby.   

For a man who studied aerodynamics at Oxford Brookes University and cut his teeth in Formula One, the track, and team pursuit in particular, played right into Bigham’s psyche. “Road racing is affected by conditions and other teams’ tactics,” Bigham explains. “But the 4km team pursuit is a controlled, measurable objective. We calculate the energy going in and the energy coming out and just look to improve it.”

Full autonomy there might have been, a budget there was not, and with no lottery funding rolling in, everything had to be done on a shoestring. At the beginning, equipment was borrowed, begged, or, anxiety-inducingly, delivered late.

“The socks arrived on the morning of the first race in Manchester,” Bigham says. “We’d tested them in the velodrome and they were worth at least a second in team pursuit. We won by four-tenths.”

The next step was to gain a UCI licence to compete on the world stage, a task not helped by the deadline having passed two months prior. With the season not due to start until October, they were granted a reprieve, and with the help of private funders, crowdfunding and a heavy toll on credit cards, scraped together £16k to see them through a season of racing with trips to Poland, Manchester, Portugal, Switzerland, Belarus and Glasgow. For comparison, a governing body might budget around £30,000... per event.

Cut-price hotels and nutritionally-suspect food aside, other realities started to hit home, such as the restricted gene pool. Not only did the team not have the funds at British Cycling’s disposal, nor did they have the breadth of talent to swap riders in and out.

With the third man across the line stopping the clock in the team pursuit, and the team relying on novel tactics that would see Wale - with his big anaerobic engine - blasting from the front early before dropping out, no-one else could afford to slip.

“The whole process was a big learning curve,” Tipper says. “We’d never trained like this before and l didn’t adapt as well as I’d have liked.” It came to a head - and all fell apart - in Poland, a fatiguing Tipper unable to stick the pace.

“It made me feel like wanting to curl up in a ball,” he says. “I never thought I’d get to compete on the world stage. I get that opportunity, and embarrass myself.”

But Tipper’s brutal honesty was also a positive. The ability to park egos and objectively assess strengths and weaknesses, provided the environment to develop apace. They came away with a long list of specific improvements, one of which was Tipper changing his gearing. “I was using about 8 inches more of gear and dropped my cadence range by 10rpm. For someone riding team pursuit it’s essentially unheard of,” he says. But it worked.

Wale breaking his collarbone in a fall in the velodrome, was the catalyst for Charlie Tanfield’s brother, Harry, to become the fifth member of the squad. It meant come the World Cup in Belarus, Charlie could be rested for the qualifying rounds as he concentrated on the individual pursuit, before replacing Tipper in the final. Again, it worked. The team defeated the Russian trade team Lokosphinx, and, showing their increasing strength in depth, even the time they rode in the qualifying would have given them gold.

It was made all the sweeter for the disastrous preparations. Three days before the flight to Minsk, their house was broken into and £10,000 worth of kit stolen. “We turned up discussing whether our legs still hurt from chasing the burglars.” Tipper says. On returning home, they found the back door kicked in again.

Security issues aside it was time to take it up a notch and John Archibald, Simon Wilson and Ethan Vernon came in to bolster numbers and provide a B team for the 2018 nationals. “It was almost like the same project again,” Archibald says. The B team would come third, the As, hampered by mechanical issues finished runner-up.

Now it’s all eyes on the new season. The first race is the Paris World Cup on October 19, with Bigham setting a target of 3mins 53sec. That’s 11sec faster than they rode on debut in Manchester, and just 4sec shy of the world record.

“It means every rider has to find 23 watts,” Bigham says. “Whether they find it from their legs or equipment it doesn’t matter - and it means we should also win every World Cup.”

It’s a bullish attitude that has started to become noticed. Individually, some of the team have started acquiring national honours - Charlie becoming England’s only track gold medallist in this year’s Commonwealth Games, with Archibald taking silver behind him in the individual pursuit.

But the more enticing question is whether Team HUUB Wattbike could represent Britain as a team in the World Championships. It’s not straightforward. There is no trial system in place. They simply must go on improving. “Fast times talk,” Tipper says.

As for now, it’s back to the drawing board and poring over every minute detail. “How can we improve with wheels, skinsuits, tyres, the drivetrain, preparation and travel?” Bigham says. “For every single element we can do better, and that’s where there’s a lot of improvement to come.”

Follow HUUB Wattbike Test Team through the 2018-19 UCI Track World Cup season:

  • Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines, France: October 19-21
  • Milton, Canada: October 26-28
  • Berlin, Germany: November 30-December 2
  • London: December 14-16
  • Cambridge, New Zealand: January 18-20
  • Hong Kong: January 25-27

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