Words by Maria David
Canyon Topeak’s Sally Bigham, aka “Iron Sally" never stops! The 2016 European mountain bike marathon champion who famously raced with a cracked femur did not let pregnancy get in the way of her bike riding, even if it slowed her down little.
Sally talked to us about life as a pregnant athlete and the joys of being a mother. When I caught up with Sally at the Canyon Experience weekend, she’d just got back from a mountain bike ride. Where her bike rides previously involved her singing pop songs to herself, she now sings nursery rhymes. Life has been very different for Sally, since having Max in January.
When she fell pregnant last May, one thing for sure was that Sally would continue to cycle and keep fit, as a way to feel comfortable during pregnancy.
“I’d been in touch with a few athletes who had exercised and trained throughout pregnancy. It was something I knew I wanted to try and do from the very beginning – partly because professional cycling is my job and I didn’t want to lose too much fitness throughout the pregnancy, and so that I can come back more easily than if I had not cycled at all.
People in the cycling community had been supportive and she knew of other riders who had kept fit during their pregnancies, so for Sally cycling was a no-brainer. She was able to cycle outdoors up to the last couple of weeks before the pregnancy when the weather became icy.
“My mother and father, and pretty much everybody was positive and supportive. I did have a couple of comments from people on social media saying to be careful, and occasionally I’d get disapproving looks from people. I think people’s attitudes are changing now, and they accept that it’s fine and healthy to be exercising during pregnancy. Anyway as the winter progressed and I wore Dave’s baggy clothes, so people couldn’t even tell I was pregnant!
“I rode for fitness and mental well-being rather than training, always erring on the side of caution. At around 13 weeks I did the middle distance of one of the Scott mountain bike marathons in Exmouth, though I didn’t ride competitively, and it was really good fun."
“It helped during the first twelve weeks, with my morning sickness, and keeping active helped me enjoy pregnancy."
Cycling on technically demanding trails was out of the question, and as Sally got bigger, she became slower, and the bump impeded her somewhat!
“As soon as the bump got bigger and was more exposed I cycled mainly on the road on the mountain bike, and on less technical fields and trails."
“I gradually got slower as I put on more than 12kg. From about seven months onwards my lungs were getting restricted as my bump pushed on them and I wasn’t able to take big deep breaths anymore, so when riding I felt quite breathless.
“My handlebars even got in the way of the bump, and I needed to sit upright to be able to breathe. In the end, we changed the stem to raise the handlebars, and within a week the bump had dropped so I could breathe again, which was a relief! Even with the bump, I never had any issues with balance and I felt fine on the bike."
As well as cycling, Sally did swimming and yoga, plus a lot of hiking, which at times became a little painful after it was revealed that she had a pelvic problem.
“During the pregnancy, I developed symphysis pubis dysfunction – where the pubic bones start to separate – and that affected me when I was walking. It was quite painful, and it really affected my walking, particularly as I was doing four and five-hour hikes. Fortunately, swimming and biking were fine, which is a good thing as I would have been terrible to live with if I couldn’t have done any exercise!"
Sally is a pragmatic practical person with a strategy to what she does, just as she has been as an elite mountain bike racer.
However, some things can’t be controlled and the 40-year old former psychology lecturer has had to struggle with the trauma of two miscarriages – in 2012 and in 2017.
“Losing the baby in February of last year was really, really hard for me because I’d lost another baby before that as well – and it was hard to deal with two consecutive failed pregnancies. What was difficult was that when I got pregnant in December 2016 I stopped training immediately, only to then lose that baby. So it was like, well what do I do now? How do I motivate myself to get into shape to even contemplate racing, when all I wanted was to try and get pregnant again?"
“Then when I found out that I was pregnant with Max a few months later, and I was very anxious that I would have a miscarriage. Every hour of every day I was just worrying. It was only at the 25-week scan when Max was much bigger and stronger that I stopped being anxious."
The arrival of Max on 5th January brought such joy after a number of months of upset, uncertainty and anxiety and Sally feels very lucky.
Sally is now back doing longer rides and eyeing a few races in the near future, including a Scott Mountain Bike marathon. She also hopes to some international races, hopefully with podium places by the end of the year. Possible races include the four-stage Alpen Tour – a race in Austria that Sally has won a few times previously, a UCI mountain bike race in the Czech Republic or the Dolomiti Superbike, Italy.
Although things have been largely favourable for Sally, there have still been a couple of health issues post-birth. A bout of mastitis led to Sally developing an abscess on her breast, and eventually making the difficult decision to stop breastfeeding.
For many women, juggling motherhood with an elite cycle racing training programme is not easy. However, Sally has the full support of her husband and other members of her family.
“Having Max has been amazing. It’s better than I thought it would be, and we’re quite blessed. He’s been a very easy baby so far."
“I am really lucky in that my husband Dave is completely supporting me. He looks after Max while I’m training – which is nice for me to know that he is with his dad. My mum helps as well so that Dave can ride with me, and sometimes my sister looks after Max too. Without my solid support network, training simply wouldn’t be possible. I am also eternally grateful to my team, Canyon Topeak Factory Racing, and my previous team, Topeak Ergon for their support during my pregnancy.
“Motherhood has changed my life significantly. I do get tired, and my routine is completely different. In the mornings I used to have a leisurely chilled out breakfast with coffee while gearing up for the day’s training, whereas now I am changing nappies. It’s a different pre-training ritual but it’s very special!
“After my training ride, I used to just pull on my compression socks, put my feet up and enjoy a cappuccino and a naughty bit of cake. Now I rush to the door and feed Max. I don’t have much time for recovery, but it’s definitely worth it to see his funny little smile.
“I don’t think I’ll ever do anything slowly again. I’ve learned to do everything quickly. As for interval training, I think “pah". If I can do labour I can do a five-minute blooming interval!"
Sally’s tips on exercise and pregnancy
- Don’t start anything new when you are pregnant, but if you were doing it before you were pregnant continue doing it – you’re body’s used to it.
- If it feels right, if it feels good, do it. If it doesn’t feel right then that’s your body’s way of telling you not to do it.
- Exercise cautiously and conservatively