Title: Start at the End — How Reverse-Engineering Can Lead to Success
Author: Dan Bigham (with Paul Maunder)
What it is: Part chamoir, part management self-help book, it’s the uplifting story of how a team of underdog privateers triumphed in two rounds of track cycling’s World Cup and what their success can teach you about achieving your goals
Strengths: With Bigham now working for Ineos it’s a timely read, offering as it does some insight into his outlook
Weaknesses: You either buy the management self-help stuff or you don’t, there’s not much of a middle ground
It’s a tale as old as time. McKinley High’s glee club wins Nationals. Felix English beats Chris Hoy. The Rebels defeat the Empire. The little guy taking on the big guys and winning. Ordinary people pulling off extraordinarily heart-warming feats.
Once upon a time, Dan Bigham was that guy, the little guy, the Rebel taking on the might of the Empire. In 2015 Bigham finished seventh in the individual pursuit at the British National Track Championships, having only recently taken up cycling while at university (he studied in Oxford he tells us as early as page nine, which may strike you as being a bit slow for the typical Oxford grad but what Start at the End doesn’t tell us is he was at Oxford Brookes, the parvenu former polytechnic).
Over the course of 2016 Bigham set his sights on winning the team pursuit at Nationals and set about putting together his team. We’ll not do the Glee assembling-the-band sequence here and just cut straight to the end: Charlie Tanfield, Jacob Tipper and Johnny Wale agreed to join Bigham’s quartet. And in January 2017, on the boards of the Manchester Medal Factory, Bigham and his team-mates were crowned national team-pursuit champions, while Bigham added a second individual pursuit title, along with the kilometre, to his palmarès.
It didn’t end there. A year later, January 2018, on the boards of Minsk’s velodrome in Belarus, Bigham and his band of brigands – now made up of Wale, Tanfield, and Tanfield’s brother Harry – won the team pursuit at the last round of the 2017-18 World Cup series, leaving national federation-funded teams from around the world in their wake, while Charlie Tanfield bagged the individual pursuit. And then in December that year Bigham and Wale, along with new recruits Ashton Lambie and John Archibald, won the team pursuit at the London round of the 2018-2019 World Cup series.
The story of how those victories in two rounds of the World Cup were achieved forms the backbone of Start at the End. But they are just part of the story told, for Bigham takes his practical experience of taking on the big boys and winning and spins that into management self-help speak, with Start at the End serving as a calling card for the motivational speaking circuit. As did Johan Bruyneel’s We Might As Well Win – On the Road to Success with the Mastermind Behind a Record-Setting Eight Tour de France Victories.
So how does Bigham spin cycling as this year’s Sun Tzu? He starts with a simple observation – sometimes the little guy has an advantage:
“Every hierarchical system based on performance contains some element of complacency, of lazy thinking and of vested interests. And that means that these systems can be beaten.”
In other words, you can achieve success within the system, or you can take the system on and still win. All you have to do is start with a goal, an ambition, something you’ve always wanted to do since you read about it on some website last year. All you need is Bigham’s “new way of thinking about how to become successful. It is called reverse engineering”.
When it comes to goal setting you have to be (acronym alert) SMART. Your goal has to be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. If that sounds simple then you’re not understanding it but don’t worry, this whole thing is built on belief, confidence in your ability to achieve what you set out to achieve. “Find the thing you love,” Bigham tells us, “and you’re already travelling in the right direction.”
Having begun at the beginning and set a goal, you then have to reverse engineer the heck out of that goal and start at the end in order to work out the steps needed in order to achieve that goal. Time was when you simply copied whatever innovations others came up with and tried to do it better. That was what reverse engineering used to mean: you took an end product and reversed the engineering process by working backwards. But today there is another way to reverse engineer things:
“I do not want to get hold of a national team’s bikes, or their wind tunnel test results, or their training session spreadsheets, then copy them in the hope of putting together the same result. I don’t want to do this because I would be assuming they are the optimal way of doing things. A dangerous mistake. Never assume the competition has got it all figured out. Scratch the surface and you will soon discover otherwise. My approach is to reverse engineer the event, not our rivals. In other words, set the goal around achieving a certain level of performance, then work out how to get there.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. That is what British Cycling started doing twenty-five years ago after John Major opened up the purse strings of the National Lottery in the hope of buying national pride through sporting success. And that’s actually the thing about Start at the End: back then, Dave Brailsford and co tarted up pretty well understood business practices with things like marginal gains and secret squirrels in order to convince the world they’d innovated rounder wheels; today Bigham is reinventing the wheel with some of those same ideas.
As well as leaning on his own personal experience, Bigham peppers the pages of Start at the End with anecdotes from the world of business and the lessons to be learned from those stories (even when some of these anecdotes have been thoroughly debunked). He talks, for instance, about the failure of the Borders chain of bookshops and of the mobile phone company Nokia. He argues that both companies failed to understand their competition, they set goals based on their own past performance. In other words, they grew stale. In order to stay successful, he tells us, you must set ambitious goals and innovate.
The management lessons imparted by Bigham being familiar – albeit dressed up in new boots and panties – it’s worth looking at Bigham himself and then considering what Start at the End tells us about his approach.
Having once been the little kid bullseyeing womp rats in his T-16 back home on Tatooine Bigham is now helping to rebuild the Plastic Emperor’s Death Star as cycling’s new Imperial age sees Ineos struggle to reach the same heights Sky did and Darth Vader is too busy being a cosplay Ted Lasso over in Nice to put right what’s gone wrong.
His path from then to now is quite impressive and, even more than those wins in two rounds of the World Cup, Bigham’s CV demonstrates that he’s not just another Pound Shop Malcolm Gladwell like Matthew Syed, repacking others’ ideas. He’s worked at the coalface and shown that his ideas work in practice, not just on paper.
While at uni Bigham did a year’s placement with Toto Wolff’s Mercedes F1 team (which since then has become a part of the Plastic Emperor’s wide world of sports and at the same time somehow lost its winning ways, the Ineos-liveried Merc being overtaken by the Jumbo-sponsored Max Verstappen’s Red Bull).
He’s been called in a couple of times by the Canyon-SRAM WWT team, the first in-between victories in those two rounds of the World Cup, when he helped the Canyon women win the team time trial at the 2018 World Championships, and then again during the early stages of the pandemic when racing went virtual and old dogs needed to learn new tricks.
In 2019 he was called in by Jumbo-Visma to help Wout van Aert work on his time trial position as he transitioned from cyclo-cross to road racing. Bigham then turned his attention to the Danish track pursuit squad – he and British Cycling not exactly seeing eye to eye – and they went on to set several world records before coming within 0.166 seconds of Olympic gold in Tokyo.
And then there’s the Hour record.
As well as peppering Start at the End with bits and bobs of business lore, Bigham also tosses out odds and sods of cycling lore. Some more odd than others. According to him, for instance, the Hour record dates back to 1876, when the American Frank Dodds rode 16.476 miles. The distance was actually 15 miles and about 1,480 yards (15.84 miles / 25.493 kilometres); Dodds was British, not American, hailing from Stockton-on-Tees; and his name was Frederick, not Frank. The 1876 bit? Partly right: Dodds’ ride is one of three apocryphal Hours that may or may not have been the first Hour, but it wasn’t declared the first Hour until 15 years after the fact, in 1891, when the Herne Hill impresario George Lacy Hillier took a stab at estimating the distance Dodds might have covered in sixty minutes during a 20 mile scratch race in which Dodds lapped the field.
While Bigham would have flunked the written test had the UCI accepted my proposed changes, he’s aced the practical, multiple times. His partner Joss Lowden has added her name to Mlle de Saint-Sauveur’s on the women’s roll of honour, with Bigham part of her backstage team. And since joining Ineos he has added his own name to Dodds’ on the men’s list of record breakers and then helped Filippo Ganna better the mark he himself had set and finally take the record beyond the mark set by Chris Boardman in 1996. Which I guess really does make Bigham the man of the hour.
Bigham has also twice topped cycling’s Controversy of the Week charts with his aero hacks. There was tapegate, when he used kinesio tape to give the Danish pursuiters an aero advantage during the Tokyo Games. And later that year there was boobgate, when he packed radios inside fake breasts during the World Championships in Flanders. Luke really was Vader’s son, I guess, with Bigham repeating Brailsford’s practice of marching right up to the edge of the line that separates legal from illegal and then finding a loophole that allows him to cross over to the other side.
In short: the guy has shown that he knows what he’s talking about, certainly when it comes to cycling and aerodynamic innovations. And he really believes in the power of innovation. “Innovation in sport should not be held back,” he tells us, “because innovation is intrinsically part of sport, indeed intrinsically a part of human life. If a team pursuit squad win a world title because their engineers have decreased their drag, that should be applauded.”
What Bigham doesn’t consider is when innovation goes too far. He talks about Francesco Moser’s 1984 Hour record, for instance, without comment on his use of blood transfusions, an innovation Eddy Merckx had turned down a dozen years before and was subsequently adopted by many throughout the 1980s, ultimately paving the way for Gen-EPO. Despite not being banned at the time, news of the use of blood transfusions by the US Olympic cycling squad at the Los Angeles Games was received poorly by the public in 1985, as had the use of transfusions in athletics in the 1970s. Were the authorities right in holding back the innovative use of blood and blood substitutes or is Bigham right when he claims that “innovation in sport should not be held back”?
Or what about where the individual fits into the story? When considering the failures within the Manchester Medal Factory Bigham notes that British Cycling is not rider-centric:
“They don’t place the rider at the centre of everything they do, which is why they don’t care if they keep the rider hanging around at the velodrome, and in doing so losing the goodwill of that rider.”
Just how rider-centric is Bigham’s own philosophy? For answer to that, consider the make-up of the team that won the Minsk round of the World Cup in 2018: it differed from the original team formed with the goal of winning Nationals. Shortly before the race in Minsk, Jacob Tipper was dropped from the team and replaced by Harry Tanfield.
“I felt terrible. Tipper had been part of this project from the start. Without him we would not have made it this far, and beyond racing, I considered him a friend. I wanted to remain logical and scientific about this decision yet underneath I felt we were betraying him. [...] It raised an interesting philosophical question about what our team was (not that I thought about it in such terms until much later). Was our team the original quartet? Or was our team something bigger and looser, with room for riders to come and go? [...] We decided that the team could go beyond the four of us, that sometimes the interests of the team would be put before the interests of individuals. And we were implicitly stating our ambition; we wanted to win and that imperative came before everything else.”
Harm and good don’t seem to come into Bigham’s thinking all that much, all that seems to matter is the end and the means to get there. Consider another example taken from the world of business, Jonah Peretti’s BuzzFeed:
“[Peretti] wanted his website to be one of the most popular on the internet. Peretti studied the psychology of how stories go viral on social media and realised that the first principle of a website, if what you wanted was a big audience, was wide distribution. High quality reporting on stories that people should be reading (according to the relevant editor’s opinion anyway) was not as important as giving people more stories they actually wanted to read. Give them what they wanted, Peretti decided, and they would share stories on social media, thereby growing the website’s profile and traffic. The stories themselves were also reduced to first principles: keep it short, ensure there is a human element, and use a strong and persuasive headline.”
Winning ugly, in other words, is still winning. But as Brailsford discovered with Team Sky, there is more to sport than winning, and definitely more than winning ugly. In the same way that Buzzfeed tried to move away from its clickbait roots and become a serious journalism outfit, in 2015 – five years into the Sky project – Brailsford launched his ‘2020 vision’, “for Team Sky to be indisputably and consistently the best cycling team in the world – and to be viewed as one of the very best sports teams in the world” by the year 2020.
Maybe in 2026 Bigham will be back with a new book – let’s tentatively call it The Beautiful Game: There’s More to Success Than Just Winning – and we’ll learn that you shouldn’t really start at the end, you should start at the start and consider the wider implications of the goals you choose to set for yourself. But, right now, winning is all that counts, winning is the imperative that comes before everything else.
If winning at all costs is what matters to you, you’re probably Start at the End’s ideal reader.