Meet the French Artist Transforming Tri Helmets into Masterpieces
In only two years, Mathieu Bigaud has made a name for himself by creating custom helmet designs for some of the biggest names in triathlon. You've seen his work—you just didn't know it. Now learn the stories behind some of his favorite designs.
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The art of Mathieu Bigaud, a 41-year-old father from the central France town of Saint-Etienne, does not appear in galleries (unless you count his Instagram account). But his art is in demand all over the world nonetheless. His canvas? Bike helmets.
Bigaud’s work has been displayed on the heads of some of the biggest names in triathlon: Alistair Brownlee, Vincent Luis, and Michelle Vesterby are some of the pros who have recently sported his custom-painted bike helmets. His craft combines two of his biggest passions: art and sport.
“As far as I can remember I have always been into creative stuff: painting, drawing, woodworking, cooking—which, if you think about it, is not so different from painting,” Bigaud said. “I have always loved the idea of creating something in my mind and use whatever the technique needed to bring it to reality.”
As a child, Bigaud could be seen playing with every art tool imaginable: watercolors, oil paints, charcoal sketchbooks. He was most inspired by graffiti artists and idolized Troy Lee, who was known for creating colorful custom mountain bike and motocross gear. After finishing high school, he enrolled in art school, then began working as a graphic designer for companies in France, China, and South America. His work veered away from graffiti and more toward graphic design for brochures and billboards. In his 30s, he took up triathlon. He fell in love with the sport and in love with a French pro triathlete, Jeanne Collogne. He moved away from art and instead decided to work as the manager of a triathlon shop in Nice. But art was always something he hoped to get back to someday.
“Jeanne and I had a baby girl in 2018, and I took care of our daughter during the first two years as a stay-at-home dad,” Bigaud said. “During that time, I had some time to think about what I wanted to do in my professional life. It was obvious to me that I needed to get back to my artistic background, but I didn’t want to get away from triathlon, either.”
He thought of his dream as a child—to design helmets like Troy Lee—and opened his sketchbook. “If you look at any sport using helmets—moto, karting, ski—athletes have custom painted lids. But in triathlon, it was something that wasn’t very common.”
He first custom-painted helmet was for his wife. People noticed and wondered how they could get one of their own. Pro Jodie Stimpson was the first to commission a piece from Bigaud, followed by Michelle Vesterby. Ótimo Designs (Portuguese for “excellent”) was born, and within just two years, Bigaud has made his mark on the triathlon world. His list of clients grows every month, with custom orders being shipped weekly to Europe, New Zealand, the Middle East, Africa, and the United States.
“For me, custom painting is a little bit like a tattoo,” Bigaud said. “The point is to express a part of your personality. I love this part of the job, talking with people, trying to understand what they want, what they like, and to translate it into a design.”
Mathieu Bigaud’s favorite custom tri helmetsSection divider
“Jodie lost her dad in 2019, so she wanted to do a design in memory of him. It was obviously a very special project to me, and even more to her. We worked on it together. We used the color (dark blue) of the soccer club her dad was a fan of, some sentimental words, and a set of angel wings. The ideas are from Jodie, and I put it together in the design.”Section divider
“A few weeks ago, I started working with Vincent Luis—super nice guy, and French, too. I’ve always been a fan. He wanted to do something special about the war [in Russia and Ukraine]. I came up with this design as a conversation starter to talk about something very serious.”Section divider
“This lid shows how something simple can look very cool. Because of Erdinger, the sponsor, we didn’t have too many options for the design—obviously it had to be blue, and Erdinger was the main thing to showcase in the design. But with a few shades of blue, a nice Union Jack, and some shadows, we got to something very cool, and Nikki really loved it.”Section divider
“I did this one in two days, shipped it to Oceanside on Friday, and it got there on Monday. That was one day before Alistair and five days before the race! It was a bit stressful, but I love the design from the Pho3nix Foundation, and I love this very deep red color.”Section divider
“When I was living and working as a designer in China, I worked for the Embassy of New Zealand. I have always loved the black and white graphic design on their flag, with the fern. It looks so good to me. So when I had the opportunity to work with Teresa Adam, I immediately thought about that. Teresa and I were on the same page. The result is one of my favorite creations so far.”Section divider
“Michelle called me very excited, telling me she was pregnant and that she wanted a new lid to do an announcement from Lanzarote. We worked on something fun and lovely, obviously pink—we are talking about Michelle, after all. The hardest part was to keep her news a secret.”Section divider
“As a graphic designer, I love this type of work! A lot of colors and some lines, with some nice details. I think the result looks super cool.”Section divider
“I did this one for a client who was supposed to go to Kona to race the Ironman World Championship in 2020. He will use it this year I guess! He wanted to bring the spirit of the island into his lid. There are a lot of different techniques and details; this was a big project, with about 20 hours of work.”
“For my wife’s birthday, I let our baby girl paint on a helmet with her hands and do some baby drawing on it. Then I clear-coated the painting. This one is very special to me. It was fun to do, and a lovely family treasure.”