Episode #8 – The Best 3 Marginal Gains for Quick Wins

Episode #8 – The Best 3 Marginal Gains for Quick Wins

Marginal Gains in Cycling

There are 1000’s of ways to make marginal gains, we get started by looking at Team Great Britain and taking the best 3 for quick wins

There is a lot of talk and scrutiny about the Great Britain Team which is only natural because of their almost total dominance of the Olympics. From reading a lot about the team it is clear to me that the culture that fostered these changes came from the top down. Specifically from Peter King executive director of British Cycling. He lead a secretive all or nothing program coined the Podium Program. GB only focus on athletes that are capable of winning an Olympic medal. This began the programme of ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. Where every aspect of athlete preparation and lifestyle was looked at, equipment, clothing, training methods, nutrition and anything else that could produce a marginal gain.

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Chris Boardman describes marginal gains in great simple terms. “Marginal gains is about finding 1,000 things and improving them all by a fraction of a percent. When medals can be won and lost by fractions of a second, you begin to see why Team GB have become so obsessed with finding tiny improvements at every level. Even down to the nuts that hold the bike together. Put them all together and they make a difference: that’s the aggregation of marginal gains.”

Great Britain have a team of 15 Marginal Gains specialists.

Ranging from experts in biomechanics to nutrition to physiotherapy, so far 28 major projects have been completed in the last two and a half years. Some, like the work they will do on bikes and kit, last up to four years – a full Olympic cycle, whilst others, like athlete development, stretch out of sight of London, time-wise.

It’s not only the GB national squad that benefits from the marginal gains theory, Team Sky are part of the programme, and they also think of everything. You name it, they’re already doing it. Their mechanics work in conditions that would put some surgeons to shame, laundry technicians make sure the riders get their own pillow and sheets in every hotel, just to name a couple of things.

What can we take from Team GB for our own success?

How do you break down your performance to identify the marginal gains that can make a difference to your success? To do that we need to look deeper into Team GB’s approach. It all starts with goals. In Team GB’s case unrealistic goals for the time such as a 3:55 team pursuit. Then through the discipline of those goals, everything works backwards from there. Exploring in finite detail the ‘demands of the events’ i.e. the performance was next and once they were absolutely clear on the demands for each discipline on the track and road they assess how they are doing in relation to all of those things. They can then work out the gaps, in other words where they currently are compared to where they aspire to be. Next is the marginal gains part where they break the demands/ the performance down to identify absolutely everything they can possibly think of which will impact on those demands and performances of the different events. Also, looking further afield than just the event itself.

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery” Like cleaning your hands. “If you do things like that properly, you will get ill a little bit less.” They had the team wash their hands and then put a dye on them which stuck to the areas not washed properly.

It is all about confidence when you step up to the start line.

Brailsford breaks it down like this:

  1. “Firstly, you need a team with the skills and motivation to succeed”
  2. “Secondly, you need to understand what you want to achieve” Set a goal.
  3. “Thirdly, you need to understand where you are now”
  4. “Then, you need to put a plan in place to see how you can get from where you are now to what you want to achieve”. Set performance goals linked to the first goal and process goals linked to the performance goal.

The Incomplete List of Team Great Britain’s Marginal Gains.

  • Bike – Each bike is designed for the event and the individual using computational fluid dynamics (CFD), a technique which harnesses computer processing power to model airflows and see how even the tiniest change to a bike will affect how the air behaves around it. CFD is used to pick out all the right shapes for the tubes and handlebars.

Chris Hoy used a 1” steerer, so much for oversize steerer marketing!

  • Saddle – The new saddle was developed over two years. It’s a very special shape that makes sure the riders aren’t getting injured and can do more training time. It’s a weird two pronged thing.
  • Cranks – “They don’t look too special to anybody else, but they’re actually hollow and made with 180 separate pieces of carbon fibre. To strength-test them, we took one and hung the equivalent of a lift full of people off it. It’s 200 grams lighter than others but it still didn’t break. It’s two-and-a-half times stiffer than anything else in the market.” says Chris Boardman.
  • Wheels – The rear disc was refined to make the “wake” of air behind the bike as small as possible and tyres of silk to help them hold more pressure – 205 PSI.
  • Clothing – Their skinsuits incorporated a “tripwire” on the surface that reduced aerodynamic drag and created a more streamlined airflow. The aim is to split the airflow as it passes over the clothing. Look closely at the British clothing and you will see the prominent seam running down the arm, I think the same feature was visible in the custom yellow skinsuit used by Bradley Wiggins during Stage 9 of the Tour de France. Two tripwires on the arms, inner & outer. You will also notice that they have tripwires on their shoe covers, also why they are as tall as allowed. There are other details like the fabric itself or the unusual length of the sleeves.
  • ‘Hot Pants’ “When riders go on the rollers before a race, they are trying to warm up their muscle temperature. But, because of the practicalities of racing, they have to stop about 10 minutes before the race to prepare and be in the right place.Muscles cool down really quickly, so we now give them these pants when they get off the rollers. They keep them on until the moment they get on the track. It’s the track cycling version of tyre warmers in F1. Quick release zips will allow the riders to rip off the shorts in a flash as they jump on their bikes before the start of the race, safe in the knowledge their muscles are at an optimum 38C. The shorts run from the calves to the quadriceps, lightweight battery slots into the pocket at the back and, at the flick of a switch, heats a series of filaments which run over specific muscle groups.
  • Positioning – Profiling and monitoring everyone in the squad. Aerodynamics, starts, and the route taken up and down the track was all plotted on computers.
  • Specific programme requirements and training for these anomalies such as Golden Hour. The Men’s Team Pursuit begins on Thursday 2 August at 4:50pm with the qualifying round and picks up the following day with Round 1 at 4:15pm and the final at 5:55pm.
  • Sticky tyres: Spraying alcohol on the wheels to remove a layer of dirt and increase tackiness before a standing start
  • Data rider: The ‘black box’ or integrated performance measurement box – the size of a matchbox under a rider’s saddle
  • Video of complete performances: To establish actual distance raced down to the last millimetre – literally
  • Fish oil and Montmorency cherries: Consumed in large quantities because anti-oxidants help muscles recover quicker
  • Jason’s brother: Pre-2008 lifesize models of athletes (so-called because the first was of 2000 gold kilo medallist Jason Queally) used for wind tunnel resistance tests
  • Software – Dartfish, Quintic software.




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