Marginal Gains In Cycling

Google’s “Trends” utility has become an excellent barometer for the populatity of a subject in our internet age and it should come as no suprise that global interest in the term marginal gains has grown and roughly tracked interest in the term power meter through recent years. You see a cylist’s power output, aside from acting as the sum product of the output from all physiological energy systems, also defines the sum of all the forces limiting that cyclists speed to the level achieved. And weather you’re interested in maximising the delivery side of this power equation or minimising the demand side the measurement of choice is power and the techique of choice is what has become known as the aggregation of marginal gains. “Maximise the power you can produce, minimise the power you have to produce” says the scientist Jim Martin...and he has a point.

Actually it was Dave Brailsford of British Cycling and Team Sky who recoined “everything you can possibly do to promote speed on the bike” as a process focussing on “marginal gains”. Before him Lance Armstrong had the “F1 Team” put together for similar purposes. And before him “The Professor” Chris Boardman and Greg Lemond both achieved notoriety for their eye on sport science. Back to more recent times and Slipstream had Allen Lim working on multiple points of sport science minutae before hiring the new master of marginal gains, Robby Ketchell. Movistar has the “Cycling 2.0 Philosophy” of the Cycling Research Centre and we expect most high level cycling teams to follow with similar philosophies sooner or later.

A Spectrum Of Marginal Gains

Marginal gains are something we tend to read about in snippets – a couple of ideas revealed here, a couple of ideas revealed there – but as far as we know noone has yet put together a bigger list of these concepts. That’s something we wanted to do, starting with our knowledge of the fundamental physics of cycling, and the chart below is a work in progress. Besides simply cataloging opportunities for marginal gains we felt there was some value to be had in ranking them for cost (in terms of either the money or time required to achieve them) but also the extent of achievable benefits (usually power, speed or endurance). Our advice? All gains are valuable but concentrate on the items in the upper left quartile where “bang for the buck” is highest.

High Benefit, Low(er) Cost

  • Performance Modelling - Optimised Pacing
  • Low Crr Tyres
  • Aero Clothing
  • Performance Modelling - Optimised Equipment

High Benefit, High Cost

  • Maximisation of Power/Drag Ratio : Max(Watts/m^2 CdA)
  • Smart Recovery & Recovery Aids
  • Smart Recovery & Recovery Aids
  • Aero Wheels & Components
  • Altitude Training
  • Minimisation of Weight : Max(Watts/Kilo)
  • Reconnaisance

Low(er) Benefit, Low(er) Cost

  • Optimised Fuelling
  • Ergogenic Aids
  • Optimised Drivetrain - Chain, Lube, Jockey Wheels

Low(er) Benefit, High Cost

  • Pedigree Frameset
  • Di2