In the last few years, it’s been posited that unless you live in a cave, that David Brailsford has built an ironclad success model which vaulted Team Sky from overhyped disappointment to cycling juggernaut laying waste to any who might challenge its throne. Brailsford had been vociferous in his proclamation that the team’s dominance comes down to one thing and that that thing is a unique approach to top-level sports – the concept of Marginal Gains. In short, Marginal Gains is the idea that if you identify and attack a bunch of areas for improvement and manage to improve them by just an increment, all those incremental improvements will aggregate into a much larger, more impactful gain in performance.
It sounds like it makes sense, a lot of sense. Only, Marginal Gains is a complete and utter myth, as explained very well by Ross Tucker, PhD in Sports Science here. This article is about exposing Marginal Gains for the bunk that it is. Because unless you really have been living in a cave or are incapable of rational thought, Marginal Gains is nothing but snake oil.
I’ll take some of the more popular and well-publicized Marginal Gains and debunk each in its turn, much like I did with the Andrew Hood article on why we should now believe Alejandro Valverde is riding clean. I’ll also list a few areas of not-so-Marginal Gains that Brailsford and Team Sky have completely overlooked and which defy logic within an organization known for its rabid attention to the nano-detail.
Top Touted Marginal Gains
1. Developing bikes with Pinarello.
MYTH: The premise is that instead of simply sourcing their bikes through Pinarello, Team Sky insists the bike manufacturer weaves its feedback into the design process. For example, the Dogma K8-S is “designed especially for dealing with the Paris-Roubaix cobbles.”
REALITY: The manufacturer-athlete feedback loop is nothing new, nor is it limited to bike technology. Name a piece of equipment critical equipment in most sports and you bet that athlete feedback has most definitely impacted R&D. With regards to this specific example around the Dogma K8-S, look no further than the Specialized Roubaix or Trek Domane as just two rider feedback-enhanced designs that well pre-dated Pinarello’s version of a Cobbled Classic bike.
Here’s another quoted example: “For it’s Plasma TT, SCOTT worked with some of the same players from the Giant project, such as Simon Smart, an aerodynamicist who also consulted for Lance Armstrong’s F1 tech team in 2004.”
2. Using the same pillows/mattresses before/during races.
MYTH: Apparently it is “well known” that Team Sky takes its own mattresses and pillows to major races to ensure the riders’ a good night’s sleep. Better rest equals better recovery and, thus, better performance.
“The differences between the hotel rooms that we use are extreme,” says Carsten Jeppesen, Team Sky’s Head of Technical Operations and Commercial. “If we come to a hotel room that’s not in a good state in the Tour, for example, our staff give the place a proper clean. You’d be surprised at how dirty a hotel room can be. Quite often they move the bed and clean everywhere. In a Grand Tour a rider’s breathing system is really challenged and just small amount of dust in a dirty room can make them sleep quite badly.”
REALITY: Athletes traveling with their favorite pillows dates back decades if not more. When I was globetrotting in triathlon through the 90s, I took my own pillow with me as did some other athletes. Certainly, we weren’t the first athletes to do this. And the concept spread virally. You see someone doing something that makes sense so you do it, too. I’ll concede the mattress thing to the extent Team Sky was/is able to implement it (I’d be curious just how much it is actually leveraged). I don’t know of another individual or team schlepping their own mattresses around the world.
And Carsten’s assertions of how dirty hotels rooms are is a bit alarming. He makes it sound like the races are being held in Third World countries or in hotels run by hoarders. One would think that if you were going to demand sanitary conditions and demand a swapping out of mattresses, then advanced discussions would be had and certain protocols followed which would then ensure the smoothest of transitions for Team Sky staff and athletes. If this pre-work were not done, checked and re-checked (and re-checked again), imagine the failure points that could – and would – get tripped before the cyclists arrived to rest up for the night. It would be potentially catastrophic.
3. Sorting out equipment well in advance.
MYTH: The premise is that there is only a finite amount of equipment made so Team Sky sources the necessary equipment as much as a year in advance to ensure they are never short on supplies.
REALITY: In other words, plan ahead. It’s already well-documented that USPS sourced and stored its tires for a couple years before use to get those tires to the ultimate suppleness and performance. I've also been in Team BMC’s service course in Belgium. The only way they run out of equipment is if every rider crashes in every race resulting in total, complete catastrophic equipment failure.
4. Traveling on the Death Star (team bus).
MYTH: Sparing no expense for rider comfort is paramount to ensuring optimal performance given the amount of time spent in the team bus during transfers in Grand Tours, as well as before/after individual stages. “Individual, deeply padded seats for riders” is called out in particular, as well as the onboard showers and toilets.
REALITY: Team buses have been around for decades, and they have been consistently iterated over the years to effectively become private planes on wheels. Listing this as a Marginal Gain implies other teams are using school buses retrofitted with outhouses.
5. State-of-the-art mechanics’ truck.
MYTH: Since the mechanics work in a climate-controlled environment, they are happy and work better.
REALITY: In walking through the team bus area during the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, just about every team’s mechanics have the same set-up. Work on bikes can be and is done both inside and outside the vehicles as appropriate. While a luxury that the lower budget teams probably forego, this is not something unique to Team Sky nor new within the peloton.
6. Standarizing saddle height measurements.
MYTH: Team Sky draw blue lines on every rider’s saddle so as to reduce the variance of a rider’s fore/aft position as bikes get built, broken down, and rebuilt, as well as across the 250 bikes ridden by Team Sky riders over the course of a season.
“There are so many different ways of measuring a bike,” says Jeppesen. “We have nine full-time mechanics and if they measured nine different ways it would be too risky for us, so we have made a way of doing things based on those two specific points. It is a way of making sure that all of a rider’s bikes are set up the same.”
REALITY: Mechanics have a lot of work to do and a lot of bikes to service, but if they suck then they are not employed for long. Rider safety and performance hinges on how well equipment works. And, riders can be maniacal about their equipment and will do their own check and re-check of everything before straddling the bike for a race. Eddy Merckx was famous for fiddling with his saddle position on nearly every ride and would use different positions based on the race, how his body felt and how the position felt. It was not uncommon for him to stop mid-warm up and tweak his position a few millimeters, then do it again a few more kilometers down the road. Lance Armstrong is another prominent example of maniacal focus on position. To believe that a couple of blue lines on a saddle ensures any gain around rider position is ludicrous.
7. Organizing wet weather bags.
MYTH: Each bag is properly labeled so finding the right piece of gear for the right rider is much easier.
REALITY: In other words, be organized. To state that this is unique to Team Sky implies other teams throw all the riders cold weather gear in the back of the team car and chaotically fish through it whenever a rider needs a vest or pair of gloves. Silly.
8. Using color coded water bottles.
MYTH: Different bottles for different functions – pre-race, in race, post-race. That way, there’s no mix up with the riders’ nutritional and hydration strategies.
REALITY: Regardless of how bottles are marked to be separated out – by bottle color, by separate coolers per function, by marks on the bottle tops, and so on – this is such a critical piece of the puzzle that even mentioning this as a Marginal Gain is ridiculous. Even in their musette bags, riders sift around to determine what they need and what they decide to discard.
9. Cooling down on a trainer.
MYTH: “We were the first team that started to warm down after the stage,” says Carsten. “Now they all do it!”
REALITY: This can be looked at from a couple different angles. First, some studies will show that the effectiveness of “spinning down” is questionable – whether it is completed immediately after crossing the finish line, 5 minutes later or never. Of critical importance is rehydrating with water, then getting in some quick energy (carbs) followed by a recovery meal. Second, post-race spin downs have been used since humans straddled bicycles with the intent to race.
10. Working with Muc-Off.
MYTH: Team Sky co-designed some super duper special bike chain lubes.
REALITY: Lube is a very personal choice, believe it or not. What one rider swears by, another disparages. I ride a wet lube regardless of the conditions because I really enjoy how the chain slides through the cogs compared to a dry lube. I have teammates who love dry lubes for the same reasons. Chalk this one up under “proper bike maintenance” rather than a 007-type approach to frictionless spinning.
Marginal Gains Team Sky Missed
Now, what’s the flipside to Marginal Gains? How about the ones Team Sky completely and utterly missed? Here are just a few.
1. No wind tunnel testing for Chris Froome. As critical as rider position is to optimizing time trial performance, Chris Froome has curiously been absent from the wind tunnel. If Team Sky is so maniacal about saddle position, wouldn’t the same approach be applied to rider position to optimize performance? To be clear, optimizing rider position is more than a Marginal Gain and can result in sizeable swings in performance – for better or worse. Yet, no wind tunnel for Froome, even after David Brailsford calls out the wind tunnel as being critical to turning around British Cycling’s Olympic track cycling performances.
2. Improper blood screening when Froome was hit with debilitating Bilharzia. Aside from this being a fairly common parasite (300M people/yearly) from where Froome grew up, determining its presence and treating it can be fairly straightforward. Bilharzia can be eradicated in only a few days. For acute cases, those afflicted can barely get out of bed, let’s not even think about riding a bike let alone doing so at the pinnacle of the sport (pro ranks). Given Team Sky contends Froome was afflicted for an extended period of time – years, in fact – wouldn’t they have turned over every rock possible to determine the cause and cure as quickly as possible? One would think they would.
3. Poor medical record keeping. This whole TUE dust-up with Bradley Wiggins, Froome and even other riders has been explained away – in part or in whole, depending on the particular thread of the story one pulls – as incomplete or even non-existent medical record keeping. In other words, a practice that is completely irresponsible if not downright unlawful. Couple this with the lost laptop fiasco and Team Sky, an organization known for its attention to every detail, makes itself sound like the most unorganized and unprofessional of teams. Yet, we are to believe they have based their multi-Grand Tour winning approach on this shoddiness? Right.
4. Getting stories straight. Basic communication skills are the foundation for any program to be successful. Yet, Team Sky seems to be confused about some pretty straightforward logistical matters. Case in point, the Jiffy Bag. If it was simply Fluimucil, an over-the-counter medicine, why the inability to explain what actually was in the Jiffy Bag? And, if it were simply Fluimucil, why not just go down the road to get it rather than ship it across country borders and over 1,000kms to source it? And, why state it was for Emma Pooley, which has also been proven to be a complete lie?
Love him or hate him, here’s what Team Sky’s first Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins had to say about his former team’s attention to detail:
“A lot of people made a lot of money out of it and David Brailsford used it constantly as his calling card. But I always thought it was a load of rubbish. It never struck a chord with me. The people it struck a chord with are those who made fortunes selling it and telling you it’s the best thing since microwaves. At the end of the day, Marginal Gains and all the buzz words … you have got to get the fundamentals right. That’s what makes you a better athlete: your physical ability and whether you’ve trained enough – not whether you’ve slept on a certain pillow or mattress.”
As stated above, this is not the first debunking article on Marginal Gains. You can find even more articles or even forum threads like this one. Tucker put it very succinctly when he stated, “The idea of breaking down the sport into all of its components is so common it is what you’d find a mediocre coach doing. The notion of optimizing a number of processes and systems is so old that it doesn’t bear mentioning.” He then added that another problem he has with Marginal Gains is “its implicit arrogance. By attributing Sky’s success to Marginal Gains, some in the media propagated the idea that Sky were the only ones invested in aerodynamic bikes, fuel and hydration strategies, health and recovery, when in fact some of the best minds in sports science had been there for decades.”
A Marginal Gain by definition only exists if that particular tactic is not being used by the competition. If the majority or all are doing it, then it’s not a gain, right?
If we are not to believe in Marginal Gains, then we must ask this question: Why the PR spin by Team Sky? Why the redirect? Behind what green curtain is Team Sky trying to hide by putting the time and energy into a bedtime story to sell it to the public hook, line and sinker? And, why has the public at large been so eager and naïve as to swallow the hook?