In 2002, Great Britain wasn’t considered to be a nation of strong cyclists, having only won a single gold medal in 76-years. But, then came Dave Brailsford – now Sir Dave Brailsford – as the head of British Cycling.
We are now in the midst of his grand schemes coming to fruition with Great Britain dominating track cycling at the last three Olympic Games as well as Great Britain’s Team Sky – who Brailsford is the general manager and performance director of – producing consecutive Tour de France winners.
It started with two gold medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Great Britain won seven gold medals from a possible ten in track cycling. Four years later at the 2012 Olympics in London, Team GB repeated that feat.
Brailsford resigned from British Cycling in 2014, but his methods have had a lasting effect: the 2016 Rio Olympics saw Team GB claim six gold medals, winning silver in three of the four races that they didn’t finish atop the podium.
Team Sky has also seen unprecedented success since he started to manage the team in 2010. In 2012, his methods started to pay dividends on the professional circuit with Bradley Wiggins – now Sir Bradley Wiggins – becoming the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France.
Also for Team Sky, Chris Froome picked up the mantle and won in 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, and is favoured to win the general classification at 8/5 this year. All of this success is based on Sir Dave Brailsford’s implementation of the concept of aggregation of marginal gains.
But, it’s not just the marginal gains method that rocketed Team GB to Olympic glory and forged one of the greatest cycling dynasties with Team Sky, as the tactics and techniques used in team cycling make a lot of difference when contending in the races.
Brailsford’s Use Of Marginal Gains
When Sir Dave Brailsford started with Team GB, he decided to flip the script on improvement techniques. Rather than aiming for huge improvements through strenuous regimes, he sought to think small and target individual areas.
The philosophy that he adopted was to gain continuous improvement through the aggregation of marginal gains; aiming to improve by one per cent in each area of cycling.
The focus was switched from aiming for the peak immediately to compounding improvements and focussing on progress.
Seeking areas to improve came by using knowledge from many different fields that could bolster the practices of his cycling team.
This included hiring a surgeon to teach the team how to wash their hands properly to avoid picking up illnesses during events. Rigorous testing and analysis were required to find the equipment or training methods that proved to be the best.
The one per cent comes from an improvement in the smallest area, such as the ergonomics of the bike seat or finding the best pillows and mattresses to provide a comfy, restful sleep.
But it’s not just practices that are broken down and improved. Even though Team Sky is made up of established, high-calibre riders, their strategies are picked apart and tested in controlled environments to find areas that they can improve, and then these strategies are built into the team’s plan.
By breaking down all 100 per cent of what makes up cycling into mini sections, Brailsford and his teams hone in on every aspect and make them the best that they can be.
So, when they are compiled on race day, they combine to produce a much-improved performance in every way. Doing this takes a lot of testing and, more importantly, a desire to continue to find improvements.
It’s the mindset that, regardless of how well the team is performing, there’s always a better method to be found.
But it isn’t just improving each area by one per cent; it’s about the ethos and mentality that the marginal gains regime creates among cyclists and the rest of the team.
For a cyclist to capitalise on the marginal gains, they have to buy into the programme and whole-heartedly believe in the staff and what they’re telling them to do.
This allows the cyclist to perform at their highest level when utilising all of the new methods and equipment as they know that they are improving and using the best that’s available
The marginal gains method also has somewhat of a placebo effect on the athletes which makes them perform to a higher level as well as legitimately creating superior training and racing conditions for them.
Brailsford joined Team Sky in 2010 and expected his methods to take around five years to get the team into a Tour de France-winning state of practice. But, in 2012, Bradley Wiggins rode to victory in the general classification.
Before that, in 2011, Mark Cavendish became the first Brit to win the points classification in the Tour de France, with the dominant Peter Sagan at 4/9 to retain his title this year.
However, in professional cycling, there’s another element that builds from the base of marginal gains and also bolsters a cyclist’s chances of winning: their team.
Team Cycling Tactics Enforce Superiority
Employing an ongoing system of marginal gains means that new riders can enter Team Sky at their latest optimal level and then progress alongside the rest of the team. But, Team Sky doesn’t merely employ anyone who can ride a bike.
Team Sky boasts a budget that more than doubles the average team budget, and they use it to employ high-quality, potential classification contenders and use their experience and skills to bolster their team leader, who has been Chris Froome since 2013.
The riders will have experienced the dominance of Team Sky so immediately buy into the methods of Sir Dave Brailsford, but more importantly, they stick to ‘The Plan’. ‘The Plan’ takes the form of an attack, recover, control scheme.
Because the team is made up of very technically gifted riders, who improve within the marginal gains programme, they collect at the front of the peloton before speeding away, setting an incredible pace while drafting their leader and shedding off rival riders before launching their leader to victory.
Much like the marginal gains, ‘The Plan’ is tried and trusted wherever Team Sky saddles up. Earlier this year, Sebastian Henao and Tao Geoghegan Hart paced wunderkind Egan Bernal in the same way that race fans are used to seeing the high-tempo setting of Geraint Thomas and Wout Poels for Chris Froome.
Having talented riders is important for Team Sky, with the 21-year-old Bernal the 17/20 favourite to win the young rider classification at this year’s Tour de France. But, it’s the team’s unwavering commitment to ‘The Plan’ that makes them so menacing.
Many of them could potentially contend for general classification, but instead, their talents are utilised in a team cohesive to ensure that the leader wearing their team’s colours rides over the finish line arms aloft.
While attention to scientific methods, commitment to improving techniques and equipment, and assembling a star-laden team has bolstered Brailsford’s team to unprecedented levels of success, it’s his ability to get riders to buy into the team’s ethos both in preparation and during races that has allowed such progression.
Success breeds success: with the method of marginal gains gaining fame for Team Sky and Team GB’s success, athletes have become willing to immerse themselves into the programme to be a part of an elite-level winning team.
Establishing the psychological side of his programme and getting riders to believe in his techniques were Brailsford’s greatest achievements and what resulted in the dawn of a professional and Olympic cycling dynasty.