Marginal Gains or Massive Losses?

It’s 30 min before the start of the race, Jake has his aero gloves on, he’s just lathered his legs with topical sodium bicarbonate, pockets are loaded with the finest packets of glucose, fructose and caffeine, power meter calibrated, wheel choice verified as the best for this course by Best Bike Split. Jake is dialed, no reason not to win.

Flash forward three hours; Jake has just come over the second to last climb in the front group. There is a 10 km technical descent, and then we’re straight into the final climb of the day. Well, the descent. Yes, the descent. By the bottom of the descent Jake is 60 seconds behind the group he was just in. Max it on the final climb, and pick a few guys, but ultimately end up 15th. Where’d Jake go wrong? He put so much effort into every detail of his preparation and made sure all the little boxes were checked.

This fabricated anecdote may be a bit dramatized, but I think it’s something that is pretty commonplace in cycling these days. There is so much sexy, flashy stuff out there that can make us faster that sometimes the weight of these things gets skewed. Point being, all the “marginal gains” that we know and love – they’re a percent here, a percent there. Trust me, I spend much time grinding out trying to find a percent here and there, and I love it as much as the next guy. But where I continually see folks fall flat is in the ability to have the brutal honesty with their selves of, at what point does that matter?

Take Jake, in this story, for example – he’s agonized over detail after detail, to gain his self a margin over the competition. But the reality of it is, when race day came he was so bad at descending that he immediately put himself at say a 20% deficit because he couldn’t stay in the group. Maybe he had the legs to win if he’d started the final climb in the group, but starting the final climb at a 60 second deficit is hardly a “marginal gain”, more like a massive loss.

It’s certainly not a black and white, where if an athlete is focusing on marginal gains they are not focusing on some of the more technical skills – it’s always a spectrum, and everyone is an individual and chasing the result through a slightly different process. The challenge is to find the balance in the spectrum that elicits the best performance on the day. We love stuff we can quantify and track improvement in. Quantifiable facets of racing, like wattage or drag, are easy to put effort into because we can see an immediate number improvement. However, things like positioning, descending skills, etc – they may be more challenging to definitively say if they are improving or not, but they can have huge bearing on the outcome.

So while chasing some of those sexy “marginal gains”, the challenge is to allocate some of that time towards the technical aspects that also factor into performance. Take a step beyond breaking a competition just into the quantifiable components. Figure out a way to prepare for all facets of a competition.

No one should be beyond cornering drills in a parking lot, no one should be beyond racing crits for positioning practice. Closing cliché thought – that 3% just gained in the margin, will be beat eight times out of ten by the “unprepared” fella that rocks up and fights his guts out for position, and totally empties the tank. As Coach Taylor would say, “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”.