By Kevin Kolodziejski
Between 2012 and 2018, Team Sky won six of the seven Tours de France. Prior to that, similar dominant TdF runs had always featured a single superstar — Jaques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Miguel Indurain — but Team Sky achieved theirs with three different winners: Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, and Geraint Thomas. When essentially the same management and cyclists became Team Ineos the following year, they won again — and with a fourth different rider, Egan Bernal. This led many to believe the Team Sky system as much as an utterly on-form GC contender was responsible for their victories and created interest in its most important concept.
A way of thinking General Manager and Performance Director Dave Brailsford incorporated into virtually every Team Sky activity when he assumed command in 2010 and called the Aggregation of Marginal Gains.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains Explained
The team has since been rebranded as the Ineos Grenadiers, but Brailsford’s still the boss and his original belief hasn’t changed: If you improve every aspect of riding a bicycle by just 1 percent, those small gains add up and eventually produce remarkable improvement. And he does indeed mean every aspect. Brailsford has the floors in the mechanics’ trucks painted white to easily detect the dust that has been found to adversely affect bike efficiency. He has the standard bedding and mattresses in hotels replaced as a way to improve the riders’ sleep quality.
Today, such attention to seemingly minor details has been embraced by many outside of cycling and is often called the 1% Marginal Gains Rule. Personal trainers, life coaches, and motivational speakers espouse it, as well as at least one high-ranking writer. But one of those former TdF winners doesn’t. He disdains the notion.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains Disdained
In an interview with Eurosport in 2017, Bradley Wiggins calls the idea a “load of rubbish.”
Okay, so maybe Team Sky did take the application of marginal gains too far when Wiggins was a TdF favorite and —as a way to save his strength and keep him from injury — it was decided his wife should carry his luggage. But there’s an end result to the “rubbish” Wiggins seems to be forgetting. A transplant from the track, Wiggins would’ve never held his own during the mountainous TdF stages without shedding the 10 kilos or so of the muscle that made him arguably the world’s best in the pursuit. (Geraint Thomas actually dropped a bit more weight before his 2018 win and began that TdF at 149 pounds despite being 6’ 1”.) And how’d he lose that much weight without sacrificing power?
In part, in large part, by applying what is now called the 1% Marginal Gains Rule to his diet.
It’s ‘Clear’: Marginal Gains Add Up
You probably know the aforementioned high-ranking writer, James Clear. His book Atomic Habits has sold more than 7 million copies, been translated into more than 50 languages, and spent the last 128 weeks on the New York Times Best Sellers list. You might even know Clear publishes a weekly newsletter sent out to more than 1 million subscribers that, like most of his work, focuses on ways for you to live better. What you probably don’t know, however, is a piece of writing that could be seen as his personal manifesto, “Process Improvement: A Brief Guide on How to Master the Art of Continuous Improvement,” begins with the story of Brailsford bringing the concept of the Aggregation of Marginal Gains to Team Sky.
In this guide, Clear also writes that any type of progress often hides behind boring solutions, and one that’s under appreciated is eliminating mistakes. One typical mistake he cites is eating unhealthy foods, but Clear does not advise adopting an austere diet. True to Brailsford’s original belief, he simply suggests making a marginal change: eating fewer unhealthy foods.
How Your Diet Might Incorporate Marginal Gains
Let’s say — just like my 88-year-old dad — you enjoy the crunchiness and saltiness found in potato chips. So much so that you eat them four or five times a week when you have a sandwich for lunch and snack on them most nights as you relax. That you know this habit doesn’t help your present cycling or future health, yet you still regularly buy two 6-ounce bags a week.
Clear’s suggestion here — and mine, too — is to find a crunchy and salty substitute that’s healthier. Recently, I did more than suggest that. I provided that 88-year-old dad mine of with a number of crunchy and salty options to replace his beloved potato chips.
My Dad’s Marginal Gains by Replacing Potato Chips
Harvest Snaps are plant-based, baked snacks made with whole peas, lentils, or beans that are fairly high in both protein and fiber and formulated to keep your energy level up and your hunger down. After reading the Nutritional Information for each variety at my local grocery store one day (they’re also available through VitaCost.com and Amazon.com), I knew these would be more than marginally better for dad.
But when he tried the Mango Chile Lime flavor, he found them to be too sweet and too spicy. The Wasabi Ranch produced a shoulder shrug along with an “okay.” The Tomato Basil, however, struck the right chord. He nodded, said, “Now these I could eat any time,” and immediately ate some more. So his ever-loving son has been buying him two, 3-ounce bags a week ever since, and he has stopped eating potato chips with lunch — or even as a snack.
That’s right, a guy who started eating potato chips about the time Eisenhower took office now eats Tomato Basil Harvest Snaps instead. The savings of 400 calories per month keeps his weight down, but more importantly he now consumes 102 fewer grams of total fat, 1330 fewer milligrams of sodium, and 50.4 more grams of fiber per month — and all from a single — and seemingly marginal — dietary change.
If you make a number of similar seemingly marginal dietary swaps, you’ll feel better, look better, and ride better — but maybe not enough to win the Tour de France.
Kevin Kolodziejski began his writing career in earnest in 1989. Since then he’s written a weekly health and fitness column and his articles have appeared in magazines such as “MuscleMag,” “Ironman,” “Vegetarian Times,” and “Bicycle Guide.” He has Bachelor and Masters degrees in English from DeSales and Kutztown Universities.
A competitive cyclist for more than 30 years, Kevin won two Pennsylvania State Time Trial championships in his 30’s, the aptly named Pain Mountain Time Trial 4 out of 5 times in his 40s, two more state TT’s in his 50’s, and the season-long Pennsylvania 40+ BAR championship at 43.
Agree 100% that multiple margin gains can add up to significant performance gains, but to be fair Team Sky’s massive financial advantage (up to 200+%) over other GC teams sure didn’t hurt in posting its TdF record. I doubt any other team would have the Euro’s to change out those hotel mattresses so their riders could get a better night’s sleep.