A winning advantage

Last updated: 4th January 2010

"The Aggregation of Marginal Gains"

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"We are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do."

Dave Brailsford

Some of the most successful coaches in sport become famous for a quote or catchphrase, from Bill Shankly's remark about football being more important than life and death, to Brad Gilbert's "winning ugly" approach to tennis.

Dave Brailsford also has a phrase which sums up his philosophy, and by which he is coming to be known: "The aggregation of marginal gains."

Okay, so it might not be as pithy as certain others. But the extent to which it resonated in the aftermath of Brailsford's cycling team's outstanding performance at the Beijing Olympics was revealed when the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, subsequently quoted him in a newspaper interview.

"The aggregation of marginal gains," is Brailsford's catchphrase. When he first explained it, he was discussing the thorny topic of doping. "My personal take on it is that a lot of the guys who dope actually use it as such a crutch that they stop doing other things," said Brailsford.

"We've got this saying, 'performance by the aggregation of marginal gains,'" Brailsford continued. "It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything you do. That's what we try to do from the mechanics upwards.

"If a mechanic sticks a tyre on, and someone comes along and says it could be done better, it's not an insult - it's because we are always striving for improvement, for those 1% gains, in absolutely every single thing we do."

Gaining ground

Naturally, all these tiny gains can add up to large gain - potentially race-winning, or record-winning, gains. It's not just a soundbite but rather an approach that has underpinned Britain's phenomenal success in track cycling, and which is now being applied to road cycling.

In 1997, when lottery funding was introduced, British cycling had no real 'system' in place. A structure was established by the newly appointed performance director Peter Keen, who coached Chris Boardman to an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, and Keen also had a clear vision: to become the world's number one track cycling team.

That seemed a far-fetched ambition ten years ago, but by the time Brailsford succeeded Keen, in 2004, they were on their way to achieving the goal. By the 2008 world championships, in Manchester, the British team was dominant. And they confirmed their pre-eminence in Beijing, winning seven of the ten Olympic gold medals available on the track - and winning gold on the road, too, thanks to Nicole Cooke in the women's road race.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

In Cooke's success there were several examples of the 'marginal gains' approach. The first was in her attire. The Welshwoman was not wearing the traditional road shirt, with pockets at the back, and shorts. She was wearing a one-piece skinsuit more typically favoured by time triallists and track riders. Why? Because she believed that its greater aerodynamics properties and comfort could give her a marginal advantage.

A second example was Cooke's choice of equipment - she used ultra-light tyres, of the type, again, favoured by track riders. It was a risk - they are more vulnerable to punctures, especially in the rainy conditions that characterised the women's road race in Beijing - but one that she considered worth taking.

Another calculated gamble was Cooke's approach to the final corner, which led into the hill that climbed to the finish. Approaching this corner she communicated by radio with the team car; her coaches were worried that, in the wet, using the ultra-light tyres, there was a risk of crashing.

A crash would have spelled the end of her challenge for victory. So she decided to take the corner slowly, carefully, losing several lengths to her breakaway companions, but calculating that she could make up the difference. Which she did, winning a memorable sprint to become the first British road cyclist to win Olympic gold.

The skinsuit did not win Cooke the gold medal. The tyres did not win her the gold medal. Nor did her cautious negotiation of the final corner. But taken together, alongside her training and racing programme, the support from her team-mates, and her attention to many other small details, it all added up to a significant advantage - a winning advantage.