We’ve all heard David Brailsfords ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ mantra. Making small improvements in several areas can make significant overall improvements in your performance. He didn’t however invent this way of approaching things. I once had a boss who every time he found a coin on the floor (no matter what the value) would proudly declare “Many a Mickle makes a Muckle !!” as he pocketed the money. Now I have no idea what a Mickle, or for that matter, a Muckle is, but I presume his philosophy of marginal gains was along the same lines as Brailsfords.
There are countless articles and blogs available to you on how to improve your performance with every training method under the sun. So for the sake of this blog I will assume that you have maximised your power potential and you are putting out the highest watts you possibly can. So what I want to ask you is how many of those precious watts are going through the bike to propel you forward at maximum velocity and how many are you wasting??
Imagine that you have had a brand new, state of the art central heating system fitted in your home. The most modern boiler providing instant heat to keep your house nice and toasty whilst the snow and sleet is falling outside. Now imagine that whilst the boiler is doing its job – producing plenty of lovely heat in every room – the kids have left all the windows open, the back door is slightly ajar and you never bothered fitting any of that loft or wall cavity insulation. Whilst all the other houses in the street have a layer of snow sitting on the roof, yours is clear as the escaping heat melts away anything that lands on it.
Well this is what is happening if you are producing the watts but they are getting wasted because you’ve focused on the training and ignored the marginal gains available.
This is by far the biggest mistake that is seen by new (and some older) riders. When you are riding fast, the majority of the work you are doing is just pushing the air out of the way. Air Resistance is the biggest reason that most non-optimised riders are giving away their hard earned watts. When you look at the frontal area of yourself on your bike, then the majority of that area is you – the rider. So making yourself smaller by optimising your position without losing power is the easiest way to preserve some of your watts. We all know that by crouching down on a descent we go faster for no extra effort. By doing something similar whilst nailing it along the bypass we will go faster. But don’t mistake the ‘lowest’ position for the ‘optimal’ position. Being too low will reduce your power output, so it is a case of finding the best sustainable trade-off between power and aero advantage. It could just be a case of improving posture or hand position, but more often than not a few tweeks to the bike setup are all that are needed. If you are really serious (and seriously rich), a session in a wind tunnel would be the Gold standard of aero bike setup.
Cycling kit has come a long way since I started racing 27 years ago when I was given a woolly and very baggy Magniflex jersey. These days I’m lucky enough to ride for the Onimpex-Bioracer racing team who provide us with state of the art speedwear. Most modern racing jerseys are now more aero than skinsuits were a few years ago. The speedsuit fits like a second skin as even a crease in the shoulder can increase drag and sap those watts. You may be able to reduce the drag even more by having a number pocket fitted to your skinsuit such as Nopinz. Overshoes will also help you slip through the air. In time trials, even something as small as not wearing mitts may give you a couple of watts back.
Time triallists have long known that a ridiculous pointy alien looking helmet and visor will help you go faster. Although I wouldn’t recommend turning up for your local SkyRide in one, it will help you knock chunks off your PB in a Time Trial. The last couple of seasons have also seen improvements in road helmet design with less vents and wind tunnel designed shape helping to reduce drag.
Bike / Wheels.
As with the helmets, road bikes are taking a leaf out of the Time Triallists book. Most big manufacturers now have a top of the range aero bike such as the Trek Madone, Specialized Venge and Canyon Aeroad. Hidden cables, special tear shaped tubes and handlebars all cut through the air to allow the power that you’re putting through the pedals to be converted into more speed rather than overcoming wind resistance. Deeper section wheels also finish off the package with a wide range of depths for every weather condition or course.
Along with wind resistance, friction is another force conspiring to steal your hard gained watts. If money is no object the you could look at fitting ceramic bearings in your wheels and bottom bracket. This probably wont make a noticeable difference but remember that we’re looking for an aggregation of marginal gains, so even if it is only a couple of watts, every watt counts. Looking after your chain and using a good lube can also add to your mounting mickles. There are even firms like shopforwatts where you can send your chain to be waxed or buy a new prewaxed chain. Another way to reduce chain friction is to keep the chain line as straight as possible meaning not to ride across the block ie 53×25 or 39×11. You’ll notice a lot of top testers have big chainrings on their Timetrial bikes – 55 tooth+. This is not just because they can push an incredibly high gear, but so they can keep the chain around the middle of the block for a nice straight friction free chain line. Oversize jockey wheels can also free up the movement of the chain and help it run more efficiently.
Tyres. Most old Pros will still insist on riding on tubular tyres because they ’roll better’. Rolling resistance causes the tyre to misshape as it hits bumps in the surface, so using high quality tyres and the appropriate tyre pressures will help the tyre maintain its momentum and not lose energy. Riders will use lower pressures and specially handmade bigger tyres for cobbled races such as Paris-Roubaix all the way to silk tubulars for high speed racing on the smooth wooden surface of the indoor velodrome. There have been advances in tubeless tyres with positive results so expect to see these being rolled out over the next couple of seasons
The final force that is working against us as we press on the pedals is gravity. Putting out impressive power numbers is all very well, but it doesn’t count for much if you are getting dropped or having to work twice as hard as everybody else every time the road goes up. Power to weight ratio is one of the most useful metrics for a coach and rider to measure and compare performance. Remember that we are assuming that you are putting out as many watts as possible, so reducing body weight will improve your performance (unless you are already into single figure body fat percentages.) This has to be done carefully though, if you try and lose too much too quickly you will lose muscle and power. You still need to fuel your performance too. Like aero position, nutrition for optimal body composition and performance is all about balance. Most of the peloton at all levels will be racing on carbon framed bikes these days. You can also reduce weight from your components but some parts will make more of a difference than others. Shaving a few grams off with a carbon saddle may make your bike look more bling, but weight saved from rotating mass such as wheels, cassette, cranks, pedals & shoes will give more of a bang for your buck.
So how is your performance potential looking now? Are you fully insulated, or have you left a few windows open?
If you need help with any aspect of improving your performance get in touch for a chat and see how we can help