I’ve only just noticed how little we hear of ‘marginal gains’ these days. Or, to give the concept its full formal title, ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. I’m sure you remember it. It used to be very big, a status it achieved by being massively concerned with the very small.
That, at any rate, was how it was described by its architect, Sir Dave Brailsford. Marginal gains was how the GB cycling team moved from also-rans to world beaters over the course of just a couple of Olympics: they built up a big gain by looking for lots and lots of small gains. Sir Dave was in the details.
(The details are also, of course, where you already find both God and the Devil, and quite what that pair made of Sir Dave when he turned up I don’t know.)
At a more practical level, here are some marginal gains you could try before your next big event: lose 2kg, do some training, stop eating custard creams, buy a tighter jersey, shave your legs, lube your chain and try to get to the start line on time.
Disappointing? Of course it is. It’s the downside to marginal gains. When you spell them out one by one most of them are rather obvious, and none of them are exciting. All that calling them marginal gains brings to the table is the idea that doing lots of them at once is somehow different.
When it comes down to it there’s about as much actual science in ‘marginal gains’ as there is in an average copy of the Daily Mail. It was never much more than the ruthless pursuit of the moderately obvious. But as a bit of coaching politics, giving it a sciency name was genius.
It was a very specific formulation of a very familiar concept, so it was almost impossible to criticise it. If you complained that the whole thing contained nothing new, someone would produce 20 pages of wind-tunnel data about Laura Trott’s pigtails. If you felt that there was more to life than wind tunnels, someone would ask you if trying to make sure everyone got a good night’s sleep was really such a stupid idea.
It meant everything and nothing. It was a catch-all phrase that could justify anything. And because of this emptiness, perhaps a bit like the concept of ‘political correctness’, it has come to tell you more about the person talking about it than about anything else.
If you’re a fan of marginal gains, there’s a good chance you also like Strava, this magazine’s product pages, F1, carbon-fibre shoes, track cycling and Chris Boardman. If you loathe the very words, you’re probably a fan of Cateye computers with proper buttons, steel bikes, barbecues, getting-the-miles-in, tubular tyres, Paris-Roubaix and Sean Kelly.
Putting ‘marginal’ before ‘gains’ had exactly the same effect that one of my neighbours was looking for when he added ‘solutions’ after ‘central heating and plumbing’ on the side of his van. Same basic service, same grouchy attitude, but now all modern and 21st century.
I liked the marginal gains idea all the same. I liked the way it emphasised detail. It made it alright to tell strangers you owed everything to organic cherry juice.
It meant leaders in industry, engineering or politics looked at the simple activity of riding a bike, and thought we were all up to something terribly clever. It meant I could build my own wind tunnel from cardboard, a household fan and a set of scales, and Mrs Doc couldn’t laugh at me.
Still. There is hope. Team Sky has a ‘Head of Winning Behaviours’. I’m hoping it’s going to be the next small thing.