Until recently, the term ‘marginal gains’, as employed by Team Sky, had become something of a standing joke. After flopping at the 2010 Tour even they admitted the fundamentals need to be right first before you brag about how your busses feature fancy lighting systems in order to soothe the riders’ mood.But now after their domination of this year’s Tour, and the haul of golds by Britain at the London Olympic velodrome, their rivals are looking more closely at how these ‘marginal gains’ are accumulating to produce such strong performances. The French are even wondering if they’re putting special mechanisms in their wheels.
But while it’s obvious that recent success has much to do with improvements in the fundamentals – training programmes, team management – the tiny benefits offered through a meticulous attention to detail all add up to produce noticeable benefits. Unfortunately it’s unlikely that your local team or club has a significant R&D budget for the advancement of bike frame design. Or that you have a sports psychologist available at the end of a phone line night or day. But there are a few little things we can do as lowly amateur racers that cost nothing (or thereabouts) to give a tiny – but possibly significant – gain on the opposition.
Safety pins in numbers
Forget about the weight penalty, your race numbers should be meticulously attached to your jersey with handfuls of safety pins: one in each corner, then one in the middle of each side, top and bottom. Sometimes it’s possible to fold the numbers down slightly to reduce their size (but do not damage or ruin the numbers in the process – the race organiser will be less than impressed with your ingenuity than you might be), or to overlap them and still keep the number legible. As you’re aiming to be as streamlined as possible, cutting through the air with minimum drag, the last thing you need are a couple of miniature parachutes flapping around at the back of your jersey.
Wind tunnel testing is still yet to determine whether, if issued with race number 13, pinning them upside down offers any quantifiable advantage.
Kit that fits
Kit design has come a long way in recent years, not just in aesthetics, but also in fabrics and fit. Just a quick glance at the pro peloton will show the prevalence of tight fitting aero jerseys – very little material is left loose to flap unfettered in the breeze. My own club introduced race specific kit for this season, and it’s been a big improvement over the more traditional classic cut jersey. However, it’s clear not every club offers, or perhaps is able to offer, such an option. If that’s the case then go for the smallest size jersey you can get away with – if it looks a little bit odd when you stand there looking at yourself in the mirror, emphasising lumps you’d rather not have emphasised, then you’ve got the right size. It’s a jersey for racing your bike, not for looking good down the pub.
Alternatively you can consider racing in a skinsuit; many designs will have a small pocket to carry the essentials, but for shorter events it’s possible to secrete gel sachets up your short legs and sleeves anyway.
Do your homework
Newcomers to road racing often overlook one vital aspect of the sport – they’re able to see the visible fitness requirements, that they’ll need to be able to climb up hills quickly, develop some sort of sprint, and have the skills to ride in a fast moving bunch. Many of these things can be learned in training without ever venturing near a start line. But tactics and race craft is something which needs to be learnt over time, through experience, and by soaking up as much information as possible.
To help make any sort of sense of the ebb and flow of a road race – which can at first seem random and impossible to predict – it helps to gather up some information about the elements shaping the race. Firstly, who is racing? What’s the standard, is it a mixed 3/4 race, or a 2/3 race? Or a 3rds only? Now, who are the strongest riders, and who is likely to be animating the race? You can get a sense of this by building up an idea during the course of the season as you start to see the same riders consistently getting good results. Or you can do a bit of online research on the British Cycling website, checking recent race results, or just listening to your teammates.
The second element to consider is the nature of the course. A strong time trialist on a flat course will be looking for an opportunity to strike it out alone and win from a break. Climbers will be looking to attack or break up the bunch on the hills. Figure out who the strong sprinters are, and try to follow their wheel in the closing stages of a bunch finish – you may not be able to overhaul them on the line, but you can certainly ride their slipstream to a respectable result.
Ride a course in advance if possible, but even just driving around it can give a good idea of what to expect during the race. Note the climbs, their length, gradient and when they appear. Are they followed by a long fast descent? Look for sharp corners, poor road surfaces, side winds or technical elements where you need to be aware of your positioning, or even where to attack. Finally, check the run in to the finish – is it flat, on a climb, does it suit your strengths? Even check exactly where the actual line is – races are often decided by centimetres, so know exactly where on the road your wheel needs to be ahead.
Once you’re familiar with a course, perhaps even raced on it a few times over the years, it becomes easier to predict how races will pan out, and you can then adapt your own approach accordingly. You’ll also know how to take the fastest lines through the corners, take descents without hesitation, where to use your energy and, and just as importantly, where to save it.
Aero on the cheap
Aero improvements needn’t cost a lot of money. For a breakdown of where it’s best to spend have a look at Cyclingtip’s article on getting the biggest bang for your buck in time trial equipment. Obviously tri bars and pointed helmets aren’t relevant to road racing, but you can see the relative benefits of investing in an aero frame versus deep rim wheels. However for a minimum outlay you can buy some simple overshoes, and working on getting a more aero position on the bike shouldn’t cost more than some time and a bit of experimentation.
Since the British team turned out in covered helmets at last year’s world championships, other pro teams have taken note. Sky, Lotto-Belisol, Rabobank and Garmin all turned up to stage two – and expected bunch sprint finish – at this year’s Tour de France with various forms of aero road helmet. You can get a similar effect just by taping up the vents on a standard road helmet – aero gains for just the price of some electrical tape from the hardware store.
UPDATE: Taping up the vents of your helmet for road racing is now illegal under UCI rules. Also out are removable covers, even those specifically designed by the helmet manufacturer. You can read the rules here. However helmet taping may be permissible in certain events such as time trials – but always check with the commissaire or organiser beforehand! Solid, non-vented aero helmets such as the Giro Air Attack are expected onto the market over the next few months.
…and finally, remember that to look good is to already go fast
Shave your legs. Clean your bike, lube the chain. Replace the bar tape. Buff up your shoes, replace the cleats. Wash your kit, coordinate your arm warmers and mitts, helmet and bike. Look pro.
None of these things will give any tangential speed gains, but your mindset might alter. If you see a race as an occasion, as an event, you’re more likely to treat it with a bit more respect and approach it in a better state of readiness. Leave the tatty jersey and bibs with the whole in the crotch for training rides. Race in your best.
The aggregation of marginal gains: Team GB ride specially designed bikes, and wear skin suits with aero helmets during the Olympic 2012 road race. Photo by Jason Gardiner