The process of marginal gains comes from the automotive world, where it started with Toyota. The ethos that by making many small incremental changes to processes, the overall result will be amplified. It revolves around developing a mindset that permeates throughout the whole organisation, whereby any and all ideas for improvement are welcomed, the idea being that those who are on the ’shop floor’ should have a say in the running of the business. This focus on marginal gains and constant improvement led Toyota to being one of the world’s dominate car manufacturers. Through the natural migration of staff, and indeed bringing in other companies to visit Toyota and learn from them, the marginal gains and continual improvement practises would go on to be found throughout the auto industry, in fact it became one of the benchmark processes in a great deal of industries. There is an argument to be made that by allowing others to see your processes the whole industry improves, for the benefit of all.
Cycling as a professional sport has always been focussed on details, with athletes going to extreme lengths to glean every competitive edge they can over their peers. What Sky have done is taken a healthy scepticism to what was prevalent in the professional peloton and looked to squeeze additional performance gains from it. The UK press has fawned over Sir Dave Brailsford’s ‘marginal gains’ philosophy, and to some extent they should have, Team Sky may not have won the most amount of races, but they have delivered astonishing performances when needed.
How does marginal gains work inside Team Sky? Whilst Dave Brailsford certainly didn’t invent a great many of the techniques and processes within Team Sky, that scepticism towards prior practises allowed them to examine afresh the activities of their competitors.
This viewpoint, coupled with the skills and experiences from their staff within other sporting fields (Tim Kerrison, the team doctor for example, would bring along the practise of warming-down from rowing – a concept which seems obvious enough now, but it wasn’t in significant practise in cycling prior to Sky’s adoption), has got to the level now that where Team Sky lead, the following season we can expect to see other teams follow – to the betterment of the sport as a whole it could be said.
I spent a day in Deinze, Belgium, poking around the service course of Team Sky, and I got to check out some of the behind-the-scenes activities. My guide for the day was Carsten Jeppesen, Team Sky’s technical operations and commercial head, Carsten has his finger very firmly on the pulse of all the behind-the-scenes goings-on at the team – he is the guy that calls the sponsors and asks for changes – he describes himself as “a pain in the ass!”.
There’s been a great deal of talk about marginal gains over the last few years within sport, with some seeing it as a smoke screen and PR twaddle, whilst others expect more from it than it promises. It should be remembered that whilst Brailsford talks about 1% gains, in reality the gains may be smaller than that, but collectively they can add up to something meaningful. Check out Marks & Spencer’s PLAN A for an example of this philosophy in action.
Inside the ominous Death Star the riders are relatively pampered as they transition to and from stages. Each of the 8 leather recliners has its own power and network connectivity, and each one has a small bottle of hand-sanitiser. Regular hand-hygiene may not sound like the way to performance gains, but ask any teacher or nurse and they will tell you that constant contact with people leads to the spreading of germs, and germs can lead to illness.
Whilst the riders may be at the peak of physical fitness, at the end of a stage their body’s will be exhausted and more susceptible to attack. It’s a small thing for sure, but this can be the level of detail between a contender and an also-ran.
Talking of little-things, when you get inside the building and check out the racks of frames it soon becomes evident that the little things are being considered. Get up close and you notice that the bikes are a little different from those in the garage at home. Those 2 marks on the saddle? They are 4cm and 15cm from the saddle’s tip, each and every saddle has these marks.
“There are so many different ways of measuring a bike,” says Jeppesen. “We have nine full-time mechanics and if they measured nine different ways it would be too risky for us, so we have made a way of doing things based on those two specific points. It is a way of making sure that all of a rider’s bikes are set up the same.” The forward mark is to the centre of the stem, whilst the rear marker goes down to the bottom bracket.
This is exactly the sort of idea that the aggregation of marginal gains is based upon, simplicity and processes to standardise the day to day life of the mechanics.
Team Sky don’t use ‘soigneurs’, here they are called carers, and Sky have a great deal of them! Out on the course you will see them handing out bottles and food, but it’s away from the course that some of the hardest work is done.
It’s well known that Sky take their own mattresses and pillows from hotel to hotel, what makes this more interesting is that the carers will head out to the next hotel first thing in the morning after packup and will prepare the rooms ahead of the team’s arrival.
“The differences between the hotel rooms that we use are extreme,” explains Jeppeson. “If we come to a hotel room that’s not in a good state in the Tour, for example, our staff give the place a proper clean. You’d be surprised at how dirty a hotel room can be. Quite often they move the bed and clean everywhere.
“In a Grand Tour a rider’s breathing system is really challenged and just a small amount of dust in a dirty room can make them sleep quite badly.”
In addition to bedding Sky also have air-conditioning units and heaters for rooms to ensure optimal sleep (and therefore rider recovery). Having slept in ‘substandard’ hotels in France in July before I can attest to the difference a good night’s sleep can make the night before a race, just a few degrees too warm (and 1 buzzing mosquito) can reduce sleep by 50% for a night!
Despite all this attention to cleanliness, there’s still some sentimentality towards graffiti.
The service course is big enough to literally park a bus inside, and when it comes to race prep, that’s exactly what they do, driving the bus in to load it up in a modular fashion. The mechanic’s bus is testament to the importance of The Team, providing the spanner wizards an environment that allows them to get the job done in comfort. The bus looks to be a repurposed Recreational Vehicle (RV) similar to the behemoths used in the US, complete with moveable sides that provide room to work in comfort inside whatever the weather outside.
Team Sky clearly consider the benefits from the RV to be worth the investment, not all teams will go this far – at E3 in the weeks prior to this visit, I saw several teams using awnings and marquees for their mechanics in the hotel car before the race – it was cold and raining so far from an ideal environment for work.
Some of the gains will be significant (the RV), whilst others – on the face of it – seem almost pedantic in nature. A great many teams in the World Tour use bottles by Elite, in Sky’s case they use upwards of 35,000 of them in a season! Sky have asked for two different coloured teats for the bottles, blue or white – these colours signify what drink is inside – either water or ‘sugar’.
Nothing revolutionary about that you say, but what it means is time is saved by not having to write on the bottles what’s inside – time that can be better spent elsewhere. Sky are, as you can probably guess, pretty anal about these things, with signs on the bus reminding staff about protocols for refuelling and recovery – the fully stocked fridges aide riders getting what they need post-race.
Despite their attention to detail and focus on what works in a quantifiable sense, there are still some anomalies. Froome, for example, still uses Q-rings, despite them not being a sponsor. How does Jeppesen feel about these? “Don’t talk to me about those ******* Q-rings” he jokes, “if we could prove one way or the other that they worked we’d have them for everyone”.
Attention to detail is evidenced by the spreadsheets which track every item in the team, it’s no small feat to monitor the usage and availability of all kit. Cages within the service course are laden with stems, chainrings and all manner of minutia to enable the mechanics to service the riders as best as possible. Every combination of chain ring is available, and will be in use for different riders depending upon the parcours – one wall board alone contains over £10,000 of RRP in Dura-ace outer rings.
One of the pillars of marginal gains is the reduction of waste, that waste can come, amongst others, in the form of money, time, or effort. By maintaining processes that reduce waste Sky are able to be as efficient as possible. This is also in evidence in the mechanics corner of the service course where every drawer is labelled and all items are within easy reach – these simple processes also help to provide evidence when things aren’t working – a gap in the tool board will show that something hasn’t been replaced – simple and obvious almost certainly, but also smooth and efficient.
The mindset that is evident is of an orderly, efficient approach to the sport – what we see on TV is the end result not just of the training of the riders, but also of the rigorous application of standardisation and efficiency for the 60-strong team behind the riders. It’s business-like (for better or for worse).
It’s an oft-said adage that perfect planning prevents pretty poor performance, and within Team Sky there is plenty of planning in evidence. From the boxes of Shimano’s C35 wheels sitting ready to unpack in time for the Tour in summer, to the piles of FMB tubular tyres sitting ready for glueing (next to the empty space after of Paris-Roubaix tyres from the previous Sunday).
Whilst we may never know the technical details of what preparation and training occurs for the riders away from the TV cameras, it’s clear that Sky’s focus on detail and efficiency behind the scenes pays massive dividends. It’s hard to argue against a process that has delivered 3 Grand Tour victories, a host of other race wins and now a monument to add to the ever growing team palmeres. Whilst Team Sky and Dave Brailsford didn’t invent the idea of marginal gains, in sport in general and cycling specifically they are continuing to eake out slices of margins that enable them to gain an edge on their competitors, in the cut-throat world of professional cycling these slices are what make the difference. You can bet that what they are doing, successfully, today, the rest of the peloton will be looking at implementing tomorrow!