If you think of ‘cycling‘ and ‘marginal gains‘, you tend to conjure up images of Team Sky, Dave Brailsford and the success of the British at international sporting events such as the Olympic Games. Indeed Dave Brailsford, head of Team Sky defines the concept of ‘marginal gains‘ in cycling quite well:
“The whole principle of marginal gains came from the idea that if you broke down everything that could impact on a cycling performance — absolutely everything you could think of — and then you improved everything little thing by 1%, when you clump it all together, you’re going to get quite a significant increase in performance. So we set about looking at everything we could.“
Not everyone has bought into the theory. Somewhat predictably, Bradley Wiggins isn’t a fan and is quoted as saying ‘it’s a load of rubbish‘. But moving on, let’s assume that the theory does have some validity. I have done no analysis of ‘marginal gains‘ whatsoever but, intuitively, it does seem to make sense. If you wash your hands regularly to keep them germ free, you are less likely to be ill and will miss fewer days of training. It might amount to only an extra 1% of time spent training but combined with all the other things you are making sure that you do or don’t do which also mean that you spend 1% more time in training, it all adds up to a big difference. With success in the world of international sport being measured at the level of seconds or fractions of seconds, even a small number of percentage points of advantage over your rival could be significant.
Hold that thought…
This month, as you will know if you’ve been paying attention, I have been aiming to cycle 300 miles in aid of Cancer Research UK. You can read more about my motivation for signing up to the cause here. For the record, after knocking out another 35 miles today, my total stands at 230 miles and with 8 days to go I have just 70 miles to cycle. (You can, incidentally, sponsor me by following this link. Thanks if you do.) Aside from the encouragement the ‘Cycle 300’ charity initiative has given me to get off my backside and do a bit more cycling, I’ve actually been enjoying simply being out there, on the bike and well, cycling regularly. My two-wheeled endeavours in the last ten years have often come in big chunks – very big chunks – punctuated with lengthy periods of modest commuting. I’ve never been a regular ‘weekend’ cyclist but I’m beginning to see the attractions and I do hope that after September 30th, I continue to get out there on the bike and keep up the non-communting weekend pedalling.
Cycling in Britain does, however, have its frustrations. It doesn’t matter when you do it, how often you do it, or indeed where you do it; you are inevitably going to come face-to-face – sometimes all too literally – with a driver who passes you far too closely and far too quickly, drivers paying more attention to their phones than vulnerable road users such as yourself, poor quality road surfaces or cycling facilities that are being abused by those who are not cycling; drivers parking in cycle lanes for example. They all make me scream, usually internally but often externally. But time passes and you forget about the particular incident that motivated you to vent your fury verbally or via a Chaucerian hand signal.
Perhaps, however, we should take a leaf out of the ‘marginal gain‘ handbook and seek to make a small change resulting from a negative encounter on the road. In itself it won’t make that much difference, but if all cyclists aimed to make marginal gains, collectively, it could provoke real, meaningful change. I’m going to cite two examples as evidence that one individual action can indeed lead to a small change.
A few weeks ago I was cycling through the Calder Valley town of Mytholmroyd. I was passed at very close quarters by a van owned by Together Housing. The van stopped at the lights so I cycled up beside the driver and his passenger and asked, politely, if they had been aware that they had overtaken me with perhaps only 50 centimetres between me and the van. The woman in the passenger seat told me I was a ‘prick’ and they drove off… Once home, I posted details of my encounter to Twitter:
It did the trick. The company messaged me back saying:
“We identified the vehicle and driver in question, and dealt with it in line with our internal procedures.”
…although I remained a little sceptical as to what ‘internal procedures’ might be.
Today I was once again cycling near Mytholmroyd and was passed by, you guessed it, another Together Housing van. Perhaps even the same Together Housing van that had passed me a few weeks ago; how many Together Housing vans can there be in Mytholmroyd? The good news is that not only did the driver pass me slowly, he must have left at least three metres of space between me and the van. I’m guessing that it was the same driver. Perhaps those ‘internal procedures’ had had their impact. That’s marginal gain one.
Later today, this happened:
You can clearly see the cycle lane in question – on the B6112 – from this Google Maps satellite image:
You can also see the plentiful space for car parking within Heath Rugby Union Club.
Again, I was excessively polite to the people I spoke to at the gate of the club, and the driver who had just parked his burgundy people carrier as he walked in through the gates (he mumbled something along the lines of ‘it doesn’t bother me‘ when I asked if he was aware he had just parked on a cycle lane).
Once home, I posted the video online, this time to the club’s Facebook page:
The response from the club via a certain Christopher Moore was swift and positive:
“Fair enough mate. We will encourage people to park within the club grounds, hopefully this will make things easier for you. Also I understand that people visiting the garden centre park on that stretch of road so might be worth having a word with them.”
To which I replied (admittedly at length but I am a writer so what do you expect?):
“Thanks for the positive response Christopher. Much appreciated. I suppose it’s not really for my benefit that I’m raising the issue; I’m not intimidated by the traffic. It’s the wider agenda of making the roads safe for less confident cyclists who currently consider cycling as ‘dangerous’. I had a nice, polite chat with the two guys who were taking money on the entrance. They explained that the money was paid to see the game, not for parking so there’s no financial penalty for anyone wanting to use the (newly expanded) parking facilities inside the ground. I can understand why they didn’t want to commit further. We watched one driver park his car on the cycle lane and when he arrived at the gate I asked him, again very politely, if he was aware that he had done so. He muttered something about not being bothered… You have put ‘police’ cones on the cycle lane close to your entrance (or was it actually the police?). Might it be an idea to put these further along the cycle lane (although I don’t condone putting anything in the cycle lane but perhaps needs must…)? Your point about the garden centre is perhaps valid although when I’ve visited in my car there’s always plenty of room in their car park. The cars-in-the-cycle-lane issue does seem to coincide with events at the rugby club, for example when the bikers were camping there over the summer. At least today I didn’t see anyone having a piss on the pavement as I did when the bikers were there. Things are looking up! Let’s hope your positive response is a good sign and the problem won’t reoccur. Thanks. Andrew”
And Christopher responded as follows:
“We are a gentleman’s club. Please pop in for a pint someday. I agree with everything you said. I will approach the committee at the club and raise the issue. In regards to the bikers I’m afraid we do not police that event, however we will also mention it to them regarding the urinating on the pavement and hopefully they will respond positively. Thank you for getting in contact with us, we also have a dedicated telephone number which is available on our website. This may be a better avenue to raise awareness in the future rather than social media as I’m afraid most of club members are too busy to reply. Cheers.”
I don’t quite agree with Christopher when it comes to avoiding social media; that aspect of highlighting these issues often is an important factor in them being addressed, but what a positive outcome. That’s marginal gain two.
So, if I can achieve two marginal gains in the cycling experience in a matter of weeks, what would happen if every cyclist in the country did something similar? I didn’t shout, I didn’t rant, I didn’t lose my cool… I was polite and persuasive and in both of the above examples, it seems that a small difference was made.
Lots of small differences = a big difference. That’s the theory of ‘marginal gains‘. Unless you are Sir Bradley…