For seven decades British Cycling stumbled and stuttered through the world of professional, competitive cycling. Their performances were so dismal that most of Europe’s top bicycle manufacturers refused to supply the team with bikes, afraid that any kind of association with the team would hurt sales. And who could blame them? Team GB had won just a single gold medal at the Olympic Games since 1908, and no British cyclist had ever placed significantly at cycling’s biggest event, the Tour de France.
Then, one day in 2003, everything changed.
Today, British Cycling boasts a total of 38 Olympic medals (22 of those are gold) and in 2012, Team GB’s Bradley Wiggins didn’t just place, but won the Tour de France (a feat that Britain’s Chris Froome has since replicated four more times).
In just five years, a single man, with a single strategy, focused on single percentage improvements, propelled British Cycling to greatness on the world stage.
Sir Dave Brailsford had been promoted to Performance Director for British Cycling in 2003 in order to revitalise the team and the organisation as a whole. One hundred years of mediocrity had taken its toll and no one expected miracles. Brailsford had been a consultant with British Cycling since 1998 and understood that the challenge ahead of him was a monumental one.
Born in Derby in February 1965, Dave Brailsford grew up in the small Welsh village of Deiniolen, where his passion for road cycling was born. It wasn’t until 1984, having given up his job as an apprentice draughtsman for a local highways authority and moved to France, that his passion matured and his career in professional cycling began.
He was quickly picked up as a sponsored amateur for a team based in Saint-Etienne, central France. Brailsford described his time with the French Amateur team as one of autodidactism and constant self-improvement, “I’d always hated school but now I had so much time on my hands and didn’t go out much in the evenings, I became an avid reader. Training manuals, books about physiology, sports psychology. I became fluent in French too”
Brailsford understood, even then, that in order to achieve greatness in a given field one has to fully comprehend and appreciate all its subtleties. He spent the next decade dedicated to that task: devouring information on all of the nuances of road cycling. From tyre width in relation to tyre pressure, to optimal muscle performance temperatures. Brailsford was laying the foundation for what would become a strategy for success not only in cycling, but in all facets of life.
The Aggregation of Marginal Gains is a strategy that relies on a simple principle: search for a tiny margin of improvement in everything you do. “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improve it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.” And so, British Cycling’s journey to Olympic success began with Brailsford and his coaches looking for 1% improvements everywhere.
They doused tyres in rubbing alcohol to give their riders more grip around the velodrome. They redesigned each rider’s bike seat to improve comfort and posture. Riders were told to wear heated overshorts during practise to maintain an ideal muscle temperature for peak performance, as well as to reduce the risk of tears and strains.
Each rider was made to wear biofeedback sensors in order to monitor and adjust workouts to each athlete. The team tested and re-tested various different fabrics and racing suits in a wind tunnel – they even had their outdoor riders switch to the team’s indoor racing suits, which proved to be lighter and more aerodynamic.
Brailsford and his team believed that with all of these improvements they’d be in a position to win the Tour de France in five years time.
They won it in three.
So they didn’t stop, and Brailsford and his team continued to find 1 percent improvements everywhere – sometimes in the most unlikely of areas. They tested various different types of massage gels and managed to isolate which one led to the fastest recovery time. They painted the inside of the team truck white, enabling them to spot the dust and debris that usually slipped by and degraded their finely tuned bikes.
Brailsford noted that the communal nature of training was leading to some of the athletes getting sick and missing out on crucial practice sessions. So, they hired a surgeon to teach each rider how to wash their hands correctly and supplied the entire team with antibacterial hand sanitiser. They were even able to determine the best type of pillow and mattress that would lead to the best night’s sleep for each athlete.
Far from being the eccentric demands of an overzealous coaching staff, these changes and optimisations were the result of thorough research and testing. As the hundreds of tiny improvements accumulated, the success came far faster than anyone could have imagined.
British Cycling’s domination of the road, the track and the velodrome had begun.
At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, British Cycling won a whopping fourteen medals, eight of which were gold. Four years later, on home soil, the bar was raised, and Team GB set nine Olympic records and seven world records. In the same year, British Cycling took home its first Tour de France yellow jersey thanks to Bradley Wiggins.
During the ten-year span from 2007 to 2017, British cyclists won 178 world championships and 66 Olympic or Paralympic gold medals and captured 5 Tour de France victories in what is widely regarded as the most successful run in cycling history.
This principle of continuous improvement isn’t new; it has some of its roots in a Japanese philosophy. Kaizen is formed of two characters – kai/change and zen/good. Before the concept became integral to Lean Manufacturing, it was used to simply mean change for the better.
After World War II, Japan faced the daunting prospect of having to rebuild the country. Manufacturing and commerce were non-existent and most of the country’s infrastructure had been levelled. Taiichi Ohno and Shigeo Shingo, the forefathers of Toyota, understood that in its entirety, the problem of rebuilding a nation was insurmountable. It was only through continuous improvement and ‘small incremental improvements’ that anything could be done. Today Japan stands tall as a global economic and political powerhouse.
Ohno and Shingo set about creating an applicable set of rules for Toyota, a set of rules that can be applied to anyone’s life. Strive for continuous improvement. Things can always get better no matter how good or bad they may be now.
It’s easy to overestimate the importance of one defining moment and underestimate the value of making small improvements every day. Too often, we convince ourselves that massive success requires massive action. Whether it’s losing weight, rebuilding a nation or taking a failing national cycling team to global dominance, the tendency to focus on the huge issues often overshadows the small, incremental changes that we need to make in order to achieve that success.
Meanwhile, improving by 1 percent isn’t particularly notable—sometimes it isn’t even noticeable—but it can be far more meaningful, especially in the long run. The difference a tiny improvement can make over time is astounding.