The 2009 route of the Tour de France was contrived in part to set up, after three weeks racing, a climactic showdown on the slopes of Mont Ventoux. By taming the Pyrenean stages, Christian Prudhomme, the race organiser, was banking on the final stage to decide who would wear the yellow jersey into Paris on the following day. Unfortunately for him, Alberto Contador had already built up a comfortable lead, and the race had been nullified for two weeks with no effect. The race ended in an anti-climax, going to show that attempts to manipulate the outcome of a three week stage race – with its multitude of unpredictable variants – is nigh on impossible.
And so making their debut this year is the much-hyped Team Sky, headed by British Cycling maestro Dave Brailsford with his catch phrase “The aggregation of marginal gains”. In the pre-season build-up we’ve been treated to such stories as ants and chimps on pre-season training camps, team busses referred to as ‘performance vehicles’ complete with mood lighting and a flashing beacon to guide riders home once crossing the finish line at races. Whether all these ‘marginal gains’ will stack up high enough to propel Bradley Wiggins into a GC contender this summer remains to be proven. My hunch is road racing is too unpredictable for such peripheral factors to make a real difference to the final outcome of a race – Contador proved that, even with a team scheming against you, the strongest rider will eventually win out.
As usual however, I’ve probably completely missed the point here. In the absence of any real racing, Sky have filled the pre-season void with silly chitter-chatter that has garnered them valuable media exposure, and has sent fans’ tongues wagging (or fingers-a-clicking) on internet forums. They also seemed to have won few friends in the pro-peloton and frowned upon any journalist foolish enough to foster an opinion contrary to Sky’s outlook. But whatever, it’s entertained us during these dark winter months.
Where marginal gains becomes particularly tiresome is in the ranks of ricky racing amateurs; obsessions about carbon fibre components, aerodynamic deep section rims, titanium pedal spindles, recovery concoctions, power meters, TRIMPS… the simple sport of racing a bicycle has become a crazy kaleidoscope of pseudo-science and aerospace engineering, all wrapped in a lovely veneer of clever marketing. All this seems to do is obscure cycling in a mystical mist of expensive equipment and bizarre training regimes that can ultimately put off anyone considering entering the sport.
The pursuit of marginal gains for an amateur racer isn’t particularly enjoyable, is expensive, probably isn’t very effective, and certainly isn’t as much fun as actually riding a bike – however crappy that bike may be.