What Are Marginal Gains (and Do They Really Matter)?

Welcome to the first episode of The Marginal Gains Podcast, presented by Silca — the show that makes a big deal about the little things, and how those little things can be a big deal.

In this first episode, Josh Poertner, Hottie (Michael Hotten) and Fatty (Elden Nelson) obsess over about what marginal gains are, why they matter, and the huge difference Josh has seen them make in building bike components, in pro cycling teams’ success, and even outside the cycling world altogether.

It’s a show for the thinking cyclist. Enjoy Marginal Gains!

Click here to view transcript

19 thoughts on “What Are Marginal Gains (and Do They Really Matter)?

  1. Excellent work! I really enjoyed listening to the first episode, and I’m excited for more to come. I would love to hear an episode that talks about marginal gains as it relates to bicycle fitting.

    1. Thanks Jonathan,
      This will come up both in terms of power and aero.. I’ve positioned a few hundred ProTour and Triathletes in the tunnel, but we will have an expert help us with some further understanding of this.. all later in the year!

  2. Agreed, loved the listen! There may have been a bit of mixing up of marginal gains and diminishing marginal returns, however. With marginal gains (the subject of most of the podcast), lots of small improvements can add up to be meaningful.

    With diminishing marginal returns however, continued improvements result in lesser gains (the brief conversation about asymptotes spoke to this). If you keep applying power to overcome aerodynamic drag, you’ll get less and less gain in speed with each increment of additional power applied. You wouldn’t really say that added power equals a marginal gain (although technically it does, up to a point), you would say that added power results in diminishing marginal returns.

    1. Jeff,
      Thanks for the listen and for the insightful comment!! Yes, there is some overlap here, but the thing to remember in many of these categories is that once the easy stuff is more or less sorted out for a given system, the remaining marginal gains are quite often providing diminishing marginal returns. We have a few episodes in the pipeline that will get into this in more detail, talking about the challenges of approaching an asymptote as well as the non linearities and asymmetries on both the supply side and demand side of the equation.

      This is a great reminder for me as well that I tend to live in a world that is essentially supply side fixed…we generally assume and model as if there is no more power to be had, be it a cyclist, racecar, aircraft, etc.. assume power is X and make the most of it.. However, that’s not the case in all systems and even moreso, there are marginal gains specialists in every single type of engine field who are also out to massage every last little horsepower out of the system they’re tasked with optimizing..

  3. Fantastic podcast! I loved hearing the histories of ZIPP and Silca. I’d like to hear more on the marginal gains for the Hour Record, but would also like to hear you jump into the unending debate on the marginal gains between rim vs disc brakes on road bikes.

  4. Thanks Craig,
    I don’t have disc v rim in any episode here soon, but maybe that could be a fun short or something to put together? It’s also one I’ll have to put some thought and more research into as my current opinion would be that the relative benefits of each system are so marginal and the tradeoffs so similar that the ‘winner’ becomes incredibly condition specific.

  5. This was a great listen and I will be adding to regular feed on Overcast. I look forward to more on the Hour Record and where the outer limited might be within the current UCI regs and maybe conjecture on where it go without them? Also would like to hear more about the relationship of air pressure and altitude and their effect on Hour Record performance over the years. Also please touch on lubricants and how much difference they make to weekend duffers vs the pros. I would be interested to hear more about this as well as effective and safe ways to prep chains and gears. I

    1. Charlie,
      Thanks for the feedback and for the great suggestions.. I think we could do a whole year of shows on the Hour Record, especially once we get to the whole altitude or not question, and probably another year of shows on the UCI rules, especially if we delve into the politics of it all!! I was the Chairman of the Technical Committee for the WFSGI for nearly 2 years, which is the group of companies from the industry formed to work with the UCI on rules and regs and can tell you first hand that things are far, far more complex on the inside than can be seen from the outside.. though not at all in a rational way!!

      Lastly, the lubricants and drivetrain prep will be covered in a future episode, but I can tell you firsthand that due to the sheer miles riden and time on hand, it is easier for the weekend warrior to have superior drivetrain efficiency and cleanliness than even the top pros! We recommend having 2 chains and 2 sets of pulleys, one for training/riding and one for racing. Use NFS on your riding chain and hot melt wax on your racing chain. We’ve done this with a number or Ironman World Champions as well as pro’s, and it’s just easier to manage..than trying to take everything apart, clean and put back together… Much of the focus on pro bikes is keeping them clean and beautiful, but the daily washing can cause unseen damage and friction inside the bearings of the pulleys, BB, hubs and chain. More to come!!

  6. Nerds* with social skills? This must be a marginal gain. *(Don’t mean to be disrespectful. There are some big brains at work here.)

  7. The Lemond-style Bottecchia Chronostrada is my all-time most desired collectible bike. I doubt I’ll ever own one, though.

    1. Thanks Darren,
      We will definitely make sure to cover this in a future episode! Great to hear there is interest!

  8. I really enjoyed this podcast! ! The marginal gains philosophy has huge implications for any team with aspirations of peak performance. This discussion was well organized and easy to understand. Thank you ! Subscribed.

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