The Real Secret to British Cycling’s Success: More Than Just Marginal Gains

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —July 1, 2024
Filed in Business storytelling

It’s important to verify the stories you hear.

One story I didn’t verify was the one I read in James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, about the British Cycling team. Here’s how I told it on our podcast.

My original telling of the British Cycling story

In 2003, the British cycling team was in for a massive change.

They hadn’t won a gold medal since 1908 and had never won a Tour de France. It wasn’t looking great for them.

But in 2003, they appointed Dave Brailsford as the team’s Performance Director. He had been working with the team for some time now, but as a consultant.

He was a balding, fit, 39-year-old cyclist. His job was to make overarching improvements to the team.

He came up with an idea which he called ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’. The idea was that, if you break it all down and improve everything by 1%, you will have significant gains.

There were the obvious things that they did initially, like fitting the team out with bio sensors, to get performance feedback.

But then they started looking at everything they could think of: the seats on their bikes; putting alcohol on their tyres to get better traction; getting everyone to choose the right pillow for themselves and to take it with them when travelling so they slept better. They even painted the interiors of their team trucks white so that they could see every speck of dirt and ensure that everything was clean and spotless.

Just five years later, in 2008, the British cycling team absolutely dominated the Beijing Olympics. They won 60% of all the gold medals that were up for grabs for their sport.

At the London Olympics in 2012, they ended up with 9 Olympic records and 7 World records.

And their success continued. At the Rio Olympics in 2016, 2/3 of the gold medals went to the British team.

In 2012, Brailsford moved to focus on the Tour de France team. After Brailsford implemented similar changes with the Tour de France team, they followed in the successes of the Olympic team, year after year.

Again in 2012, Bradley Wiggins became the first British cyclist to win the Tour de France. The following year, his teammate, Chris Froome, won the race, and went on to win it in 2015, 2016, and 2017. To finish their winning streak, Geraint Thomas, another British cyclist, won it in 2018.

They won 6 times in 8 years, after never winning a race before.

What is missing from the story?

I learned from the podcast If Books Could Kill that the story above is only part of the reason British Cycling achieved international dominance.

Another big factor was funding.

I learned the following from reading the British Cycling entry on Wikipedia.

The appointment of Peter Keen as Performance Director in 1997 marked the beginning of a well-funded and strategically planned approach to improving British Cycling. In 1997, the UK Sports Council granted them £900,000. Then, in January 1999, they secured lottery funding for six years, with the first year getting £2.5 million.

In 1999, the GB sprint squad won its first World Championship medal in 40 years at the Berlin Track Worlds.

With this increased funding they could afford to bring on new coaches like Dave Brailford and implement his ‘aggregation of marginal gains’ approach.

So, they did incrementally improve, driven by Dave Brailsford’s hard work. However, they also had the money to buy innovative equipment and improve their support systems, such as providing better coaches and applying sports science.

Now, a story is never a full description of what happened—that’s the job of historians. However, you want to say enough to provide a good explanation.

We can borrow a test from David Deutsch, the pioneering physicist and philosopher known for his foundational work in quantum computing and his contributions to the philosophy of science.

He argues that the best explanations are those that are hard to vary while still accounting for the observed phenomena, as detailed in his book “The Beginning of Infinity.”

So, if we removed funding as part of the explanation for British Cycling, how would all the incremental improvements be paid for?

It’s essential for the explanation and should be part of the story.

The trouble with business books and stories

The problem with business books like Atomic Habits is that the author can easily fall into the trap of motivated reasoning. They hear a story that fits their needs, and so they are reluctant to dig deeper in case it either contradicts their point or muddies the water.

It’s important to show some scepticism about the stories you read and hear. Always dig for verification. If the storyteller tells a true story, this only reinforces their narrative.

I failed to verify the British Cycling story. I fell into the trap of thinking it’s too good not to tell. But it was only part of the story.

As David Deutsch argues, the best explanations are those that are hard to vary while still accounting for the observed phenomena. Removing funding from the explanation leaves us questioning how the improvements were implemented. Business books can fall into motivated reasoning, presenting stories that fit their narrative without deeper scrutiny. To provide a good explanation, consider asking yourself, “What am I missing here that could change the whole picture?”

Photo by paolo candelo on Unsplash

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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