The phrase ‘marginal gains’ should be familiar to any cycling fan.
Brought into the sport by Team Sky and its general manager Sir Dave Brailsford, the basic idea is that if you can improve across a range of areas by just one percent, the overall result will add up to something spectacular.
There’s no doubt Team Sky have maximised their marginal gains over the past few years, a situation that’s continued in the seven stages of the 2015 Tour de France. Chris Froome will be well pleased ahead of tonight’s important Stage 8 and the summit finish on the Mur-de-Bretagne.
Cadel Evans won here in 2011 on his way to the title, and Froome will fancy his chances of following in Evans’ footsteps if he can successfully negotiate the punchy two-kilometre ascent (average 6.9%).
It would be silly to imagine that other teams aren’t also exploring where they can make marginal gains, and there are a few stories emerging from this Tour that suggests it’s really paying off for some riders.
Tejay van Garderen is one example.
Sitting third on GC at 13 seconds, the BMC leader has not skipped a beat. His team has perfectly assessed the racing thus far, safely negotiating the challenges thrown up by the wind and rain in the early part of the Tour.
Blessed by not receiving the attention of the big four, Vincenzo Nibali, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana, the next two days will be crucial to Van Garderen staying in contention for a podium finish.
Fifth on GC last year after a disappointing 45th in 2013, Van Garderen is finally showing the consistency and maturity needed to succeed at Grand Tour level.
Van Garderen has essentially followed the same race program as last year which saw him ride the Criterium du Dauphine, Pais Vasco, Tour of Catalunya, Paris-Nice and the Tour of Oman. The only change in 2015 was the inclusion of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Fleche Wallonne instead of a failed attempt at the Tour of Romandie (DNF).
Second overall at the Dauphine where he rode aggressively against Chris Froome suggested his preparation was spot-on, and so far, the American has looked very comfortable in what again is a well-drilled BMC team.
Lotto-Soudal also looks to be on top of its game despite essentially losing two of its premier riders from its formidable train.
Without a contender for the GC, Lotto-Soudal has again pinned its hopes on sprint superstar Andre Greipel and so far he’s been one of the Tour’s success stories.
After his second place to a revitalised Mark Cavendish overnight, Greipel’s lead over three-time winner Peter Sagan in the green jersey competition is a slender 12 points.
Greipel’s never won this competition – second in 2012 is his best – and there are significant challenges ahead if he’s to stop Sagan making it four in a row, but this year he’s mounting his most serious challenge.
Greipel has worn green since the first open road stage, and the longer the Tour has gone the more comfortable he’s looked in it.
Bear in mind that he’s had to win his stages effectively without the help of the injured Adam Hansen and Greg Henderson, and his performance thus far is even better.
Perhaps aware that at 32, time is against him, Greipel has really changed things around this year.
First up, he decided to give the Tour Down Under a miss.
A race where he’s won a record 19 stages, Adelaide has been ‘The Gorilla’s’ happy hunting ground and seemingly the perfect place to start his season. In 2012, he won three stages at the TDU and then triumphed again in July with three Tour wins and two second places.
So Greipel knows how to peak for different objectives.
But it wasn’t just the Tour Down Under that the German sprint behemoth eschewed. Greipel has visited races multiple times since making his Tour de France debut in 2011.
Milan San Remo, Tirreno Adriatico, Ghent Wevelgem, Driedaagse, Kurne-Brussels-Kurne, the Tours of Turkey, Belgium and Luxembourg, Ster ZLM, the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix have all regularly been on his calendar.
For instance after last year’s TDU, Greipel rode the Tours of Oman and Qatar then KBK, Tirreno, MSR, Ghent-Wevelgem, Turkey, World Ports, Belgium, Luxembourg and Ster ZLM.
But his 2014 Tour wasn’t the best, with just one stage win behind a rampaging Marcel Kittel (four) and Alexander Kristoff (two). Greipel only finished seventh in the green jersey competition.
This year has seen a marked change. Greipel began his season with three one-day races in the Trofeo series in late January, then the Volta Algarve, Paris-Nice, Milan San Remo, Ghent Wavelgem, Driedaagse, Flanders, Paris Roubaix, Turkey, Luxembourg and Ster ZLM. He also rode the Giro, albeit only 13 stages.
So in his Tour de France lead-up, Greipel only appeared in five races he took part in last year. He also returned to the Giro d’Italia for the first time since 2010.
Using Italy’s Grand Tour as a warm-up for le Tour is nothing new for sprinters. Robbie McEwen, regularly exited the Giro after 12 or 13 stages and it did him no harm. And this was something that Greipel recognised.
McEwen, who won 12 stages at both the Giro and the Tour, admitted on SBS TV that Greipel had contacted him about how he prepared for The Grand Boucle including his Giro strategy.
As McEwen went onto explain, despite being a champion in his own right, Greipel is humble enough to seek advice in how to improve.
Faced with the likely triple-barrelled assault in the form of Marcel Kittel, Alexander Kristoff and Mark Cavendish, Greipel decided to search for something to give him an edge… a marginal gain.
When discussing Greipel’s green jersey chances, McEwen also said you need to be in absolutely 100 per cent condition and have everything go your way. Luckily for Greipel, that’s what seems to be happening.
He looks as strong as ever on the bike, Kittel isn’t at the Tour and Kristoff is seemingly not at the level we saw earlier in the year.
There’s still a long way to go, but watching the battle between Greipel and the freakish Sagan will be every bit as fascinating as the race for the Maillot Jaune.
And if Greipel does win, Robbie McEwen may have played a small but vital part.