Law Of Diminishing Returns

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I’ve been a fan of writer and marketer Seth Godin for some time now.  He has incredible insights and here is one of his blog posts that we can directly relate to our cycling.  This a bit of a trick question but bear with me and I’ll get to the point.

Not so good at math

Let’s say your goal is to reduce gasoline consumption.

And let’s say there are only two kinds of cars in the world. Half of them are Suburbans that get 10 miles to the gallon and half are Priuses that get 50.

If we assume that all the cars drive the same number of miles, which would be a better investment:

  • Get new tires for all the Suburbans and increase their mileage a bit to 13 miles per gallon.
  • Replace all the Priuses and rewire them to get 100 miles per gallon (doubling their average!)

Trick question aside, the answer is the first one. (In fact, it’s more than twice as good a move).

As he states in the last sentence, the answer is “getting new tires for all the Suburbans” (a Suburban is a big-ass SUV that I don’t see here in Australia).   To save you the hassle of expending too much brain power you can see simple math that proves this here.  It comes down to the Law of Diminishing Returns.  Of course if he had used L/100km the answer would have been much more obvious.

My point here is that we as cyclists are constantly marketed to with numbers and comparisons that are designed to be confusing.  “Save 5 watts with these bearings”, “Save 10% with these dimples”, “20% more glycogen with this gel”, etc.  20% better than what?? We’re an easy target because we’re always looking for ways to improve and we’ll pay big money to do so (image is also another motivating factor they play on – no different than anything else).

Sure if you’re a finely tuned elite athlete with very little else to improve on you could gain precious watts with some new dimpled hubs along with a specially sewn skinsuit.  Most of these are just product differentiators and marketing hype though.   We sometimes neglect the basics where so many massive gains can be achieved.  After these basics are dealt with you’re paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for marginal gains.  Most of these gains are diluted anyway when riding in a pack where you’re hidden from the wind.

Here are some effective ways to achieve big gains with little cost.  These aren’t as sexy as new pieces of carbon fiber but will cost you thousands less while making more of an impact on your performance.

  • Proper bike fit. Can cost as little as $100.  This will help you generate more power, make you more comfortable, and ultimately get your riding for longer.
  • Get some good coaching advice. Can cost as little as $30/week.  Even if you’re just looking to smash your mates or complete a century some good training advice will go a long way.  Cycling isn’t like weight lifting where the goal is to get bigger arms and chest.  There are many different physiological systems that need to be individually trained and brought together based on your goals.  There are proven ways to better your performance and having a good coach will teach you the basics.  This doesn’t necessarily need to consist of boring and disciplined interval training either.   It can be as simple as having a coach who knows the local roads and tells you which sections to hit hard.  I’ll put up some posts about basic training in the near future, however everybody is different and this blog cannot replace good individualized coaching.
  • Many people will say that buying a HR monitor or a power meter is a very good investment. A HR monitor costs as little as $50 these days.  I agree with this however they are no good if you don’t know how to use them properly. This is closely tied with getting a coach who can give you some direction.
  • A better bike can improve your performance drastically if you’re riding a piece of junk. This is starting to get on the expensive side of though.  This is a good example of where the law of diminishing returns starts kicking in.  A jump from a $800 bike to a $2500 bike will make a world of difference.    However a $2500 bike jumping to a $10,000 bike won’t do much to improve your performance.  It will certainty look and feel better though.  And it will please your LBS immensely…
  • If you want to start talking about a larger chunk of money, good wheels are a place where cash is well spent. We’re getting onto the wrong side of $1000 here though.  A set of deep dish carbon wheels will make a noticeable difference in aerodynamics when you’re traveling at around 40km/hr.   Will they make a few thousand dollar difference?  That depends on your pocketbook and priorities, but I personally think that having a good set of race wheels makes an impact once you’ve got the basics above sorted out.  Again, most these gains will be negated when riding in a pack where win resistance reduced.

Think about how this applies to the way you train and where you spend your time and money.

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