Alex Howes diary: Marginal pains

Don’t miss out on the latest CyclingTips updates.

Jump To Comments

Folks, marginal gains are no longer marginal. While they used to operate solely in the margins, they have begun to dominate and corrode the very heart of cycling.

Call me crazy, or nostalgic, or maybe just a loser, but back when I was growing up, despite existing outside of the mainstream media — or maybe because of it — pro cycling was cool. It was badass, it was fucking hardcore. Nowadays, with all these marginal gains, it’s a sport full of weight weenies, power dorks, and flesh-and-blood robots. How did we get to where we are today? Marginal gains, folks.

In a sport where the stadium can have a playing field with 20% grades, it’s all about being as light and aerodynamic as possible. How does one save weight when all the top equipment companies are already working day and night on this very problem?

Here are a few suggestions — and yes, all of these methods have been employed in the pro peloton. Not by everyone, and not all the time, but these are all real marginal gains (pains) that have worked their way into the cycling world.

  • Get a haircut
    Cut it short, as short as you can. While you are at the barbershop, ask them to shave your arms, and the tops of your feet as well.
  • Cut the toes off your socks
    What is better than cutting needless weight? Cutting needless rotational weight, of course.
  • Partially charge your Garmin
    Simple physics explains that energy and mass are essentially one and the same. A lower charge equals less energy, less energy equals less mass. How much less? Maybe a millionth of a gram. Mass is mass, bro. It all adds up.
  • Functional dehydration
    Do you think you have been drinking enough all day? Have you been sweating at all? You are probably dehydrated well beyond the point of being optimally functional. (Keep drinking out there, people. This is not just Trump #fakenews, it is real #fakenews.)
  • Glycerin suppositories**
    Helps squeak out that last little bit of weight right before the stage.
  • Coffee enemas
    The Hollywood detox and cleansing trick has been known to find its way into pro cycling from time to time. Do yourself a favor and keep coffee heading down the top spout.
    **Should the UCI create a “nothing up the ass” rule to accompany its no-needle policy? And before you start commenting below; no, I am not speaking from personal experience here!

The only thing more important than cutting weight is cutting drag. Here are a few tricks I’ve seen some pros attempt:

  • Top-tube pedaling
    I’m still waiting for someone to pop a testicle doing this one.
  • Sand paper on the saddle
    While Tony Martin’s sandpaper saddle may result in a marginal performance gain, it also results in marginal skin loss, on the butt cheek.
Tony Martin is a badass, but this? Come on.

Remember, light and aero mean nothing if you don’t have the right fuel for the engine. This is how ridiculous things have gotten:

  • Nutella ban
    In an effort to keep their riders lean, many teams have banned Nutella. Interestingly enough, some allow it if the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius. Why? It’s a known fact that Nutella can’t make you fat if you’re cold. #fakescience
  • Pickle juice
    The delicious nectar has found a new purpose as cramp prevention. Nothing better than some hot dill spillage during hour four of a steamy race.

On-the-bike marginal gains are nothing if the rider is not healthy from the get-go. These marginal gains search for gains in the off-the-bike margins.

  • Hand sanitizer
    Sure, there is a time and a place for everything. Just fell into a community pit toilet in the slums of Mumbai? You might want some hand sanitizer in addition to a hot, high-pressure hose down. Just opened your hotel room door? Might not need that hand sanitizer just yet. In many ways, the habitual abuse of hand sanitizer in the pro peloton not only epitomizes pro cycling’s downward spiral into weeniedom, it is also most likely leading to the development of the world’s most perfect super virus.
  • Organic coffee to avoid pesticides
    Pesticides are a known health hazard, but is it worth flying around the world with four kilos of coffee in one’s suitcase?
  • Avoiding underwear to increase testosterone
    God intended for the boys to swing in order to stay at the ideal temperature. But did the omni-powerful and all-knowing foresee skid marks?
  • Brushing teeth before stage
    I personally am famous for this one. After years of watching riders carefully polish their shoes for that pro look I was amused with the irony as those same cyclists regaled me with war stories from their double root canals and other dentistry epics. If dodging double root canals is not enough of an incentive what else do you have to gain from a quick mouth scrub? Simple, look good, feel good, race fast. How much faster? Well, it’s marginal.

Silly, eh? Yes, but also dead serious. What I’m getting at here is cycling has been reaching too far into the margins. How can we fix this?

For starters, you’re already doing your part by reading CyclingTips, an outlet that highlights and promotes the simple joys of riding in cool places. And I think bike companies are doing a good job by producing fun bikes that allow us to explore those delicious, rarely touched dirt roads.

Check out Fausto Coppi: Now that dude was cool.

But what do we do to make professional racing cool again?

Shorter, more exciting stages might be a start. Smaller team sizes for less-controlled racing could set off some fireworks. Or perhaps we could institute a mandatory post-race beer before all interviews. Maybe Chris Froome should have to race a cyclocross race or Roubaix each year. What if all riders were required to look as rad as Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi looked back in the day?

I don’t really know. But I do know that none of those things really hit the heart of the matter that cycling is radding down with all these marginal losses in radness, and it really bums me out. Cycling is cool and deserves to stay cool.

If you agree and you think you might have some ideas related to radness or you just care about pro cycling, let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Together, you and I are going to crank up the cool factor in cycling.

About the author

howes-peeingAlex Howes is a senior member of the Cannondale-Drapac Pro Cycling Team. Born and raised at the base of the Colorado Rockies, he has acquired a nearly insatiable thirst for adventure and all things wild. He’s completed every Grand Tour he’s started, including the Tour de France, three times. He took his first career win at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, in Denver, Colorado, and finished as the top American at the 2015 world road championships in Richmond, Virginia. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Pro Cycling Stats.

Editors' Picks