Racing at the Speed of Science

Bradley wiggins main

The British were always terrible cyclists. Between 1938 and 2012, U.K.-based racers won few medals at the Olympics and had zero wins at the Tour de France.

Then something changed. In 2012 (incidentally, the year London hosted the Olympics), spindly Englishman Bradley Wiggins won both the yellow jersey on the Champs Elysées and the gold medal at the Games. In 2013, Brit Chris Froome also won the Tour.

What changed?

According to Mark McClusky, author of Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes—and What We Can Learn from Them, the answer lies less in peak athleticism than in science and tactics.

The Olympic hosts invested in their cycling, and over time took advantage of “marginal gains,” focusing on small but significant actions such as wiping down the team’s tires with alcohol, which increases the tires’ grip at the start.

For the wins, McClusky credits these “coaches, researchers, and scientists all working together to hack the hypercompetitive world of elite sports.” Faster will inevitably draw comparisons to 2013’s hotsports-science book, David Epstein’s The Sports Gene; but McClusky’s work is less about what we’re born with than how we exploit it. He asks: What could be next?

The answer lies in what changed the Brits from peloton losers to Tour winners: improvement by inches.

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