Last week, Chris Froome won the Tour de France General Classification by four minutes and five seconds. When compared to his total elapsed time of 89:04:48, Froome beat second placed Romain Bardet by .0736% over the course of the race. If that was found to be the statistical difference for a new training method or piece of equipment, even Dave Brailsford might scoff at it. That’s less than a rounding error of difference.
When Sky started up in 2010, they set the goal of winning a grand tour within 5 years. With their focus on the marginal gains involved in the sport, they were able to win the Tour de France within 2, a truly incredible feat. As I explained in my post on the strength of marginal gains, using a tactic that provides a small boost every day over large periods of time will eventually lead to large effects. When we talk about marginal gains, we talk about finding that one percent extra in performance. But in pro cycling, where everyone is already trying to find every advantage that they can get, one percent is massive. If Froome had won the Tour by one percent, his gap to second would be fifty three minutes and twenty eight seconds, a huge margin (25th place in this TDF).
Team Sky’s reported budget for the 2016 season is 29.1 million Euro ($32.5 million), which is presumably the highest in the World Tour. For comparison, Tinkoff’s budget is 22.8 million Euro and AG2R’s is just 14.1. The average in the World Tour is presumably closer to the AG2R number but we are unsure because teams are not required to disclose these numbers to the public.
There has been a lot of speculation over the past several years as Team Sky has won four out of the last 5 Tours. This speculation has included both mechanical and biological doping, neither of which I believe Team Sky participates in. While this does have the air of US Postal, you can see from my calculations above that their winning margins are tiny. One of the main pieces of evidence being pointed to is Froome’s data from the Alpe d’Huez climb where he seems to easily drop his opponents with an attack while his heart rate does not move. This seems fairly easy to counter: have you ever had issues with accuracy of your heart rate monitor readings? Exactly.
Another claim that I have heard is that “there’s no new science that should be giving them this edge.” With a 29 million euro budget and the help of British Cycling, which is funded by lottery money, they would likely be able to either conduct their own experiments or see things in research that others don’t. That budget gives them the resources to try anything, including stupid stuff that no one else would try. In addition, it buys them wind tunnel time, nutritionists, strength training coaches and physical therapists. They will be able to hire the best of everything and in the end, that is probably enough to give them a 0.736% edge.