Incremental Change: The Key to Sustainable Improvement in Cycling and Beyond

I listen to a lot of podcasts, particularly through the summer while I spend time doing easy rides on Ottawa’s recreational paths. When I walk, I always go for a podcast over music. I feel podcasts make the single most significant contribution to my intellectual life, given I have limited time to read for personal interest. Many people are in the same position, which is why podcasts are big these days. In cycling, they seem to be proliferating; even Ottawa has one!

There are a number of podcasts I’d like to feature here as time allows, but for today, I want to point to one from Freakanomics I think is important to share right away. The episode, In Praise of Incrementalism,  follows on the heels of an episode on maintenance. The latter makes a case for valuing what we have – material or immaterial – and putting time and energy into maintaining these things rather than perpetually shifting focus to new, shiny replacements. This argument resonates with me, as I am more of a ‘fixer’ than a ‘consumer.’ I grew up fixing my bikes and trying to extend the life of their parts as long as possible, and the concept of disposable technologies and practices tends to rub me the wrong way. But I digress…..

What does incrementalism have to do with maintenance-versus-novelty? Perhaps the best way to illustrate the linkage is to think of politics. In democracies such as Canada’s or America’s, federal leadership candidates speak as though they – just them – are integral to the kind of change their countries need. They, and they alone know how to solve all the problems; they are best placed to get the job done. ‘Put me in power, and BOOM!, I’ll get it done!’ The change will be BIG. It’ll be NEW!

Maintaining what already is isn’t sexy. It doesn’t win elections.

Similarly, change needs to happen NOW! in order to be appealing. “We’re going to initiate a slow, steady process of unrolling policies and programs that will gradually improve the state of affairs over the next 50 years.” ‘Uhhhh,’ says the average voter, ‘Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.’ In other words, ‘I’ll take what I can now, since the other options are way more effort and I have no guarantees of acquiring the ‘better, more’ thing.’ In simple terms, we’re dealing with a case of instant gratification prioritized over gradual changes of state.

Why does this subject matter in the context of cycling?  Well, as discussed in the podcast, incrementalism is the better way of thinking of ‘marginal gains’ than most of us have likely encountered. While the host, Stephen Dubner, interviews Sir David Brailsford about the ways in which Team Sky examines and addresses every detail of their operations, from hand sanitizer to perfectly straight tires, they don’t discuss the incremental gains riders see throughout their careers. This is what I want to highlight. But not just yet; first: marketing.

Steve Bosworth's got some pretty interesting pop art going on. I love this ad, it's hilarious!
Steve Bosworth’s got some pretty interesting pop art going on. I love this ad, it’s hilarious! Sometimes marketing appeals to humour and little else.


Many products and services on the market make big promises. If you’ve had any exposure to marketing theory, you’ll know that a great deal of marketing aims to present a problem you/I/we have, convince us that it is a big deal that needs fixing, then proposes a tidy solution we can easily acquire, given we have the funds to do so. If we don’t have the funds, there might be a get-rich-quick scheme out there you can use to get them!

For certain, a lot of the ‘problems’ many products address are indeed created by the industries that produce them. For example, anti-wrinkle cream is only required in a world where wrinkles are evaluated negatively. In our culture, the beauty industry portrays beauty as ‘being’ smooth skin (among other things). If you don’t have that, you’ve got a problem, they’ve got a solution. Unless you’re a dude, in which case it doesn’t really matter. What you need, man, is a truck.

Incremental change and marketing do not make good bedfellows. In the cycling world, there are indeed examples of products that can and do solve actual problems. Terrible shifting because your drivetrain is from 2002 (as it is on my 26”-wheeled MTB): get pretty much any current replacement parts and it’ll work better than ever. Can’t get that sub-20 minute time trial time you’ve been chipping away at? A disc rear wheel could give you enough ‘free speed’ to get there.

What about physiological performance? It’s very common to see riders wanting, hoping, to jump up a level in performance on short time-scales. The problem is, while rapid gains can and are realized early in a development curve, gains level off relatively quickly once the ‘low hanging fruit’ have been plucked, which leaves riders looking for that ‘silver bullet’ training modification that will secure the gains they are looking for. Instead of seeing big improvements, it appears far more common for riders to end up overtraining or at least under-recovering, and seeing a drop in performance. Unfortunately, many riders look to illegal means of securing the big, fast, gains they are after; they want to make it happen, NOW!.

Watts per kilogram
Watts per kilo, the definitive metric of performance in cycling when it comes to climbing, at least. If you want to get faster losing weight might be an option, but it’s not going to happen fast!


As discussed in the podcast, slow, steady incremental gains are what we need. In order to achieve them, we need to take a long-range view of our cycling lives, which some might refer to as ‘careers.’

On the broadest timescale, we ought to look at where we want to be, physically, at different stages in our lives. Some, perhaps those with relatives who deal with degenerative ailments that make walking hard if not impossible, look to their elderly years and decide they want to be mobile and active in their 70s, 80s, perhaps 90s. That sort of goal colours decisions made today in terms of care of the self and risk evaluation and management. For example, I know I’d like to be mobile and active beyond 70, so I am not inclined to get back into downhill riding, a cycling discipline I know poses the greatest risk to my health.

Canadian Road Championships powered by Lexus
Canadian Road Championships, 2016, powered by Lexus


On a shorter time scale, incremental change is something that is somewhat difficult to map out on our horizons, but when we look back, easier to spot. When, for example, I consider where I am today as a bike racer, I cast myself back to my perspective 15 years ago, and can easily see that I would have never expected to be competing in the Elite Canadian Road Championships in 2016, at 37 years old. Likewise, my son can’t imagine what it’s going to take for him to be a skilled bike rider who can do wheelies and stuff like dad, and more. He doesn’t yet know what it’s like to slowly build upon a foundation and see something grow. I do, and I use a tower metaphor to explain to him why we are working on little, ‘easy’ skills on the bike that will slowly put him in the position to do the bigger, more impressive skills that he’s wowed by on YouTube.

From a physiological perspective, I often wonder why I am able to perform as I do given the fact that I don’t spend a lot of time doing intervals each season, which are generally considered the most effective way to improve. Mostly, I think I am a classic example of someone who has been incrementally building ability over a long span of time, in my case, 25 years (I started ‘biking’ somewhat ‘seriously’ when I was 12). When I look back to the massive of hours spent on bikes, stressing my body across a broad range of movements and efforts, I can see how the last few years of more serious training only tell part of my story (see this podcast for more on the subject of accretion of fitness). Without the decades of time spent on bikes preceding my training for road and cyclocross racing, I would not resemble my present self.  Likewise, as I look forward from behind the prism of racing, I see potential for further improvement. But it will be slow, steady, incremental. The main challenge will be to break down what I need to do and chip away, bit by bit.

Rasputitsa Dirt Road Race, 2016
Rasputitsa Dirt Road Race, 2016


Back to podcasts, I have developed a lot of respect for the way the Trainer Road Ask a Cycling Coach guys – Chad Timmerman, Jonathan Lee, Nate Pearson – talk about growth and development on their show. While they sell a product that is meant to help cyclists make gains, they don’t make empty promises. Instead, they stress, repeatedly, that patience is vital to the process of growing our physiological capacities, both in terms of fitness and skill. They focus a lot of building up foundations and incrementally layering upon them. Benchmarking, a vital component of any incremental change process, is important, and they tend to recommend FTP (functional threshold power) tests for that. Some riders, generally those who’ve been riding at a high level for long durations, might not need to test themselves to know where they stand. But either way, it’s important to check in periodically and affirm that the steady work that is being put in is amounting to something.

Many challenges seem daunting if not overwhelming in scale. For any such challenge, there are always ways to break down the component parts and devise a strategy for prioritizing and chipping away at each one, nudging the bar forward bit by bit. That’s all we need, to move that bar forward, no matter how small the nudge. And it’s key to understand that we can’t nudge our fitness forward indefinitely. Instead, we need to look at other ways of progressing, be they intellectual (riding smarter), or perhaps less self-centred and more about conveying insight to others, helping them develop, refining our support skills.

Incremental change might not be nearly as sexy as the next big innovation on the horizon, but it’s what we all need to focus on as we pursue our goals, be they on the bike or off.

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