Olympics

Technical FAQ: Marginal gains at the Olympics

This week, Lennard Zinn takes a closer look at American Mara Abbott's near-miss in the women's Olympic road race.

Dear Lennard,
Do you think the race official car driving directly behind Mara Abbott in the final stretch blocked the alleged tailwind from her that allegedly helped the three chase?
— Chris

Dear Chris,
It’s possible that it could have. She only needed a little tiny bit of additional wind aid to make it that last 150 meters ahead of the other three. I was too busy screaming encouragement at the screen to notice how close the car was. I do recall that the three chasers did not have a car behind them, because the view of them from behind the Lizzie Armitstead group was unobscured. So there would have been a difference in wind exposure between Abbott and her chasers if she had a car behind her.

On the other hand, if the car was close and directly behind, it also could have had a beneficial effect, pushing air ahead of it. In a tailwind, that effect would have been reduced and the wind-blocking effect may have been more important.

Good question. I doubt we’ll ever know if it could have made the difference between a medal and fourth place.
― Lennard

Dear Lennard,
It looked like Mara Abbott’s numbers were pinned on loosely, with just four pins each. Seems amazing to me that the riders and the team management would not see to it that the team’s numbers are not flapping in the wind in the Olympic road race! Could that have cost her the win?
— Emily

Dear Emily,
Well, if you can believe the claims here, a taped-on number versus a poorly pinned number can save as much as 22 watts of power at 30 mph and, versus a “well-pinned” number, will save a minimum of eight watts. This is of course tested at 30 mph relative wind in a wind tunnel, and I have no idea how fast Abbott was going relative to the wind at any given point during that long run-in to the finish as her speed and the wind’s direction and speed relative to her changed.

I also don’t know how Abbott’s race numbers would fall on Nopinz’s poorly pinned to well-pinned scale. But on the face of it, 8-10 watts of additional power over 10km might be in the ballpark of saving the few seconds she needed to get the gold medal.

Smooth number adhesion to the jersey certainly could fall within the realm of “marginal gains” that Team Sky is famous for focusing on. It could have made the difference.

On the other hand, it is easy to get caught up in the little details that cost Abbott the gold and not look at all of the things she did right (many of which could also fall into the marginal gains category) in order to put herself in position to come as close as she did.

It goes without saying that her training and preparation were good, and the same goes for her positioning at the beginning of the final climb and her tactics and effort during the climb. Her choice to let Annemiek van Vleuten roll away from her on the descent certainly turned out to be a wise one. I can only guess that her solo crash on the descent off the Mortirolo in the Giro Rosa after she had dropped everybody on the climb was in her mind. She did get the pink jersey that day, but we can only wonder if she might have still had it at the end of the week if not for losing time and skin in that crash. Van Vleuten, Vincenzo Nibali, and Sergio Henao almost certainly would have Olympic medals now if they had come into the corners that did them in with only marginally less speed. A marginal speed reduction can also qualify as a marginal gain and could have enormous consequences.

Another important marginal gain for Abbott was probably gulping down a gel at the beginning of the flat run-in to the line. It shows a lot of experience and poise to not just pedal frantically in an, “Oh my God, I’m going to win the Olympics” mindset and end up running out of energy and bonking.

The very tight-fitting USA team kit also saved her considerable watts; we might not be nearly as agonized now over how close it was if she’d been wearing a flapping jersey and consequently had gotten caught a kilometer from the line rather than 150 meters from it.

You can’t really find fault with any of her equipment choices, either. Her medium-deep carbon Campy Bora Ultra wheels, for instance, should have served her very well on the climb as well as on the flat run-in.

And you can go back even further to realize how unlikely it seemed at one point that she would even be in Rio. Abbott’s choice to quit cycling when she was no longer having fun doing it was a good one, as was returning to the sport a couple of years later when she once again felt moved to do so. I think we all know how easy it is to get caught in the net of continuing to flail away at something that we have been successful at but are no longer enjoying.

And I can’t help but think how easily Mara and another Rio Olympian and good friend of mine, Chloe Woodruff (in MTB XC), might easily have not discovered bike racing at all. Both of them, along with Peter Stetina — who supported Trek – Segafredo teammates and Rio Olympians Fabian Cancellara and Bauke Mollema last month in the Tour de France — were middle school students of my wife’s at Horizons K-8 public school in Boulder, where many budding cycling embers were fanned into flames.

Horizons K-8 school offered four-hour “exploratory” classes on Friday mornings taught by members of the community, so I taught Friday cycling classes there. The school also took students for week-long Outdoor Ed excursions every fall, and Sonny (my wife) and I organized the trip to Moab that all Horizons middle-schoolers took for a week in September once during their three years in middle school. It was on the mountain bike trails of Moab that Abbott and Woodruff (neé Forsman) caught the cycling bug, and their talent at the sport and determination to get to the tops of the climbs ahead of the boys was obvious from the beginning. (Stetina also displayed talent in Moab, but it’s hard to imagine that he would not have gravitated to the sport anyway, as his father Dale and uncle Wayne were some of the most decorated American cyclists of the 1970s and 1980s. I did mentor Peter in his culminating project for middle-school graduation, though; the project he chose was to design a bike.)

And even after catching the cycling bug and having talent, there are no guarantees that young riders will go on and make it a part of their life. A kid generally depends on significant material support from their parents in order to pursue it, and without that support at the critical moment of inception, many potential world champions have probably wandered off to other pursuits.

With a house full of bikes and an uncle who directs product development at Shimano, Stetina would never lack for bike equipment. However, for families not into bike racing, the expense of the sport can be a hard swallow. I scoured the VeloSwap annual bicycle swap meet in Denver with Chloe and her parents to find the used aluminum-lugged carbon Trek hardtail on which she rode her first world championship cross-country race (as a junior). And Mara’s father, Dave, also a teacher at Horizons K-8, was aghast at the price of the Cannondale mountain bike Mara wanted and asked me whether it was wise to buy it for her. I of course said that it was! And Dave rang me up again with sticker shock when Mara later also wanted a road bike. The Abbotts and the Forsmans can be happy now that they encouraged and invested in the cycling passions of their daughters, but as a parent it is often hard to distinguish between what will be an expensive fleeting interest or a lifelong pursuit and to make the right choice in which one to fund.

I am as proud of the grit Abbott showed in the road race as I am of her poise in talking with the media after seeing her medal hopes dashed within a few pedal strokes of the finish line. To dwell on what could have been and not on all of the things she did well in the race and in her life gets us caught up in the medal count and not in the spirit of the Olympics. Taylor Phinney, another friend and (two-time) fourth-place finisher at the Olympics from Boulder has inspired us all in his embracing of life in the face of adversity and disappointment. That is what any parent would value more than a medal, and we can do the same.

In the print edition of our local paper, for which Abbott writes a column and is part of the editorial advisory board, the headline read, “Local rider squanders lead, finishes fourth in road race.” I hardly think she squandered it; she went all in and played every card she had in her hand on the starting line to the best of her ability throughout the race. Fortunately, the online version didn’t use that headline. I personally will remember Mara’s ride for the rest of my life, and I’m sure I won’t remember for long who actually won the medals.
― Lennard

Feedback on photo-finish cameras

Dear Lennard,
Just read your article about finish-line cameras. Coming from a rowing background, I was pretty familiar with them as they’ve been de riguer for big races for a while now. I appreciated your explanation of the concept, but I think you might have missed an easier way to explain it:

A regular camera takes a picture at a fixed time of all the space it can see.

A finish-line camera takes a picture at a fixed place in space (the little slit that is the finish line) of all the time it can see. If you were to put a F-L pic on a reel and scroll it by a slit, you’d get a “video” of the racers crossing the finish.

Thought it may be helpful for those who couldn’t quite wrap their minds around the concept.
— Noah