Marginal gains

There was a fair bit of discussion last week about the value – or lack of value – of promotional marketing campaigns related to cycling. On the one hand, we had the view that any kind of policy, promotional or otherwise, that purports to increase cycling levels is a good thing. On the other, we had the view that these policies are largely pointless without the kinds of conditions on the ground to enable cycling; safe, convenient, attractive and direct routes.

Those who take the former view argue that every little thing helps. Therefore every little thing is good. The phrase ‘marginal gains’ is even employed, echoing Team Sky’s strategy of improving in all areas of performance, to extract maximum benefit. By this logic, glossy promotion is a ‘marginal gain’, a boost to cycling, alongside cycleways. This view, I think, is summarised below, in the words of Carlton Reid

Sir Dave Brailsford’s system of aggregating marginal gain is an example from cycle sport that demonstrates that great things can come from lots of little tweaks. I want brilliant, Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in the UK. I don’t want yet more ‘crap cycle lanes’. I’m not holding my breath. Nevertheless I will campaign long and hard for such infrastructure, as I have been doing for the best part of 30 years.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and nor was Amsterdam’s cycle infrastructure. Before we get a UK version of the wonderful Dutch National Cycling Plan there are many smaller fixes that the UK Government and local authorities could do tomorrow.

By all means aim for the big stuff, but let’s not ignore lots and lots of the little stuff. That’s why I’ve started the Twitter hashtag #nudges4cycling Some great, simple fixes have already started arriving and I’ll compile a list of these to give to the Department for Transport and other relevant Departments.

Marketing presumably being one of these ‘nudges’.

However this ‘marginal gains’ analogy is deeply flawed. Team Sky are applying the aggregation of ‘marginal gains’ while their riders are using extremely expensive Pinarello bikes, honed in wind tunnel testing, and fitted with top-of-the-range components. It makes sense to apply ‘marginal gains’ when you already have fantastic equipment.

However, it would make very little sense for Team Sky to do so if they were equipped with secondhand 1990s Halfords Apollo ‘full suspension’ mountain bikes, with flat tyres and rusty chains.


Wear a skinsuit on this beast

You can hire the best sports psychologists and nutritionists; you can ferry your team about in the fanciest tour buses; put them up in the most expensive hotels; manage their sleep patterns; religiously organise their training programmes; clothe them in the lightest, most aerodynamic skinsuits.

But really, if your riders are bouncing around on creaky £90 specials while the rest of the peloton vanishes over the horizon, is there any point? Indeed, it could justifiably be argued that – while the equipment your riders are forced to use is so deeply sub-optimal – employing Steve Peters to help your riders find their ‘inner chimp’ is a total waste of money.

This is, unfortunately, analogous to the role of promotion with current conditions for cycling in Britain. The equivalent of the rusty mountain bikes is the conditions we expect people to ride in; and the equivalent of Steve Peters is the promotional activity that attempts to persuade people to ride in those conditions.


Go on. You know you want to. Will this picture of a pretty girl standing beside a bike help?

How about a picture of a granny in a park?

How about a picture of a granny in a park?

The very reason cycling has such a poor image in Britain is due to these hostile conditions. It is a marginal, fringe activity precisely because so few people are willing to cycle on our roads and streets, and those that are prepared to do so choose to wear equipment that they feel – rightly or wrongly – will mitigate that danger and hostility. The image problem flows from the physical environment.

This is why marketing has failed – and will continue to fail – as a strategy to enable cycling in Britain. The conditions need to come first, then promotion needs to follow, just as you need to go out and buy the Pinarellos, before employing Steve Peters. Don’t waste your money employing sports psychologists, when your equipment is so desperately below par.

Meanwhile, marketing remains a very convenient outlet for cycle spending for those authorities who don’t wish to address the unattractive conditions for cycling on their roads. I’m thinking here particularly of Kensington and Chelsea’s Bikeminded, a glossy EU-funded promotional scheme from a borough that continues to block cycleways on its main roads.

'Always be at the front of the queue', says RBKC promotional activity. That's if you can squeeze your way through all the motor traffic clogging the borough's roads.

‘Always be at the front of the queue’, says RBKC promotional activity. That’s if you can squeeze your way through all the motor traffic clogging the borough’s roads.

Spending cycling money on marketing is uncontroversial, and allows many councils to pretend they’re actually doing something while failing to address the largest and most significant barrier to cycling; the unwillingness of the general public to share roadspace with motor traffic. Marketing needs to be employed when you have a product that’s actually worth selling; otherwise it amounts to polishing a turd.

Indeed, this essential point appears to have got lost in all the back-and-forth last week. Nobody is knocking the principle of marketing, any more than critics are knocking the principle of employing sports psychologists. There’s nothing wrong with either. The issue many campaigners have is one of ordering.

Just as you wouldn’t waste money on sports psychologists when your team is equipped with embarrassingly crap bikes, don’t waste money attempting to market a product you already know the public doesn’t want to buy. Develop a good one, then market that.

Screen Shot 2015-02-09 at 14.24.51



See also Joe Dunckley on the logic – or otherwise – of campaigning for marginal gains

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20 Responses to Marginal gains

  1. ORiordan says:

    I don’t know how council finances work, but is it a case of “we need to spend our marketing budget or it will get cut next year”? (I don’t think that is a reason to spend the budget, by the way, but people’s minds will work like this if they are dependent on a budget for a job)

    I assume improvements to infrastructure are treated as capital, so a different “pot” from marketing programs, but can councils move money from one pot to another?

  2. Bez says:

    In that discussion I was somewhat ambivalent about marketing. I agree that the “marginal gains” argument for it makes no sense. However, that’s not the only way to see it.

    The reality of the world is that perceived demand (or a deluded supplier) must exist in order for some product, such as infrastructure, to come to fruition.

    How many times have we all voiced frustration that the demand for a bridge is measured by the number of swimmers? Hasn’t British infrastructure long been hindered by the fact that many people involved in consultations on How To Cross Rivers have been swimmers?

    For mass cycling, what’s needed is infrastructure; there is no doubt about that. But for infrastructure, what’s needed is demand. That demand isn’t coming from the Mamils, who can duke it out with traffic. It needs to come from People rather than Cyclists. And the more People that want to ride, the more demand there is.

    Cycling needs to be seen as desirable, maybe even aspirational, in order to generate the demand that makes it viable. Is that not what at least some of the marketing is about?

    • Paul M says:

      Up to a point, Lord Copper. If the marketing was specifically targeted at creating demand for infrastructure, and bearing in mind that it probably does indeed come from a Revenue budget while infra comes from a Capital budget, the two strategies might indeed go hand in hand.

      Unfortunately, the marketing certainly isn’t directed that way. Rather it is directed at persuading people that the roads are quite safe really, you just have to man up, keep your wits about you etc. Where it doesn’t actually say that, it implies it through the imagery it uses. How often do you see people riding bicycles in normal clothes in these promotions? How infrequently are they not wearing shorts/tees, helmets etc, and riding “sporty” bikes?

      Taken with the overwhelming weight of commercial advertising for cycling – retailers, manufacturers, event organisers, etc – which portrays almost an Extreme Sport, I wouldn’t have very high expectations of marketing provoking potential bike riders to stanbd up and demand better infrastructure!

    • movementsci says:

      Absolutely agree with Bez’s comments.

      I don’t think anyone’s suggesting that marketing is going to bring about a cycling revolution. The point is that to get infrastructure in without there being demand being obvious is unlikely, to say the least.

      Most council officers and politicians do not see their role as changing the way people travel, but facilitating the ways they see people travelling. I realise this is a ridiculous position given the way that these same individuals have been responsible for generating an environment where people do not feel able to cycle, but it is the how they see it – and it isn’t just down to how they see it, but it’s also how the public see it. Putting in cycle infrastructure that is not immediately and obviously used will be unpopular (and we know that it takes a while – years – for peoples’ behaviour to change in response to cycle tracks being put in place).

      Grow the number of people cycling by whatever means => grow the number of people calling for better infrastructure => get better infrastructure => get more people cycling…

  3. velovoiceblogspot says:

    To be fair, Team Sky also stress that pursuing ‘marginal gains’ is futile if you haven’t got the basics right. They stress the basics to their riders Over and over and over again. Won’t let them forget: Crucial to do the basics things well. Only once the riders are doing the basics well will hte support team look at marginal gains. Not before.

    So your analogy still applies! 🙂

    (Just wanted to remove any risk that anyone might think that Team Sky doesn’t get this, too.)

  4. jackthurston says:

    Great analogy, very thought-provoking post. I think a lot of this stems from the fact that most cycle campaigners are cyclists. And most cyclists, by definition believe cycling is better than not cycling. In other words, that cycling is a ‘good product’. If they thought it was a bad product, they wouldn’t use it themselves. I guess put myself in that camp. I enjoy cycling in Britain, even though it could be so much better and so much more accessible. But, I definitely do understand why most people don’t share my view. And that marketing it to them is unlikely to work. I’ve generally refrained from trying to convince anyone to take up cycling, though if someone thinking of trying it asks for guidance, I’ll help them out where I can. I suppose what we need is some hard evidence on the positive contribution of marketing campaigns to increasing everyday cycling. If none can be found, your argument here seems pretty convincing.

    On the other hand, marketing sport cycling does seem to be working. There’s much more sport cycling than there was ten years ago in spite of no apparent improvements in cycling conditions out on the road. So, going against your argument, it does seem that marketing is having some impact in certain areas of cycling, though I recognise that this is not the area of cycling that is your primary interest.

    • Bez says:

      More able-bodied, averagely-aged men, more lycra, more cameras on helmets.

      As an able-bodied, averagely-aged man who wears lycra and has a helmet and a camera: whoop-de-doo. There’s no benefit to me or anyone else from some other guy finding his New Golf, any more than my walk to the shops got easier or safer or more appealing around the time that people got into jogging.

      • jackthurston says:

        I was making exactly that point. Sport cycling is the main growth area in cycling in the UK, and that probably does has some spillover into macho commuting. These cyclists have been convinced that it’s a good product. Other potential cyclists remain to be convinced. For them, as Mark argues in his post, the product needs to change.

  5. shannon says:

    Thanks for pointing out the absolute pathetic idea that is bikeminded in RBK&C. It makes me incredibly angry that these people have budgets to spend on websites, cupcake tasting rides (!) and badges, while taking the lane on Kensington High street nearly gets me killed by a no. 10 bus.

  6. Worse than very little gain, there’s also the potential to back-fire. Even if you actually do convince someone to get the bike out of the shed and give it a go, it could only take one ride to give the lie to the image.

    And that’s it. Another rider lost. “Oh, yes, I did try cycling last year, but the cars passed me very fast and it didn’t feel safe”.

  7. Simon says:

    Whenever I see those idyllic pictures of Dutch cycle paths, I inadvertently picture the equivalent in the UK – it would rapidly be filled with broken glass, people walking their dogs on extending leads, gangs of roaming youths (on foot) and similar. It would soon look very little like its Dutch equivalent – I don’t like being a pessimist about that.

    • This one doesn’t: Compliance with designated side is good due to clear separation, it gets swept, it’s lit at night. It’s been like that for 10 years.

      UK cycle paths get neglected because they are badly designed and therefore barely-used. Where they are good in small measure, they fail as soon as they reach a road because there is no overall network. When they fall into disrepair there is no-one to complain.

    • Junia says:

      The idea that problems like anti-social behaviour are exclusive to Britain is utterly ridiculous. I’m sure the Netherlands have their fair share of dog-walkers, glass-breakers and “roaming youths” and that sometimes the cycle paths look less than pristine. But in the same way that the pedestrianised shopping area in the centre of my city is still pleasant to walk through, even late in the evenings, a cycle path that is properly lit and cared for, and exists alongside good design for pedestrians (and their dogs) is not an impossibility just because you need to spend less time reading the Daily Mail.

      Poor urban environments in the UK result from a lack of investment in good design and a lack of investment in communities, not from our inherent inferiority to continental Europe.

  8. Frederick Guy says:

    The notion of marginal improvements to achieve an optimal outcome comes from economic analysis. The idea is just that you should always be spending your last (marginal) pound where it has the biggest additional (marginal) impact. To think that this automatically means spending a bit at each margin (a bit for infrastructure, a bit for marketing, a bit for training…) is sloppy use of the concept and, in this case, wrong: we know that there are millions in this country who want to cycle more but won’t until it’s safe: for them, marketing’s marginal impact will be approximately zero, while the marginal impact of infrastructure is likely to be huge. That is essentially what our host and all of the commentators here are arguing. We shouldn’t, therefore, be annoyed by the term ‘marginal gains’ – we should just point out that a proper marginal analysis wouldn’t support any expenditure on marketing cycling-as-it-is-now.

    • pm says:

      Absolutely – while this article is perfectly correct as far as it goes, it’s should also be pointed out that the misuse of ‘marginal gains’ by the pro-propagandists seems to suggest they don’t understand what the term means.

      The marginal gains from increasing marketing are much less than that you’d get from improving the physical reality. So that’s not a good place to spend the money. As others have said, its likely the marginal gains from marketing are actually zero, as any effect from such spending will rapidly disappear again as soon as those persuaded out there find the reality doesn’t match the hype. You’d have to maintain a relentless totalitarian barrage of propaganda constantly and forever to sustain any improvement with the current conditions.

  9. rdrf says:

    I think I DID actually do something useful for cycling when last working in a local authority under what was originally (incorrectly) under the tile of “marketing”. It is work which supports individual actual and potential cyclists in a variety of ways which are not highway/off-road infrastructure.

    The point is that – as with “infrastructure” – it depends on exactly what is being done – which types of road user benefit (and/or lose out).

    What I did involved:
    * Provision of residential cycle parking of various types
    * Assistance with equipment (such as lights and locks). The long-term aim was to subsidise wet/cold weather clothing for use with normal clothing wearing people on low incomes.
    * Assistance with maintenance through 1000 Dr Bikes in the Borough annually, maintenance classes and a long-term plan for a recovered/second-hand bike centre allowing those on low incomes to buy roadworthy bikes.
    * Confidence training and social riding for excluded or marginalised groups.

    My point is that this kind of programme – if done properly – addresses issues that can’t be dealt with just by infrastructure, reducing danger by law enforcement or whatever. They will be needed whatever happens, and are not just “soft” measures. The crucial point is how such programmes are carried out: those staffing this programme did not push helmets or hi-viz, for example. Indeed , this can indeed be highly controversial: I had to battle with a marketing and communications person about my insistence that publicity showed images of unhelmeted cyclists.

    Also – controversially – if you do all this properly it does cost money.

    There is a lot to be said here, but I would some up by saying that in a country like the UK where the everyday cycling habit has been largely forgotten, having people who show newbies the basics – and the are NOT what road safety officers and other typical Council officers will want to do re-hi-viz, lids etc. – is something which should be available.

    If you do it properly you will need to spend money on it. the people who want to do it properly won’t want to leave danger on the road alone, and anyway Councils who aren’t prepared to do their bit should be allowed to have the funding for such programmes in the first place

  10. rdrf says:

    One other point: I don’t know how many people took up/continued cycling because of this programme, or how many would if it were pushed further with proper finance. But I do know that we had positive responses from things like the provision of secure and convenient home cycle parking.

    Also, my view is that people who want to cycle are entitled to these things. I think that cost of roadworthy cycles, accessories etc. is prohibitive for many and assistance should be available.

  11. meltdblog says:

    Even where we have infrastructure the marketing avoids supporting it:
    Missing completely from the pitch is cycling for utility and it talks down the extensive shared path network which is being grown across the city.

    • congokid says:

      Meanwhile in the UK several county councils including Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Leicestershire have signed up to this kind of thing:

      On the Redditch one, which I’ve read most as I visit regularly ( the cycling focus appears to be on sports events.

      They say they have ‘produced cycling maps for Redditch to help with route planning’ but omit to link to any, and their link to Sustrans is broken.

      There used to be a mention of how much budget there was – for Worcester previous documents suggested £4,4 million from 2004-2009, and I remember seeing an item on the Redditch site about an extension to the initiative, which now appears to be missing.

      But nowhere on the site is there any evaluation of outcomes. Given the piecemeal amounts that are spent on the various projects within the initiative, finding out whether or not they’ve actually had any effect is beyond their budget or ambition. Marginal gains in this case might as well not exist.

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