Geraint Thomas and Tom Pidcock photoshopped in front of the Grenadier pub in West London.

Behold: The era of maximal gains is upon us!

Maximal gains, minimal soul.

Jonny Long
by Jonny Long 09.05.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos, Jonny Long
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Close your eyes for a second and picture this. You’re the new CEO of an organisation that went through a relentless period of dominance not often seen in your field, but as the empire started to crumble and its architects flung themselves off the smoking carcass onto lofty life rafts, your task is either 1) the largely impossible goal of living up to those previous heights or 2) the likely unspoken goal of a managed, respectable decline.

Quick, you think to yourself, rummaging around in your pockets, opening and closing drawers on your massive desk, a journalist is here from the Global Cycling Network and he’s asking me questions about why we can’t just win the Tour de France every year like we used to. They’re always asking us this, all of them. The answer is very simple: our riders can no longer hold a candle to the likes of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard. Times change, empires fall. But I can’t say that. I have to unclip myself from reality and pretend that not only is four WorldTour wins so far this year, including a GC, and 36 wins last year – including Strade Bianche and stages of the Tour and Vuelta – not good enough, and that I will not rest until the Tour de France trophy is sitting on a countertop alongside a bottle of Ineos hand sanitiser.

You wrack your brains, remembering the words on the bumper sticker stuck to the boot of your Built On Purpose Ineos Grenadier 4×4: “What Would Dave Brailsford Do?”

“There’s no silver bullet, no single answer,” you begin, speaking honestly but that’s not going to be good enough, you need to give the impression you’ve got it all under control. Be More Dave, Be More Dave. Okay, here goes nothing.

“We’ve probably moved past the days of marginal gains. We’re looking for maximal gains, which are pretty hard to achieve, but the only way to achieve them is through being disruptive and innovative.”

Nailed it. You shake the hand of the polite reporter and he leaves. In a few hours your masterplan will be on the internet forever and you’ve successfully and succinctly decreed and deflected the direction of your fifty-million-pounds-worth-every-year of athletes, equipment and support staff.

The man in this lightly fictionalized scenario is John Allert, the CEO of Ineos Grenadiers, who began as Managing Director at the start of 2023 before taking the top job in December when Dave Brailsford followed Jim Ratcliffe to Manchester to oversee paying a bunch of footballers £6 million every week to give the impression they’ve never met each other before.

Hey, Filippo, yeah, it’s John. You know how before when you were trying to ride marginally faster? Well, now you’re going to have ride maximally faster. Ciao ciao!

I am sure Allert is a nice enough guy. He looks friendly in his official Ineos Grenadiers photo, like the sort of man who makes a great bacon sandwich in the morning along with a proper, strong cup of tea. Plus, he’s Australian. They’re nearly always nice, right?

But I desperately need to know whether John Allert, originally a graphic designer before moving into branding and business with the McLaren Formula 1 team and then the Bahrain-McLaren cycling team before washing up on Ineos’ shores, delivered the phrase “maximal gains” with a straight face or between bursts of laughter as he nearly fell out of his Built To Work office chair.

But what does looking for maximal gains actually mean? Has this really been the problem of the past four years, that the British team just weren’t looking for the big/bigger/biggest improvements that were there all along? Is it simply an admission that a stripping of institutional knowledge combined with hubris has allowed for hungrier competitors to sneak ahead? Is it just, as we suspect, peak executive blather? The sort of corporate bullshit-bingo phrase you’d read on LinkedIn, or hear from guests on the Diary of a CEO podcast, said in the same breath as groundbreaking concepts such as the mini-retirement.

How will these maximal gains be achieved? “The only way to achieve them is through being disruptive and innovative.” If you, an employee, hear your boss saying this, stop what you’re doing and prepare for the mother of all restucturings, and by restructurings we obviously mean layoffs. Frantically check your contract and either await the warm embrace of a decent redundancy package or flail maniacally into destitution.

Will the same fate await the individual Ineos Grenadiers? Likely not more so than the usual, garden-variety precarity that entails being paid to ride a bike as fast as you can. But with owner Jim Ratcliffe somewhat distracted by his 10 times more expensive and utterly more floundering Premier League football team, you would expect John and the boys have years to implement this new maximal gains strategy before these maximal gains actually have to achieve anything.

Last year, for an article that never saw the light of day, I went to the pub owned by Jim Ratcliffe in West London, The Grenadier. It’s stuck down a pleasant mews where you can imagine one of the various Hughs living in a film, rushing about to close up their book shop on Trafalgar Square before meeting their ‘sis’ for dinner. Once upon a time, this pub would have been a great little spot. It still kind of is, but now there’s a whopping Grenadier 4×4 parked outside, as one of the Ratcliffe sons is passing by and being waited on hand and foot by the bar manager turned servant, and the interior has been bastardised by various currencies being stuck all over the ceiling. This tradition may have pre-existed Ratcliffe’s purchase, but still, the billionaire’s pub is literally furnished with money.

The trip was eye-opening but not necessarily unpleasant. But what it revealed, as does the talk of maximal gains – delivered without the dressing of a vintage Brailsford ramble, equipped with the spectre of jiffy-bag gate hovering nearby, an unanswered scandal that has instead been deftly ‘managed’ into a shallow grave underneath the team’s service course, never to be spoken of again (whew, that was a long aside; sorry) – is that there is a distinct lack of meaning to be derived from Ratcliffe’s various extracurricular pursuits. Playthings beholden to the whims of a man who’s spent his years creating a vast wealth and is now trying to fill his life with what the unfeeling chemicals could never give him.

Where is the soul? Some would argue that’s always been missing, but Bradley Wiggins was unavoidably human, and when you’re winning, yellow and pink jerseys provide meaning. Left in the afterglow is a big expanse of nothing. Just money. A flicker of mischief from Tom Pidcock here, or a spurt of youthful exuberance from Josh Tarling there, isn’t enough to birth a culture. Even the formerly analogue Geraint Thomas is packing mid-roll adverts into his various podcasts, and he’ll continue to do so whether or not he somehow wins the Giro d’Italia or Tour de France this year. Is it asking too much to want things to mean something? Maybe this is the grim reality of sporting empire. No matter how long it lasts, success is always only fleeting.

It’s a cold, cruel world out there where everything has a price. Better take what’s yours while the sun is shining. If maximal gains is what gets you there, so be it. Marginal gains was disruptive, maximal gains is arse-covering. But at least it sounds sort of like a plan.

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