An Illustration of Comparative Advantage from Professional Cycling

Lynne Kiesling

As a cyclist, it should come as no surprise that I follow professional cycling pretty closely, and have done for some time. As an economist, it’s a rich laboratory for seeing all kinds of different economic concepts and principles play out.

Today I found a good one in an interview with Dave Zabriskie of Team Garmin-Slipstream, who is currently the U.S. time trial champion and recently won the week-long Tour of Missouri stage race. One of the aspects of being a cyclist is being mechanical — some cyclists are all about knowing the ins and outs of taking their bikes apart and putting them back together, while others are just as happy to take it to the shop and let a professional mechanic handle it. Most of us  are somewhere in between, but leaning more toward letting the mechanics handle most of the bike work. The pro cyclists are not that different, as these comments from DZ illustrate:

schmalz Now are you the type of racer who doesn’t do any mechanical stuff; you don’t feel comfortable with that?

DZ [A hint of hesitation] I can do some of it.

schmalz What’s the toughest thing you can do? Can you do a bottom bracket?

DZ What’s there to do there?

schmalz Can you put one in, attach it to the cranks, and have it work?

DZ It’s got to sides to it. Well, the new ones are pretty easy. Yeah, I think I can do that.

schmalz I can’t do anything that goes through the frame. I don’t do headsets and bottom bracket stuff but I can do everything else. I can adjust cables, derailleurs.

DZ I’m at the point now where I just give it to them. I’m pretty close with some mechanics so I just hand it off to them and they dial it in real quick.

schmalz And you hve guys where you live and on the road you have team mechanics?

DZ Yeah.

schmalz So you’re not especially mechanical?

DZ Well, I keep it clean, lubed up. Air in the tires. I went through a stage where I tried to get into that stuff. I overhauled a headset and did some things but it’s just a lot easier and a more efficient use of my time to let someone else take care of it. [emphasis added]

Note how well he expresses the concept of comparative advantage — more efficient use of his time to train and ride his bike and rest than to work on his bike. It’s a really good illustration of comparative advantage. [As an aside, for teaching purposes: if the mechanic is a better mechanic and DZ is a better rider, then it’s a situation of absolute advantage as well as comparative advantage, but suppose DZ is both a better rider and mechanic … then it’s a pure comparative advantage play. Good example for classroom discussion.]

3 thoughts on “An Illustration of Comparative Advantage from Professional Cycling

  1. Is there also a group advantage if DZ sets an example — shows leadership — for other members of Team Garmin-Slipstream to manage their time wisely?

    What if the number 5 rider typically is a gearhead but decides to follow DZ’s lead and start turning his bike over to the mechanics and focusing more on strategy, physiology i.e. riding fast. Is there a group/game theory term for this?

  2. Kent,

    Good point, and one that crossed my mind while writing the above, because I was thinking about the obverse of the pure DZ comparative argument: what if the mechanic is both a better mechanic and a better rider than DZ? If this economy contains only the two of them, then it makes sense for DZ to ride and the mechanic to fix as long as DZ is less bad at riding than at fixing. But in a team context, the situation gets more complicated, because then they have to assess the mechanic’s comparative advantage relative to the other riders as well.

    I like your posited theory; I can see developing it using models of learning and of organizational management. It also fits with the reality that I see as a pro cycling spectator.


    I interpret your comment as indicating that perhaps DZ does not specialize according to comparative advantage as narrowly as I laid out above, which I think is true. But my understanding of his DZ Nutz product line is that he’s not the guy doing the formulation etc., but is instead the “designer” and entrepreneur. I think this is actually a complementary line of activity for him in two ways. First, a good chamois cream is essential if you specialize in riding and you pack in the number of intense miles these guys do. Second, as a PR move it uses DZ’s … umm … inimitable style and personality to market a very good product (as far as I’m concerned DZ Nutz competes favorably with Assos, although I am personally completely devoted to my Assos chamois cream) and to attract fans both for him personally and for his team.

    So in reality the comparative advantage story is never as simplified as just the rider-mechanic situation.

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