Late last week I received a rather last-minute invitation from the PR machine at Specialized. They were wondering if I might be able to carve out a day to spend with Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer and the members of Omega Pharma-Quickstep’s Tour of California squad. After a quick consult with Mrs. Padraig, I started packing. I mean, who says no?
Now, I’m not going to try to snow you. We all know that this was a visit that didn’t carry the journalistic weight of a post-race press conference. Like I care. I am, at my core, a fan of all things cycling (okay, most things cycling; I’m still unwilling to ride a recumbent). And even though I have at times been critical of Tom Boonen for losing his focus as a professional athlete, I’ve been an admirer of his since his U.S. Postal days.
So I took a brief tour of OPQ’s makeshift service course before heading to the big, red S for our ride. I learned a few things while checking out their set up. First, almost the entire team is still on SRAM’s original Red group. Yes, Boonen won Roubaix on 2012 Red, but all the bikes I saw other than his featured Black Red. I also asked a bit about what bikes the riders receive and how much steering they receive about what bike should be ridden when. Specialized is pretty proud of the fact that Tommeke won Ghent-Wevelgem on a Venge, Flanders on a Tarmac and Roubaix on a Roubaix. So I’ve been curious to know how much of this was rider preference vs. sponsor input. I was surprised to learn that it’s 100 percent up to the rider. Getting this answer once from a team liaison was good, but not good enough. So I asked around a bit more, finally asking Boonen himself about his bike choice. Each time I got the same answer.
Each rider is given two Venges and two Tarmacs at the beginning of the season. They also receive a Roubaix for Roubaix. Boonen indicated that his bike of preference is the Venge and he goes for the Tarmac when the course is a bit rougher.
As one of the largest bike companies in the world, Specialized is a complicated entity. They’ve engaged in some business practices that have soured some people, notably the lawsuits with Volagi and Giro. And it’s not too hard to find former employees who can’t quite rinse the bitter taste from their mouths. Even among the happy, current employees, there’s widespread acknowledgement that Sinyard demands a lot from his workforce. In the same breath people add that he isn’t shy with the praise, though, and they do feel valued. I hate the phrase “work hard and play hard” because it has become such a cliché, but if ever there was an organization where the saying is applicable, Specialized is arguably it.
It’s a pretty rare day that any of the stars that Specialized sponsors actually visits the HQ. To my knowledge, this was the first time Boonen had visited; same for teammates like former world champion Bert Grabsch. The marketing team laid siege to the building, putting up posters, making up personalized stickers to put on the shower lockers each of the riders would use (alas, Leipheimer didn’t make it due to his ongoing recovery), embroidering towels and wash cloths, catering lunch and plenty more.
Is this sort of red-carpet treatment something that means much to the riders? I kinda doubt it. Sure, it must be fun for them, but this particular lot seemed on the introverted side and happy just to keep to themselves. I think it means a great deal more to the employees of Specialized. It’s easy for most of them to spend months or a year (or more) on a project and not necessarily see that translate to a big pro win. So events like these are a great way for them to connect to their work in a bigger-picture way. And let’s be honest, going out for your company’s lunch ride accompanied by some of the world’s finest pros has got be pretty stinkin’ cool.
The shot above is one of my favorites from the Specialized lunch ride that day. Unlike other occasions when the big boys join a group ride, these guys sifted through the group and spent some time chatting with the staffers. The pace stayed pretty mellow so that moving through the group wasn’t exactly risky among this unknown quantity.
At one point one of the members of the marketing team rode up to me and asked if I wanted to get my picture with any of the riders. I’m rather camera shy these days, even though I used to spend more time in front of the camera than behind it, so I initially said no. Part of my motivation was thinking that this is really about the Specialized employees and the event was really meant to give them a chance to interact with these athletes.
Then I came to my senses.
“Well, if someone was to accidentally on purpose get a photo of me next to Tom Boonen, I wouldn’t object.”
A few ks later, “Hey Patrick, look what I brought you!”
I turn and it’s Tom Boonen. After a brief reintroduction I admitted that I was among that army of journalists who had been rough on him in the past. So it was with some delight that I was able to tell him that in rediscovering his old form and having the spring he did, I was pleased for him. He was as gracious as one might hope. We talked a bit about what he changed for this season and while the details were plenty interesting, what captivated me was hearing him talk about going back to old-school training and just logging thousands of kilometers. I nearly fell of my saddle when he said, “I told the guys, let’s do this old school, like back when we were juniors.”
He was so relaxed about his training and yet there was an animation to him as he talked about riding. Say what you want, Tom Boonen really loves to ride his bike.