A Ride With Omega Pharma-Quickstep

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.

Mike Sinyard with the great Wilfried Peeters, DS for OPQ

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!”

Image: Michael Roberts/VeloDramatic

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.


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  1. Adam

    That is so cool. Great shot.
    What expression comes across his face when you mention that you’re a critical journalist and how long does he let it stay awkward?

  2. Troutdreams

    That’s a pretty cool experience and enjoyed the read. Also glad you pointed out the riders made an effort to mingle with the workers during the ride. I’m sure some are a bit introverted and others are naturally engaging like within any group. So however it came about, I bet it was a very rewarding experience for the Specialized team to be approached by the pro riders that use their finished products.

  3. Eto

    Did the riders sit on the bike how you imagined they might?
    The few times I have experienced riding next to or amoung pros, especially euro pros…they just look different than us meer mortals.

    1. Author

      Adam: I couldn’t really see the look on his face, but the tone of his voice said that he understood where I was coming from.

      Chromatic: I’ve only allowed myself to be photographed with a very few pros, but that shot is totally worth it to me. I’m going to get a print and have it framed.

      Troutdreams: When I saw them start to circulate I was floored. To be fair, Contador did it as well, but that ride ramped up in pace. This ride stayed very mellow except for the very final sprint when one of the staffers led Boonen out. It was a fitting end to a nice jaunt.

      Eto: While I should check before saying so definitively, from looking at the riders I had the impression that Specialized’s in-house fit guru, Scott Holz, had done fits on each of them. Scott’s fits always look completely ace, but you never see 15cm of drop from saddle to bar and no 14cm stems on 50cm frames.

  4. Ichobi

    Can you elaborate a bit more on Tom’s old school training please. It would be a great learning material!

  5. cormw

    Great post! I really enjoyed the fact that you came to your senses on getting the picture taken, I have a feeling you may have regretted that decision… Great pictures, thanks for sharing!

  6. thrash

    PB and TB – side by side? Serious cool factor. Did you try and curb him in a corner and pull one of the local team rides bone head moves?

  7. Ashley

    Wow, that’s a hell of a ride! I remember reading something somewhere about Garmin doing similar things for fans at least. It’s great to see pro riders taking a break from the proness to hang with us mere mortals.

  8. Nick

    Thanks for sharing your experience, and your inner struggle of journalist vs. fan, with us. I wonder if some of the introvertedness was about 2nd language, cultural, or nerves issues. I’m sure even pros get anxiety about riding with fans and not knowing if people are going to go all giggly about them or not.

  9. Hautacam

    Somewhere in my house is a dorky picture of me and my brother with Sean Kelly on a local charity ride.

    Sean Kelly!!

    He was really gracious and it was amazing to watch him turn the pedals for about 40km, even at charity-ride pace on a borrowed bike. I am grateful that I had the chance and glad for the picture, dorkiness included.

    Glad you got your pic.

  10. Jesus from Cancun

    John, I would not be surprised to see Synard riding Campy. Remember years ago when Campy released their Cinquentenario gruppo? Gold nut caps and all? I remember an interview where some PR from Campy said that the Cinquentenario wasn’t meant to be raced; it was thought for the team owners’ personal bikes.

    Maybe Synard puts his pros on what he thinks will bethe best for the races, and he personally rides what he LIKES best. Why not?

  11. Adam

    Pros generally ride the bikes and bits of sponsors that pay them the most. Last time Quick Step were on Specialized they were riding Campy and Fulcrum. Sinyard rides Campy because he likes it, and he got his start in the business importing it into the US – so there’s some sentimental ties there.

  12. Chatterbox

    I’ve ridden with a few pros over the years on random rides (never Boonen caliber; that’s just awesome), and in my experience, it’s always been just catching them out on some long boring training ride where they’re happy for some company for a few miles. Honestly, if I put in the saddle time these guys do, I’d be looking for an ear out on the road too. Helps to ride in pro training territory of course…

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