On the day of stage two of the Amgen Tour of California I took part in a charity event benefitting the organization Right To Play. The organization was started by four-time Olympic gold medalist Johan Olav Koss, the long-track speed skater. In broad strokes, Right To Play exists to bring opportunities for sport—and all the lessons that lie therein—to children living in impoverished and war-torn countries. They have programs running in roughly two dozen countries around the world, places like Ethiopia, Rwanda and the Palestinian territories. They’ve built facilities so kids can play sports like football (soccer) and volleyball. And yes, some of their programs involve cycling.
So what’s this really got to do with cycling? Well, people often need a little incentive to do good deeds—think the coffee mug you get when you make a pledge to your local public radio station. Right To Play does a lot of fundraising and they called upon the bike industry to pull together something special that a great many people missed out on.
Thanks to their relationship with Specialized, Right To Play was able to offer fundraisers a breakfast with Phil and Paul, a ride out of Aptos that took in part of stage 2′s race course, a VIP pass at the finish that got you one of the best spots to view the final sprint (won as you can easily recall by Peter Sagan, if only because he won nearly every stage … dang) and, finally, a dinner with the Omega Pharma-Quick Step team. Just which of these events folks took part in was determined by just how much they raised, but if you went all in and donated $17,000, you got each of those experience plus a Tarmac SL4 and a BG Fit at your nearby dealer. Of course, it was possible to get in on some of the festivities for as little as $1500.
Whether you like their products or not, Specialized comes in for some criticism from time to time for their business practices. Here’s an occasion that is worth considering. Specialized, due to their size, does more on the advocacy front than most companies in the bike industry. Indeed, they have a person on staff dedicated to advocacy efforts; heck, for a while Specialized even funded the salary of the director for the National Interscholastic Cycling Association, the group that is bringing mountain bike racing to high schools around the country.
The ride was fun; no two ways about it. We climbed out of Aptos and up to Corralitos through dense Redwood forest. Following a brief descent we hooked up with the race course for the fast descent into Aptos and the run through town to the finish at the college. Western Spirit Cycling Adventures provided support; not that we needed a bunch of support for a 37-mile ride, but a snack or two at the top of the climb was hard to say no to.
Of course, the highlight of this thing was the dinner with Omega Pharma-Quick Step. And here’s where Specialized really made the difference. Anyone willing to lay out the greenbacks can buy a tent and VIP experience for a bunch of friends. But very few bike sponsors have the kind of pull with a pro team to hold a dinner for eight or ten people who donated money to a charity a bunch of pro riders have never heard of. Indeed, to kick the dinner off, one of Right To Play’s staffers got up to tell the team about what it is they do and how they do it. Some of the European riders seemed not to listen at all, but I looked over and noticed that Levi Leipheimer was paying close attention.
I need to stress, this sort of thing is just not done. Meal time has always been a sacrosanct event for riders. They sit together, you don’t bug them and when they finish they head back to their rooms to rest. They don’t sign autographs and they don’t hang out and talk with a bunch of bike geeks. But that they did. While the riders did sit together for dinner, the staff spread out and joined the VIPs at tables throughout our dining room. As fate/luck would have it, I was seated across from Patrick Lefevre and he spoke freely, entertaining questions from everyone at the table. What was most entertaining was hearing him address the issue of television revenue. His frustration at the lack of a unified front between the teams was readily apparent.
Generally speaking, teams can refuse any sort of PR request during a big race. That they did this speaks to the value Specialized sees in the team and how they view their investment. It’s one thing to sponsor a fast guy. It’s quite another to sponsor someone who can be personable with complete strangers. And honestly, every team at the Tour of California could have offered this, but very few teams could match OPQ for star power with both Levi and Tom Boonen at this dinner.
Beyond that, I was really impressed with how friendly and funny Phil and Paul were at the breakfast; who knows how many requests of this sort they get each time they come stateside. They even did a short promo video for Right To Play and showed what pros they are by nailing it on the first take.
There’s a reason Specialized brought me along. They want more people to know about Right To Play and a pretty killer event you can attend if you donate to them. So why mention it now? They plan to do something similar next year.