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.
Junket is a word for a trip made at someone else’s expense, as in a press junket. It is also a sweet, milk-based dessert thickened with rennet. RKP’s main and tallest editorial practitioner, my friend Padraig, will be enjoying one of these two things over the weekend and into next week at the invitation of the Specialized bicycle making company.
The thing which Padraig will be enjoying—like me, you’re still hoping it’s the milky dessert—will include a ride with the Omega Pharma-Quickstep team, or at least, those riders who will be racing the Tour of California. The roster, as it stands, includes Tom Boonen, Levi Leipheimer, Dries Devenyns, Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon, Stijn Vandenbergh and Peter Velits. Whether or not Leipheimer races ToC remains to be seen, but he’ll be in attendance regardless, possibly eating junket. The mode is to grate some nutmeg over top.
Hopefully that won’t preclude him from answering questions, some of which we need to come up with here and now.
We might, for example, say to Tom Boonen, “Tom, every woman and half the men in Belgium want to sleep with you as a result of your big wins in Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix this year. Given the success you’ve already had, how do you motivate yourself for stage races during the rest of the year?”
The obvious answer is that there are women (and possibly men) the world over who can still be inspired to lustful admiration by winning stages and intermediate sprints, but it would be fascinating to hear Tommeke answer the question for himself, no?
There are also some lay-up questions to Levi about how it feels to get hit by a car (spoiler: it hurts and is scary), but even after that I’d love to hear how, at 38 and coming back from being hit by the aforementioned automobile, do you put your season back on track. How do you revise your goals to be both ambitious and realistic at the same time?
At that point, I might turn to Peter Velits and say, “Hey, Pete. You finished second at the 2010 Vuelta, winning the individual time trial and the team time trial, as well as climbing like a monkey on macchiatos (macchiati?), what do you rate your chances for the ToC, and who would have to get hit by a car to put you in the team leader’s role?”
Then you’ve got guys like Bert Grabsch, Frantisek Rabon and Dries Devenyns, a trio of steam engines in lycra, and I’d like to know how it feels to be in the same team with Boonen. Do they hide his room key? Do they call his mobile pretending to be his girlfriend? I would. I would also sprinkle rosewater on his junket, like the English apparently liked to do in medieval times. That’d be hilarious.
We have an audience with the Omega Pharma-Quicksteps. What do we ask? What do we want to know?
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Image: Photoreporter Sirotti