After winning the 2006 Tour of Flanders, Tom Boonen was interviewed by Paul Sherwin and asked if Team Discovery made a mistake by not sending Hincapie, because Boonen was "always going to beat Hoste" in the sprint. To this, Tom calmly and confidently stated, "Ah……and Hincapie, too. That's the problem with me; when you race against me, you race for second place."
The confidence the young Belgian exudes is overwhelmingly straight forward—not cocky—and stated in a very matter-of-fact manner. As an outsider looking in, Boonen seems less flamboyant than the likes of some other former sprinting specialists like the Lion King in the late 90's. Boonen is young, Boonen is successful, and Boonen is a champion. So, when a champion begins complaining about his machine, you would think as the frame manufacturer, you would listen... or would you?
Let's go through the chronology of the Boonen back problem news as it hit this 2007 season:
March 19: After dropping out of the last stage in Paris-Nice, a release is posted on Cyclingnews.com about Boonen having back problems and is working with a chiropractor to ease the pain. The release links the back pain to the FACT (pun intended) that Boonen had swtiched bicycle brands from Time 2006 to Specialized in 2007.
March 25: Boonen takes 3rd at MSR and talk continues to center on the bike Boonen is riding. In the post MSR wrap up, Boonen is quoted by saying that he, "feels like I'm 85 years old" at the end of the race which he again complained of ailing back pains. The release posted on CN today talks about how Specialized will be making Boonen a custom bicycle to help re-position him to help manage the back pain.
March 26: Just one day after MSR, and the release about Boonen feeling like a crippled old man, CN releases news that Boonen will ride a custom Specialized rig. The release was very quick to point out in the opening sentence that the rider "who has had back problems for 4 years" will be riding a custom rig. The release goes on to pinpoint the specific race--Gent Wevelgem from 2003--where Boonen crashed into a cameraman. Said Director Sportif for Quick Step Fitte Peeters, "It remains a delicate issue, but we have it under control."
March 28: In the 62nd edition of the Belgian spring classic Dwars door Vlaanderen, Boonen takes a commanding win after pipping O'Grady at the line. In an overt gesture, Boonen crosses the line and immediately points to his new machine, implying that the machine "is the thing" and that he is "Specialized." In the post-DDV race coverage, the details to the new machine are released; Boonen's new machine is 13mm longer. There is no talk of material or other dimensions, but some images from DDV show that the machine is clearly an Aluminum beast. Boonen wins the race, and comments that, "I am very content but especially I am obviously reassured on my condition and on the state of my back. The form is there."
So all is well in the Kingdom of Belgium, yes? As a Belge-phile who wants to believe that Boonen is all better and that he is set for the Ronde, I am much more skeptical and in the ubiquitous words of the Belgian common folk, "yes, but it is not possible."
Let's think about the series of events that happened in March. March 19 Boonen's back issue is leaked/released/made known to the public. Only 6 days later after MSR, it seems as if the angle in which the story was present could be viewed as too damaging . This must have been very troublesome for the Big S. They immediately release the idea of a new custom bike being built for TB. What we don't know is when the bike was being made. By March 26th press time, we have to believe that Specialized was already making a bike for Boonen, shipping it to Europe, building it, and then delivering it to him. The short lead time, however, points to the bike absolutely being produced quickly, and in a "one-off" fashion: AKA: Aluminum, not carbon.
AN ALUMINUM BIKE? For a ride complaining of BACK PAIN? This coming from a company who just wants to talk about the "FACTS" (Specialized's acronym for their carbon system: Functional Advanced Carbon Technology) about ZERTZ, about Roubaix-tested comfort? When you look at Boonen's new machine up close, and specifically the shape of the seat tube, it looks very similar to the all aluminum track model they call the Langster.
While the logic of "timeliness, responding to the problem, and presenting the ride with a tangible solution" makes some sense, I think it was absolutely irresponsible of Specialized to put Boonen on an Aluminum bike. It seems way more self-serving (provide a "solution" to the problem; respond to the media news by making a "custom" bike) to quiet the news, than an actual solution that will benefit Boonen. While this behavior is not new, it certainly is a sublte comment that even a World Champion, and possible the finest rider in the current PRO peleton, is still a pawn for the sponsors gain, or in this case, the sponsors reputation. Boonen complains of back issues, the news leaks to the press, he complains some more and does not win MSR, is given a bike that could conceivably increase his back pain, and all is well as he wins Dwar and points to his bike during his victory salute. (The pointing was no accident; it had to have been a directive). Specialized wipes their "S" hands clean, Boonen is back on top, and it's all because of the new shiny custom bike.
But the story is not over. The biggest event in the World of Belgium is yet to come. So, too, is the race that Specialized based a model line after. And it still remains to be seen if Boonen's back will hold. I'm guessing that that what looks like an all Aluminum bike is not helping the situation. While we wait for the results, as the Ronde approaches, we can't help but feel sorry for Boonen. He is clearly in some physical pain, and you would think that a sponsor would make responsible decisions and solutions that better the rider first. But, in my opinion, it looks as if he is just another pawn in the game of bicycle sponsorship. While most of this article focuses on suspicions and secondary sources (Is the new machine really Aluminum; is Boonen really hurting as badly as he says), I pose this request to Specialized: We want to know the FACTS.
BKW is fortunate to have recieved this piece from our good friend Neals who knows a thing or two about pulling a whippah and tweaking a machine to maximize the cycling experience.
Photo Courtesy: Specialized Bicycles, cyclingnews.com