Wednesday, April 4, 2007

When You Race Against Me, You Race for Second Place

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 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,


Anonymous said...

That Specialized fixey is tasty!

Ari said...

I read you post and I am still lifting my jaw from the ground. I dont want to believe that Boonen, the top rider of the season, is riding a modified Langster. I have test ridden a langster and together with the Giant Bowery they are perhaps the worst riding bikes ever.
IF Specialized wants to hang in europe they better supply Tornado Tom with the best machine they can fabricate or purchase. Anyone remember the Dario Pegoretti fabricated Pinarellos the Big Mig rode?

Radio Freddy said...

Ari - there is a rich history of machines that are not as they appear. It was this type of PRO slight of hand that spawned BKW. I have not heard of the Pegoretti though I know of Litespeed's rich history, Merckx, Merlin and Serotta too. I also want to point out that this piece is based on speculation and not FACT. (pun intended)

josh said...

it also sort of looks like an allez, non?
at least the downtube looks closer, to me. if so, it would be an alu or alu/carbon mix....

just a thought

MTBGuru said...

Here's some links from Belgian newspaper articles (in Flemish) that confirm the frame is aluminum, all 7.7kg of it...

Radio Freddy said...

MTB Guru - What an outstanding find. This confirms our hunch. The power of the web is amazing. Thank you for the links!

MTBGuru said...

This article (another Flemish newspaper) has some more:

The carbon version of his bike will supposedly only be ready in May. The newspaper journalist then asks Boonens team leader the obvious question ('he'll be doing his most important races - the cobblestone classics - on an alu bike, is this a good idea given his back problems?') to which the team leader (Fitte Peeters btw) replies that the back pain was caused by the bad position Tom had on his old bike and that enduring the worse shock damping of the aluminum frame for another month won't be a big deal.
A mechanic (from another team) adds to it that he may even perform better/more efficiently because of the higher stifness of the frame ;)

Anonymous said...

are boonen's bikes like the specializeds that cipo was riding back when he won the worlds? i.e. clearly not made by specialized.

Anonymous said...

I spoke with a friend who is a senior prod mgr at the big S....Boonen's bike isn't an Allez, a Langster, or any other stock model. It's a one-off custom job built specifically for Tommeke, and the back pain had little/nothing to do with it. Tom was never 100% happy with the Tarmac b/c of the length of the chainstays, and Spec has been working on a custom carbon rig for him. Obviously custom carbon bikes ain't cheap or easy to make (and they don't help sell stock bikes), so it wasn't their first choice. He'll be back on carbon soon enough, but not on something you'll see at your LBS any time soon. And yes, the aluminum job is has A LOT in common with Cipo's custom S bike from '03-04.

Glad to hear you don't need new fangled technology to win races :-)

blue squirrel said...

there are some great pics of the bike and big tom at:

Jason said...

This is one of the best blog pieces I've ever read. Great job.

Anonymous said...

I'd classify the assessment of sponsor vs. sponsored as speculative. I think it's perfectly reasonable to put him on an aluminum bike.

I presume you stated it's irresponsible because of aluminum's harshness. I highly doubt his back pain would be caused by a harsh ride. I certainly could imagine it being caused by a poor position, which would be cured by a custom frame.

It's all about the position. He's a bit guy and the top tube could simply be too short for him.

Also, the only thing that makes that Specialized look like the Langster is the black paint with white letters, and the pseudo-aero seat tube. The Allez has a similar seat tube.

strangelife said...

I'm not a fan of the S, M, L, XL, frame sizes. Position on these might work on CAD programs, but in the real world they "truly" fit only a marginal percentage of riders. They also look really lame.
What year did riders stop riding cool custom rigs that had to be scrutinized in just the right light from the oversized pages of VeloNews? When did the music die, man?

Francis said...

I disagree that the "music died."

To the contrary: I'm inclined to view companies such as Specialized in a positive light. They operate in a competitive industry and market their products on innovation and performance. While the aesthetic has certainly changed regarding the slope of top-tubes, the elements of good fit haven't. The look of bikes was affected by the Giant-compact revolution. Their size-run was limited and market need corrected the issue within several seasons.
If you are put off by the curvy, futuristic shapes of the bicycles, don't buy them. Plenty of other options exist. Besides-- a boutique bike means you don't have to wave back to people on floor model bikes!

How much money must it cost for specialized to support Quickstep and Gerolsteiner in the pro peloton? Both the sponsor and the team require eachother: I hardly beleive that there is an adverserial relationship between the two.

Boonen is part of a modern phenomenon of specialist sprinters in cycling. Bikes assembled in his dimensions weren't found in yesterday's peloton. Look at the disproportionate machines of Petacchi, Cipollini, Boonen: very long top tubes, VERY long/low stems, high differential between saddle and handlebar.

Oh well! A stock bike doesn't meet his performance/ fit requirements! So his sponsor used available material and resources to produce one that does. I'm sure his Aluminum bike is a world class machine. If having him on a custom-carbon bike would benefit their sponsorship-marketing strategy enough... they'll make one!

I believe that Boonen is doing great things for cycling. The attitude, the style, the level of achievement, everything! If Specialized can be a profitable company that supports cycling and mainains the needs of such top athletes: Who loses?

Anonymous said...

I think the carbon / Aluminium debate is missing the point, a top end bike made of any material will feel the same. The Domo team raced and won Classics on Aluminium Merckx frames in 2003.
As for the bad back, I am afraid I just don't believe it!
The Specialized just does not handle well enough to race at Boonen's speed on cobbles because the seat tube and head angle are too steep. Boonen's Aluminium bike was made by one of the Italian custom builders who also made Cipollini's 'Specialized'
Even with the naked eye you can see from magazine pictures that the geometry on the new bike is more relaxed.

Specialized shouldn't take it too personally, Boonen used a Time frame from lower down the range, and with a different fork for the cobbled classics last year, too.