I have to admit, I was pretty disappointed by the news this morning that Specialized was ending it’s agreement to supply bikes for Team Quick Step. I wish I could say I was surprised though. As soon as Specialized inked a million-dollar deal to provide bikes for Alberto Contador, I knew the writing was on the wall. At first I had hoped that Contador’s S-Works contract was a sign that he would indeed be joining Patrick Lefevere’s Quick Step squad for 2010; however, it now seems clear the signals pointed in exactly the opposite direction: not only won’t Quick Step be riding with Contador in 2010, but they won’t be doing it with Specialized either.
Why am I disappointed? Well, I’ve always had a soft spot for Lefevere’s Belgian super-team. Going way back to Mapei-GB, I’ve admired Lefevere’s ability to put together a squad capable of winning so many different races (except in July—hence the desire to lure Contador). During that time, I’ve been a Specialized fan as well, selling, fixing, and riding them off and on for the past 15 summers. I’ve always considered Specialized to be the anti-Trek, more concerned with selling an experience than developing a product with a “name” that everyone thought was “cool”. I have been also impressed to see Specialized’s managers stay true to their mission through their choice of sponsorships. Aside from the Mario Cipollini years, when Specialized decided to go full-bore into the Pro Tour ranks, they chose Festina, Gerolsteiner, Quick Step, and Saxo Bank to open the world’s eyes to their bikes—quality programs, that despite the odd scandal here and there, put forth consistent, successful, and well-respected teams at a time when Trek seemed more content to sponsor a “rider” than a “team”.
But lately, it seems that Specialized feels the only way to beat Trek at the publicity game is to mimic its sponsorship strategy, narrowing its gaze (and opening its wallet) for the sake of three weeks in July. Yes, an argument could be made that a Quick Step sponsorship entails narrowing one’s gaze to three weeks in April, but those three weeks are largely responsible for giving Specialized the European credibility it lacked for many years. And does signing Contador—and inevitably Astana—equal a "no-confidence" vote for Andy Schleck’s Tour chances? Or is Specialized hoping for an all-S-Works podium in 2010, a feat even Trek couldn’t pull-off?
And what of Lefevere? He’s been spurned twice now: first by Contador, then by Specialized. Eddy Merckx quickly swooped and signed a 3-year contract with the team, returning the Cannibal’s bikes to the sport’s top-level--and why not? If you were Eddy Merckx Inc. and you were watching Ridley slowly eat into your domination of the “Made in Belgium” market, wouldn’t you want Tom Boonen and Stijn Devolder riding your bikes in the races your fans care about most?
But while there is perhaps a happy ending for Quick Step and Merckx, the logic behind Specialized’s choice still escapes me. First off, who will fill the void left by Quick Step in the cobbled classics? Maybe Fabian Cancellara, but it remains to be seen if he has a team able to dominate like Quick Step has the past two years. And yes, Contador has won the Tour twice and appears to be the most talented Grand Tour rider since that American guy who rode bikes made by that other American brand. But does Specialized really want the baggage that might come along? Contador’s played a 3-month game of cat-and-mouse with the press and the 4 teams most eager to sign him (one of which being a team Specialized already sponsored and could have easily given the extra money needed to make the deal go through). He’s also demonstrated some immaturity and slight arrogance by picking a fight with the one rider possessing the talent, the team, and the connections necessary to topple him next July. And most of all, Contador’s displayed a complete lack of judgment by apparently agreeing to a contract with Astana, a team that hasn’t been guaranteed a Tour invitation yet and boasts not one, but two high-profile, convicted dopers. It sounds like exactly the kind of guy an American brand from Northern California would want to trust with its image and branding, right? In the end, I guess it all comes down to wins; something Specialized was not lacking from it’s other deals, but will certainly be banking-on this July.
Overall, to me it seems to be the kind of move reserved for a company more concerned with image than substance and less worried about maintaining a network of dedicated fans and owners. Maybe they want to attract folks who ride their bikes because “that guy does too” and not because of the bikes—or the company—themselves. Maybe I’m just being naïve. Maybe I’m more of a curmudgeon than I give myself credit for.
In the end, it looks like Specialized—rather than follow the road less traveled—has instead opted for the 4-lane, concrete superhighway to “mainstream popularity” constructed by Trek over the past 10 years. Today that highway has led them to Contador and Astana—a rider and a team that even Trek had the good sense to abandon. What does that say?
Congratulations, Specialized! You were the only major bike company that I thought did things “the right way”. Now it appears you’re just like all the rest.
Anyone selling a Team SC?