Friday, November 20, 2009

Why Specialized? Why?

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?


  1. Specialized already has a huge presence in the US. I can't say what their international presence is in comparison to Trek, but I've got to think having a (guaranteed?) Tour winner on your bike is more marketable and more valuable in the market they want to reach, not just the market they already do reach.

    Also, your comments about Contador being loaded with baggage are unfair. It was Mr. Armstrong that repeatedly usurped team resources (cars, teammates, etc) to spite Contador. It was Astana that told the media and Contador that he could not leave the team. Contador is trying to guarantee his chances for another Tour victory are not derailed by teammates or sponsors, as he should. If he can make a lot of money (like that other recent Tour victor) while doing this, then good for him and all those around him.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Rosey! My baggage comment was in no means a reference to what happened to Contador during the Tour--he was clearly victimized by Lance and co. I'm just saying that his actions since have surprised me--he seems to have a penchant for creating drama. He originally struck me as the "strong silent type" a la Indurain, but that's proved to be a poor comparison.

    But in the end, you're right: a rider can't be blamed for trying to get the best he can for himself.

  3. I've been a fan of Specialized since I started mtb'ing in 1995 but over the last few years I've watched some of their products go to CRAP. To me, Specialized used to be synonomous with in-house developed quality but it appears now they are content to dole out the same rebadged crap as some other companies. Very dissapointing.

  4. Whit, I've got to disagree.

    Contador is The Show and if he's on the market, you do what you have to do to pick him up. On the other hand, Quick Step is built around Tom Boonen and his personal problems have clearly affected the team's marketability. Stijn Devolder is a terrific rider but he doesn't have the charisma of Boonen or Contador.

    Specialized's sponsorships have always been about "publicity" - as well they should be. Well, that and product devlopment. But the point is to sell more bikes to a broader audience and that's true for every player in The Game.

  5. Charisma Contador, I must of missed that do you have a YouTube link Josh?

    My guess is that many at Specialized may be on one hand happy to get Contabore, but are equally unhappy to that he is linked with Astana again.

    I agree with DanO. Once upon a time SBC was at the forefront of design and cutting edge. In the road scene they were early adopters of the Compact shape after Giant made it acceptable all those years ago (12 now). They managed that perfect balance by being a big player but also maintaining that hard to define 'cool factor'.

    Sponsorship on one hand is about chasing results and seeing a return for your investment. It depends on whether this is a long term or short term goal. Investors can apply pressure to companies sometimes so they need a more immediate return. I have always seen SBC as being in for the long term, it maybe a case that they have got bored waiting. Feeling frustrated they have decided to back the current champion, and at the same time tackle their closest rivals for showroom space at the same time.

    In making this move they may have enabled other smaller brands enter the minds of the riding public and take the place that used to be occupied by Specialized on the 'Cool Wall'.

  6. Although it's a shame Specialized won't be supplying bikes for Quick Step I have to admit I am looking forward to seeing the Quick Step boys riding Merckx bikes. Pure Belgian cool no?

  7. Wow! So many little time...

    Josh, point taken. I was thinking exactly the same thing on my ride today. I was remiss in not stating that understand the main point of sponsorship is publicity, and if you have chance to get the most talked-about rider since LA, you need to do what you can. I think I'm not as disappointed about them signing Contador as I am that they're leaving Quick Step AND taking-on Astana. I was intrigued to see what Contador riding Specialized would be like...especially if the team were riding something else. And I enjoyed the relationship that Quick Step and SBC had been cultivating.

    Like Jason though, I am excited to see Merckx back under a Belgian powerhouse.

    Thanks to everyone for your feedback!

  8. I think i'm disagreeing with everyone .Quickstep,Devolder,Boonen and specialized seemed a perfect match especially with their Roubaix bikes.Contador? champions of whatever dont always sell bikes.

  9. For American media cycling is Lance and the Tour. What better way to counter Trek's Livestrong media juggernaut then to have the guy who beats Armstrong on your bike. By comparison Quickstep is invisible to the masses who tune in to watch the Lance show.

    Contador has not said all that much but the media frenzy and speculation may make it seem otherwise. He needed to find a way to make it through next year while not sacrificing the season until his Spanish super squad is ready. Who wants to lay out the cash for a one year deal just to support Contador until the Renault-Santader team is ready -except the Kazaks -who are desperate.

    And things could still change - this still might be a negotiating ploy as well as a back up if nothing better comes along.

  10. Good point, Henry. Maybe this is the only option for Contador to find a 1-year deal. But I too won't believe it until we see him lining-up to race in Astana colors--and I don't mean Curacao.

    Thanks for the comments!

  11. Just thinking out loud here, but one could believe that it is killing Specialized that the great arch-enemy (Trek) has seven tour wins on its bikes, but SBC has none. If that's your aim, everything else gets sacrificed to that goal.

    And thinking Lance can actually beat Contador in the tour is a bit of wishful thinking IMHO. At least until Contador gets busted for PED.

  12. Sirs!

    One can not fault Specialized for wanting to increase their market share. Bike companies make their profits by selling plenty of bikes equipped with 105, not by selling the odd Dura Ace bike. Those who think AC did Lance great unjustice by winning last July are all 105 weekenders on Treks(+ Lill Piglet). If Specialized want to grow, they have to address that mass market.

    However; as a +7000 km a year rider and a fan, multiple Classic victories impress me more than Grand Tours. Compare the two over the last years and Specialized are superior in the Classics. My only recollection of Trek in the Classics is that of Hincapie sitting in a French ditch looking mournful. Lying next to him is a Trek with a broken stem.


Thanks for your comment! We'll take a look and add it to the site shortly.