By Gerard Knapp
The talk of the Interbike exhibition in Las Vegas last week was the apparent bidding war to secure the right to be bicycle sponsor to Quick.Step-Innergetic, the Belgian ProTour squad of Tom Boonen and 2006 world road race champion, Paolo Bettini.
In a statement issued late Tuesday, October 3, California-based manufacturer Specialized announced it had won this right after competing with rival firms to have the glamour squad ride its bicycles.
Sean McLaughlin from Specialized's marketing department would not comment on the rumoured amounts that were bandied about at Interbike, except to say, "The perceived market value among ProTour teams varies dramatically. Some teams command much higher than others and that was always the case, but more so now."
McLaughlin said it was Boonen's international appeal, as well as that of the Italian champion Bettini, that motivated Specialized's founder and president, Mike Sinyard, to get closely involved in the negotiations to secure QuickStep.
McLaughlin said, "We'd been in discussion with this team for a long time.
"Tom took the world by storm and he struck us as the type of athlete we want to work with. It didn't take long for Mike (Sinyard) to strike up a dialogue," he said.
The Specialized boss was "personally involved" in this deal, working with Specialized executives Sean Sullivan and Simone Toccafondi, based in Italy, to secure the deal with Quick.Step management.
Boonen was world road champion in 2005 and this year won the Tour of Flanders, among many other victories. He has become the complete package - from a marketing point-of-view - with the ability to back it up. He is a household name in Belgium and arguably one the world's most popular - and successful - cyclists. Despite his numerous victories in many important races, he can also be a loyal team rider and remains friendly to cycling fans and the media.
On the home front, McLaughlin could not say if Boonen would ride in the Tour of California next February, but added, "We need to sort out the training and race schedule. That is still to be determined.
"We'd be honoured to have him (Boonen) here of course, but we (Specialized) are a global brand" and riding the Tour of California was not a condition of the sponsorship deal, he said.
McLaughlin said the Californian bike company would look to recover this cost from both marketing and product development angles. "It's a good investment from a shrewd marketing standpoint, and a product development standpoint."
He said Specialized's sponsorship of leading teams had allowed it to take features of its high-end 'S-Works' line and introduce them in "bicycles with more affordable price-points."
"For 2007 our product line is set. You will see some special graphics for the Quick.Step bikes and they will have their own visual identity."
McLaughlin would not confirm if Boonen or Bettini had ridden one of the Specialized bikes, as they are still contracted to ride the French-made Time bicycles until the end of this year. (However, former Quick.Step rider and Belgian legend, Johan Museeuw, has ridden Specialized bicycles. In fact, he participated in a major press event Specialized hosted earlier this year along the parcours of Paris-Roubaix.)
Industry sources told Cyclingnews at Interbike that Quick.Step's manager, Patrick Lefevere, was only interested in bids worth over one million euros per year. It's understood that the Belgian team's current bike sponsor, the French manufacturer Time, had secured the right for a mid-range six figure sum, but now it had climbed into seven figures.
The talk at the show was of a subsequent bidding war between Specialized and another American manufacturer.
McLaughlin would not comment on these figures, but added, "There were a lot of suitors for this team, and it quickly came down to two."