I had been warned concerning the Umbrail. The highway, regardless of its 34 switchbacks, 8.5 p.c common grade, and vertical ascent to greater than 8,000 toes above sea degree—the very best paved stretch in Switzerland—typically dwells within the shadow of extra well-known neighbors just like the Passo di Stelvio or the Passo di Gavia. It was what Tom Dumoulin, the eventual winner of this year’s Giro d’Italia, had so painfully struggled up after famously stopping for a five-alarm “nature break.”
And but there I used to be, three-quarters of the best way up, in full bonk. Cycling photographer Ashley Norris Gruber pedaled alongside, chirpy as a spring robin, and supplied to play some music. I believe it was Johnny Cash—it didn’t assist. With my silence, I willed her to maneuver on so I might endure alone. She did, and I did. I lastly got here throughout the Clif Bar van, the place Waldek Stepniowski, the gregarious Pole who manages the professional workforce, plied with me sufficient Cokes and Clif Bars to get me excessive and into Italy.
If this sounds a bit like product placement—effectively, it’s. I used to be a visitor of Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson, alongside together with his spouse and firm co-owner Kit Crawford, a gaggle of staff, and Clif Bar–sponsored athletes, on a visit to have fun the corporate’s 25th anniversary within the nook of the Dolomites the place the founding concept had taken root.
Back at our cozy resort in Bormio, together with his Brittany spaniel Cima (“top” in Italian) at his toes, Erickson recalled with amusing that he had endured exact same expertise on the Umbrail. “Our goal was to ride the Gavia, the Stelvio, and the Umbrail in one day,” he says. Upon summiting the Stelvio, his using accomplice instructed Erickson he was accomplished. Erickson proceeded alone. Back then, the move was not paved. “I get about halfway up, and the motor shuts off,” says Erickson. “It’s foggy, it’s raining, it’s freezing, and there are no cars.” Nor was there was a assist automobile loaded with refreshments; the entire ethos was to experience self-sufficiently, with no matter might be packed in a shoebox. Every pedal stroke was an ordeal. “I was ready to cry,” says Erickson.
“Born on a bike” goes the Clif slogan, although it simply as simply might have been “born on a bonk.” It was his varied travails with transportable diet that satisfied Erickson he might create a greater bar—this within the days when PowerBar dominated the still-slender market section. The relaxation is historical past: Clif Bar went on to eclipse EnergyBar, was practically offered to Quaker, and now stands atop the “portable lifestyle and health bar” class, with estimated annual revenues (the privately held firm doesn’t launch figures) upwards of $500 million.
While a 25th anniversary victory lap appears effectively deserved, the market Clif helped to invent has change into extremely aggressive—and crowded. “In our category alone, there’s probably 200 companies,” says Erickson. “We’re always looking over our shoulder.”
Erickson turned his biking heritage—freewheeling, frivolously encumbered, semi-planned jaunts by Italy’s unpaved roads—into a company ethos. But is it doable to keep up that very same spirit when your previously garage-based startup has 1,200 staff? “We always want to be a challenger brand,” says Erickson. “We always want to go after someone bigger.”
Clif sees its major targets as the large meals firms like Kellogg’s and General Mills, which nonetheless dominate the grocery retailer breakfast aisles, somewhat than the scores of upstart rivals (every little thing from Quest to Kind to 18 Rabbits to that selfmade hemp-chia concoction your neighborhood well being meals retailer sells) which have crowded the transportable diet section. “We’re not going after them, although they are coming after us,” says Erickson. “And we don’t want to lose any market share.” By remaining household and worker owned, he says, Clif has “been able to stay nimble.” Goliath, notes Erickson, was too large to match David’s velocity. “We trust ourselves, trust each other, and trust our team to make bold decisions without layers and layers of red tape.”
Hence the infinite drive to innovate. Innovation doesn’t should imply new. As Erickson notes, he didn’t invent the vitality bar; he simply made what he thought was a greater 1. But figuring out how and the place to search out the following good concept is vital. For Clif, meaning listening to athletes. Clif Shot Bloks, for instance, the vitality chews launched in 2005 (Erickson notes that Clif was 2nd to market, after Sharkies), happened as a result of the corporate was listening to complaints about vitality gels: “It’s messy. What do I do with them after it’s open? The inside of my jersey pocket is getting messy.” Bloks merely modified the automobile for vitality supply into one thing extra acquainted (learn: Gummi bears) and palatable.
Like in a race, figuring out when to make a transfer is vital. A number of years in the past, Erickson’s brother, an engineer who works with the corporate, despatched photos of a brand new meals manufacturing course of. “He said, ‘We took a chocolate Clif Bar and put peanut butter inside it.’” (Not really easy to do, says Erickson, with Clif’s “tough dough.”) That was so far as it went. Fast-forward just a few years to the nut butter craze, and out of the blue the race was on. (In an homage to Erickson, the packaging for the nut butter–crammed bars options a picture of a bike owner on the only real remaining unpaved stretch of the Passo di Gavia.)
Plenty of paths didn’t prove. As Erickson may say, taking fallacious turns is a part of the journey. The firm tried twice to create a Clif drink—first Rapid Quench, after which Clif Quench—however neither labored out. “RTD [ready-to-drink] is a very difficult category. It requires a whole different distribution thing,” says Erickson. The first launch of the Mojo bar had some underperforming flavors, like curried cashew and spicy salsa peanut. To this present day, Erickson isn’t certain “whether those way-out flavors were ahead of their time, or people just don’t want to see curry in a bar.”
The seek for new roads continues. “We’re getting close to tapping out on concepts for athletes,” says Erickson. But a a lot bigger marketplace for wholesome natural snacking looms. While the corporate’s vitality meals line—for instance, pizza margherita in a pouch), he says, “haven’t done that well,” Erickson says a number of new rollouts are deliberate for subsequent 12 months. But, he provides, “bars will always be our sweet spot.”