BOULDER, Colo. (VN) — A hand goes up in the air, and the rider pulls to the right (or at least he’s supposed to).
Flat tire. No problem. Neutral support is there and off the moto. The rider is tended to and pushed back to speed in just seconds. Simple, efficient. Thoughtful.
That’s the concept and hope of neutral technical support, a time-tested and reliable component of professional bike racing. But what about neutral support for nutritional needs?
Wouldn’t it make sense to have a car full of bottles and food and rain capes for any rider, regardless of his team? Boulder’s Skratch Labs thinks so, and will offer what it’s calling a “neutral human support” service at the Amgen Tour of California, which begins Sunday in Sacramento.
“It’s not specific to any one team. It’s a neutral support program,” said Ian MacGregor, Skratch’s CEO and a former professional cyclist. “We’re able to offer support to all of the riders and all of the teams.”
Skratch will have a car in the race caravan with a doctor and will also staff a moto. During the stages, a crew will tote hundreds of bottles and an assortment of ride foods for riders, such as rice cakes, and will also pack some rain gear. It’s a gap that Skratch and Amgen Tour organizers agreed needed filling. Some teams don’t have two cars in the race, and on mountain stages the groups are splintered, leaving some riders unsupported.
“I think the Tour of California recognized that there were gaps in helping and aiding. There were a lot of instances where things were spread out. Not all the riders were able to get service. This notion came up, and we jumped on it,” said Allen Lim, the company’s founder. “For us I think it speaks to our brand … even though our primary product is exercise hydration mix, we’ve built a lot of our culture around lifestyle and helping others.”
It’s a natural extension for Lim, who saw the mechanical support and wondered why there wasn’t human support to match. “It totally makes sense … we’re not doing anything different than we’ve done in the past. We’re just putting an identity to it and getting more in-race access,” he said.
It takes several villages to raise a bike race. There is an infantry of workers tending to the division of riders. Race staffers scurry about, and team directors are pressed for time between starts, finishes, and transfers. Skratch will also head up the breakfasts and dinners for the race flotilla and provide snacks for longer transfers. On the time trial day, Skratch will offer made-to-order food for riders and Skratch will also cook up portables for teams to supplement their own feed bags.
“It’s very much a partnership,” Lim said. “My whole entire career in cycling has always been built on service to the athletes … I also know from a staff perspective how hard it is for the [soigneurs], how hard it is for the directors, how hard it is for everyone to take care of these guys. … We want to actually celebrate the fact that there’s more to this race than just the 100-plus riders in the peloton.”
The California model will serve as a test to see if the service works and if it could be taken to other races. “It’s logical. We know it makes sense. But we need this race prove it, and we need this rave to showcase to other venues that this service is possible,” Lim said. “It’s being part of that greater community that helps to service this race, that helps to support one another. That’s where we get a lot of our purpose, that’s where I get a lot of my personal purpose. That’s where I built my entire career. So to be able to just continue to do that? It answers this big ‘Why?’ of, ‘Why are you involved in cycling?’”
Skratch, which primarily makes a sports nutrition drink, employs 12 people full time and has five part-timers. The company is just over two years old now, and it sells “hundreds of thousands of pounds,” according to Lim, of its vaunted drink solution, which has a milder taste (and effect on the stomach) than some other sports drinks.
Lim’s background in cycling runs deep; he coached Floyd Landis and later Lance Armstrong and has also worked with the Garmin franchise. More recently, he’s run assorted, informal camps around Boulder for professional riders including Evelyn Stevens (Specialized-lululemon) and Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing).
In October 2012, Lim said he didn’t participate in PED use with Landis (or Armstrong) and that he tried to thwart Landis’ doping.
In a more recent, and broader, Wired magazine story this winter, Lim said, “I was not the guy who helped Floyd Landis dope, but I was the guy who helped Floyd Landis survive doping.”
Since that story, he said, business has actually picked up. “It actually probably improved,” Lim said. “It depends on whose perspective you’re coming from, right? From the perspective of the outside world, everyone was like, ‘This is great.’ And we got a lot of attention. From the perspective of people who know me personally, they’re like, ‘This is crap!’ But I don’t know if it really matters, one way or another. People are going to see you and judge you, and we need to stay core to making a great product … For me, it’s been really reassuring to know that’s what really matters at the end of the day. Attention on that level is pretty interesting.”