Luna women's team celebrates 10 years

Ten years ago, Clif Bar Founder and co-CEO Gary Erickson was on vacation with his family wondering what he might do to inspire his then seven-year-old daughter athletically.

"We were in Greece and visiting relatives and traveling around the islands. We were watching our daughter play in the water and wondering if she'd ever get into sports. We were both athletes. We thought of all the teams we were sponsoring and we got on a brainstorm about whether we were supporting women - like our daughter - in sports."

Driving back to their accommodations that evening, Erickson got the idea of forming a fully supported, professional women's mountain bike team. His company had sponsored several female pros previously, including Alison Dunlap, who had just won the cross country world championship.

Erickson immediately called up Dave McLaughlin upon returning to California and the two put together a plan for the team, but not everyone thought it was such a good idea. McLaughlin would become the manager of the squad.

"When I brought the idea up to people in marketing at Clif Bar, they didn't support the idea. They weren't sure whether this would build the brand of Luna, and they thought there was more opportunity by doing a men's team under the Clif brand."

"I said, 'Thanks, but we're still going to do this', and we formed the team. It's been separately managed ever since." The team is owned by Clif Bar.

Fast forward to 2011 and Canadian Catharine Pendrel, American Georgia Gould and Czech Katerina Nash are racing all over the globe in the distinctive blue and white colors of the Luna Women's Pro Cycling team.

Going into the 2011 season, the squad was the number one ranked mountain bike team in the world, as tallied by the UCI.

The goals

When Erickson decided to put his energy behind the women's team, he did so wholeheartedly.

"Doing this team was not a token effort, it was a full on professionally done effort. It wasn't a situation where because we do a men's team, we should do something for the women.

"One of the visions of the team from the start was to address the disparity in women's sports. We couldn't control prize money, but what we could control was salaries. From the start, we've paid parity with what the men are making as pro cyclists. I'd argue that right now we are paying our women more than what the men are making in the sport of mountain biking and triathlon and Xterra."

Clif spends more money on the Luna women's team than on any of its men's programs. "Yes, we do spend money on men - we support team Garmin-Cervelo, and we have a small men's pro team, but nothing like this," said Erickson.

But paying a rider well is only one part of what helps many athletes to success. Erickson said his second goal was to support his female athletes as well as any pro cycling team in the world.

"I think we've achieved that. Because of that, these women are performing at their highest level. They come to these races and they don't have to worry how their bike is going to get there, where they are going to stay or who will be with them at the starting line or if their bike is in good condition. All of that is taken care of."

"It's not that we pamper them. We do our work, they do their work and together they are fully supported."

Where to go from here

Not many teams, mountain bike or road, last for 10 years. And the Luna Women's Pro Cycling Team has had so much success, it's tempting to think about what else is left to achieve.

"How can we do better than this year? Every year we say that, but we keep raising the game," said Erickson. "If we did 70 or 80 percent of what we did last year, we'd still be successful. We'd still continue to support the program. It's become part of the DNA of our business. The team is part of who we are."

In 2010, the Luna team topped the UCI rankings and Catharine Pendrel won the overall World Cup. Katerina Nash was extremely successful in cyclo-cross, even winning a medal at Worlds and the combination of Nash, Pendrel and Georgia Gould dominated the cross country racing scene in North America.

Erickson said the team will likely grow by expanding more into supporting other sports. "We've just started dabbling in running and now are into alpine skiing."

So did Erickson's vision work? After 10 years, his daughter Lydia is 17 years old and into alpine ski racing and she seems to have recently caught the mountain biking bug.

"My daughter is inspired every time she talks to the ladies," said Erickson. "She knows them and follows them. She became an Alpine ski racer herself. Two years after that trip to Greece, she expressed interest in skiing and we put her on a ski team and she's been racing ever since. Now she's getting into mountain biking, and I love to ride with her and teach her skills.

"We didn't want to push her though we probably could have more than we did," said Erickson. "You have to be careful with kids."

The Luna team continues to spread its support for women across the US. The organization is currently backing 26 ambassador teams around the country.

Reflections of an original team member

Marla Streb was one the first athletes signed by the brand new Luna Team in its first year. Shortly, thereafter, Alison Dunlap also joined the team. Katerina Nash, Gina Hall and Kelli Emmett soon followed.

"Gary Erickson wanted to do it right," said Streb. "We had a big budget and everyone was getting paid commensurate with men's pro racing. That was the point: women should be taken seriously and treated as such. So we got the full semi (truck) that year and we did major photo shoots and media guides."

Coming in the later stage of her career, Streb said joining the team made her feel like she had made it to the top of the sport.

"It was unique because the sponsor wasn't a bike company. It was all women, and I was kind of worried about that because I get along really well with men. But it worked out great and everyone was really professional from day 1.

"The beginning of the team was so exciting and some people thought it was a fluke and wouldn't last, but it has."

Streb noticed that over the years, the team has tended to sign well-educated, articulate women. "Gary and Kit think it's important that the athletes be relatively well rounded and somewhat articulate and accessible and approachable. Well seasoned is ok, too."

Streb, a former downhiller, who is now a mom with two children, remained connected to the team even after she retired from pro racing. In 2010, she served as the team's general manager.

After relocating to another part of the US in 2011, she's stepped down somewhat in her day-to-day involvement with the team, but continues to perform some media support duties from afar.

She and Kathy Pruit were the only two downhillers to ever be part of the Luna team, and she said the team is not likely to sign more any time soon. "It's too hard logistically to have downhillers on the team. We talked about bringing someone on again last year, but the events are separated now and that athlete would have to be travelling on her own. It's too hard as a downhiller to look professional when you don't have all the stuff. Things break and we didn't want someone on her own."

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Sue George is an editor at Cyclingnews.  She coordinates all of the site's mountain bike race coverage and assists with the road, 'cross and track coverage.