3 executives, 3 companies, 1 movement

NICA met up with Ben Capron, CEO of OSMO Nutrition, Brian Vaughan, CEO/Co-Founder of GU Energy Labs and Eric Russell, National Sale Manager of Clif Bar and Company to learn more about their love of cycling, involvement in the High School Mountain Biking movement, and their vision of its future.


Tell us about your personal connection to and relationship with cycling?

Ben (OSMO): I’ve always loved to move on wheels.  From my Big Wheel in the kitchen to my mountain bike across the Alps, I’ve never stopped.  I feel most alive and stoked when I’m in the saddle, breathing hard and moving through the world.  Luckily, I’ve been able to “work” in the bike industry… which is to say I’ve never really “worked”.

Brian (GU): I’ve always loved the feeling you get from riding a bike—the pure joy of being on two wheels, the ability to go far and explore new places, and the friendships that accompany the sport.  One of the best things about cycling is that it’s a sport that gives back more than it takes—this virtue is what allows cycling to be a lifetime activity for so many people.

Eric (Clif): My dad was a recreational biker and took me out on rides when I was growing up.  I loved going out with him on the weekends – I can still remember the stops at the ice cream store and stuffing our faces at the blackberry bushes along our routes.  I grew up in Eugene, OR where biking was a common thread in the community. As I got older, I rode my bike to middle school and high school a couple days a week. I wasn’t taking a stance on anything or doing it to for the exercise it was just a fun way to get to school. And, it was not an easy ride! It took 30 minutes to get to school with some very steep hills along the way—we’re talking 15+ percent grades!

How did you get involved with NICA?

Ben (OSMO): During my 18 year tenure at Specialized, I was involved in supporting High School Mountain Biking.  First the NorCal league and then SoCal.  I recall a conversation with Matt (Fritzinger) and asking him “why don’t you take this movement nation-wide”.  Matt said, “it’s not the first time that’s come up, but we need money to do it.”  I took that to Mike Sinyard at Specialized, and Mike said on the spot that Specialized would write the first check.

I’m a founding NICA board member and have been on the board the whole time, except when I was on the NICA staff as the Development Director.

Brian (GU): I was actively involved with the NorCal League for many years as a member of their Board of Directors.  During those years I witnessed the transformative powers that high school mountain biking has with the students, families, coaches, and community.  When there was an opportunity to work with NICA I grabbed it—I’m passionate about getting kids engaged in individual sports like cycling, and by joining NICA’s Honorary Board I now have a chance to work with others to grow the awareness of high school mountain biking on a national level.

Eric (Clif): I’ve been involved with NICA since its inception.  I remember Matt Fritzinger mentioning to me “We’re going national” when it was just a thought of his.  Once things progressed and a board of directors was being put together, I really wanted to get involved with the national movement, so I jumped at the chance.

What does your involvement in NICA look like?

Ben (OSMO): I’m back on the board, which is an awesome team that gets together for quarterly board meetings, goes to races and events and participates in special projects.

I’m now the CEO of Osmo Nutrition, and we’ve just come on as a NorCal sponsor.  As we grow, our support of NICA and NICA leagues will as well.

Brian (GU): As a member of NICA’s Honorary Board my objective is to raise awareness of NICA’s mission and the national programs it provides to the state leagues.  During 2013 we aim to promote the documentary film, Single Track High—an amazing piece that follows six student-athletes through their 2012 season in the NorCal League.  We’re also looking to build the NICA Booster Club, and gain the attention of like-minded companies outside the bike industry.

Eric (Clif): I’m the vice president of the board of directors – so, I am one of four members on the executive committee. We meet regularly and work with Rick Spittler, the board president, to recruit new board members; plan future board meetings; provide support to the NICA executive director; and help establish a foundation for NICA to grow nationally in a sustainable and efficient manner. As a young organization, less than 4 years old, there are always new opportunities and hurdles that we come across.  To connect with the greater NICA community, I also attend a lot of team rides, events, fundraisers, races, etc.

On a personal level, please expand on how your involvement with NICA has moved, surprised and/or changed you?

Ben (OSMO): To attend a race or participate in a team practice is mind blowing.  It’s a utopian dream to have kids riding and thriving and digging the experience in an organized way.  The lives of each student athlete are changed forever thanks to the experience.  And the world is better because of it.  The kicker is that everyone’s doing it because its so friggin’ fun!  That’s the way it should be.  Being a part of this movement gives me a deep sense of purpose.  I am deeply grateful and lucky.

Brian (GU): I’ve been really impressed by the growth of high school mountain biking during the past 5 years.  This movement to put more kids on bikes has changed us all, it’s undeniable that Matt Fritzinger and others have brought together the critical elements and created a very special environment for student athletes.  NICA is more than just an organizer and governing body, they’ve strengthened the fabric of our community and laid a permanent foundation for others to build upon.

Eric (Clif): NICA really puts a smile on my face!  I get so much joy riding with the teams and I love chatting with them when we are out and about. Whenever I hang out with the kids, it is so clear to me how their involvement in NICA and mountain biking is fostering learning and development in other areas of their lives.

How long have you been a part of the high school mountain bike  story and why? Did it begin personally and move to a professional connection?

Ben (OSMO): Luckily for me “personal” and “professional” are intertwined around bicycles.  So I guess I’d say “both”.  I’d guess my first official involvement was a NorCal CycleFest back in 2003 or 2004.

Brian (GU): I’ve been involved in the story for almost 9 years.  My first encounter with high school mountain biking was in 2005 at the NorCal League’s Cycle Fest dinner and fundraiser where the guest speaker was Andy Hampsten—one of my cycling heroes.  From that first encounter I was hooked.  Over the years I’ve found opportunities to leverage my personal interests and passion with my business’ philanthropic and community-based work.

Eric (Clif): My involvement in high school mountain biking began professionally.  In 1999 I was the grassroots sponsorship guy at Clif Bar. At that time, Matt had just started up the Berkeley High School team. So when the Berkeley High sponsorship request came across my desk (in the fall of 1999) I knew right away that it was a perfect match for us.  Since then, I have moved on to other roles at Clif but I’ve kept in touch with Matt helping out where I can. While my current position isn’t involved with sponsorship, I am still the liaison between the Clif Family Foundation and NICA.

NICA has an intense desire to make this a nationwide effort, get more high school athletes on bikes and change lives in the process. What do those goals mean to you personally and to your company?

Ben (OSMO): When a person rides, they get bitten by the bug.  We feel what it means to be alive.  Once bitten, the relationship with riding deepens, and all the downstream benefits emerge:  we’re healthier, we’re aware of the environment in a first hand way, we are connected to the people in our community, we challenge ourselves and learn that we can do what we weren’t sure we could.  We work out the issues in our lives that don’t get worked out in our frontal lobe.  I truly believe that riding is a huge part of the solution to the biggest challenges we face globally:  health, environment, media addiction, isolation….give me a problem today, and I’ll say riding is a big part of the solution.

Professionally speaking, Osmo exists to help athletes feel and perform their best with hydration and recovery drinks created from leading science and the best quality ingredients.  When we help riders feel and perform their best, they get more out of riding and want to ride more.

Brian (GU): There’s no doubt that getting more kids on bikes is a great thing to do.  Our society needs to develop better ways to motivate kids and young adults to exercise and stay active.  NICA provides an alternative to the traditional high school sports like basketball, football, and soccer.  For me personally, the bike is magical and every time someone is introduced to the powers and benefits of cycling we all grow and thrive.

From a company perspective, the goal of getting more people on bikes adds stability to our market.  At GU Energy Labs we’ve always taken a long-term perspective when growing our business, and activities that help do this responsibly have our continuing support.

From a product standpoint, we learn a ton from working with athletes, and the direct feedback is invaluable to our development process.  The youth athlete is no exception—kids are not afraid of giving you the unvarnished truth.

Eric (Clif): I believe that getting more people on bikes–especially at a young age, like I was fortunate enough to experience– makes more people happier earlier in their lives.  Honestly, who’s not happy when they are on a bike? Even for older folks that haven’t been on a bike for a long time, when they get back on a bike, it always seems to make them feel like a kid again.

From a company perspective, the idea for CLIF Bar was born on a bike, so cycling is a critical part of our heritage. We want to inspire kids to get outdoors – to be active and to get them involved with protecting the places we play. We also want to get them out of a car and show them that cycling is a legitimate form of transportation. Cycling helps develop their independence and connect them to their local community. Supporting cycling programs and bicycle advocacy aligns not only with our heritage but also with our internal initiatives like the Cool Commute program, which helps Clif Bar employees get out of their cars and onto their bikes for their commutes.

Is there a story of people you met along the way – with NICA, NICA staff or one of our leagues? 

Ben (OSMO): A million stories raced through my head.  But the one that made me tear up is Vanessa.  Her battle with cancer was so brutal.  So long and grueling and painful.  I can’t even imagine what it was really like for her.  I recall going to her house in Petaluma for a NICA meeting when I was on the NICA staff.  (It was a particularly difficult stretch for her, I think.) She was using a cane to walk and was so thin and clearly uncomfortable.  But she was totally engaged and had a spark in her eye when we talked about The League.  This kind of uncommon dedication and passion is common at NICA and Leagues – amongst staff, volunteers, coaches, directors, student athletes, parents, sponsors…everyone.  It’s the glue that keeps it together and the fuel that keeps it cranking.

Brian (GU): The story I know best is the story of the NorCal League and the teams I’ve interacted with in the Bay Area.  I’m so impressed by the energy and passion I see in the coaching staff, the volunteers, and the race coordinators…it’s way beyond what you see in everyday life, and the high school athletes understand this and recognize the commitment.  Take for example, Chris Spencer, he raced in the NorCal league in high school, graduated, went to college, and now works for NICA as the Programs Manager.  His passion is to expand opportunities for high school athletes to race mountain bikes…this is pretty cool.

Eric (Clif): I have two stories.

When I moved back to the Bay Area in 2008, I went to a NorCal race at Fort Ord.  I hadn’t been in touch with the league for a number of years so I didn’t know what to expect.  When I got there I was blown away – not only by the sheer number of kids, but also by the number of family members that were with them. I went out and rode the course and kids were out there pre-riding the course with their parents and younger siblings. Not many sports can create that sense of community and “quality family time.” It was truly magical! That weekend helped me realize the importance of NICA and how immense, positive and tangible its impact is.

The second memorable moment for me was at our first board meeting. We had the local team, El Cerrito High School team come and chat with us – the riders and their coach. One of the students was graduating soon and she shared that one of the major factors she was considered in selecting colleges was the “bikeability” of the campus.  How cool is that? NICA is changing the way kids think and changing their lives well after high school.

What would you say to a company that is thinking about becoming a NICA or a league sponsor?

Ben (OSMO): Get involved in the biggest way you can.  There is nothing else like NICA.  By supporting NICA, you’ll be doing good while doing well.  Getting kids on bikes is a hugely positive thing to do.  And from a business standpoint, the quality of the community that you can connect with is incredible.  These are kids and moms and dads and coaches and volunteers who care so deeply that their loyalty is immense.  Don’t just look at the size of the community, look at the quality and the depth of their engagement.  Find ways to authentically support the movement and it will come back in multiples.

Brian (GU): I’d be very direct and say ‘if your company is aligned with the missions of NICA and the bicycle industry, then support high school mountain biking.’  By being a sponsor of NICA or a state league, companies are investing in tangible programs that can help shape the fitness and character of our youth today.  The work that NICA does can give back to the community and help develop the next generation of leaders.

Eric (Clif): Sponsoring NICA or becoming a league sponsors empowers companies to get involved in a variety of critical issues. Does your company want to help fight climate change?  NICA helps the next generation learn that biking is a legitimate and fun form of transportation. Does your company want to do something about childhood obesity? NICA helps get kids off the couch and on a bike. Does your company want to help the next generation become environmental stewards? NICA teaches high schoolers and their families about civic involvement and how to protect the places we play. Does your company want to help kids develop independence and leadership skills? NICA teaches kids about hard work, teamwork, and goal setting, essential skills for today’s world.

If you could fast forward to a NICA conference in 25 years, what would you like to see and what would you like to be able to say about the organization?

Ben (OSMO): We did it!  Every American teen has the opportunity to participate in cycling as a bona fide high school sport, and will into the future.  By achieving this we are helping create millions of young Americans to develop strong bodies, strong minds and strong characters, and that is a global game changer.

Brian (GU): I’ve always said that it’s the people who make up the character of an organization.  So for starters, I would like to see a broad range in gender, age, and ethnic diversity.  Next, the ideas and creativity coming from the group need to be forward thinking and sustainable.  Together we can build an organization with the structure that supports high school mountain biking in all 50 States.  Finally, I see a group bound by common goals, a group who knows how to work hard and have a bunch of fun along the way.

Eric (Clif): I would like to see more companies involved with this important cause so we can help even more kids and their families get outdoors and on their bikes.


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