“Bigger gear here,” Gary Erickson says to me over his shoulder just before banking left and disappearing behind a wall of oak and madrone trees. We’re about 45 minutes into our ride, the last five of which have been on an old fire road carved up by tree roots. Erickson’s guidance has been spot on since we saddled up in St. Helena, so I obediently downshift, follow him through the turn and—oof—start slowly cranking up a steep grade.
It’s a perfect summer afternoon for mountain biking on Howell Mountain, on the east side of Napa Valley. The forest offers a shady respite for the swelter of the vineyards below. The kids from Pacific Union College who usually swarm the trails are on vacation. It’s a Thursday, so there are no weekenders. There’s just one problem: we’re on road bikes.
I’d been warned that rolling with Erickson could be like this. The 54-year-old founder and CEO of Bay Area-based energy foods maker Clif Bar has a well-known preference for “white roads,” a term he started using in the mid-1980s during a long bike tour in the Alps. As Erickson and a close friend plotted their course on the fly, they learned that the red roads on their map were the most direct, but also more crowded and less inspiring. The white roads were far more interesting. They required greater commitment—think shouldering bikes over snowy passes—but gave him what he was after: adventure. So was born a mantra that’s guided many tours that followed as well as his vision for Clif: ride the white roads.
Last year, I’d sat down with Erickson and his wife and co-CEO, Kit Crawford, at Clif’s Bay Area headquarters to talk about where the white roads have taken their company over the last 20-plus years (it’s now worth a reported $235 million). Among the things I learned: they still love competing, real men do eat Luna Bars, and food is a great business to be in. We also talked about a new venture they set to launch in St. Helena, where they’ve lived since 2003, a cycling-themed tasting room for their Clif Family Winery. They were envisioning the place, to be called Velo Vino, as a space where, as Erickson put it, “all these worlds collide”: Clif Bar, wine, cycling, food from their organic farm, “and everything in between.”
Fast forward to this summer. Velo Vino has emerged as a unique destination in the California wine country for cyclists, a welcoming hub to start and end rides. You can order an espresso, bring your own lunch, and swill cabernet. You can simply hang out on their shaded back patio—in spandex. All this, and wine aficionados seem to love it: Velo Vino is among the top rated tasting rooms in the Napa Valley on Yelp.com.
So when Clif Family Winery called recently to see if I’d be interested in a visit, I said absolutely. But I suggested we mix in a ride with Erickson. What better way to get the full Velo Vino experience? Erickson’s response: Good idea.
As much as I was thrilled at the prospect of a ride with Erickson—he’s been something of a hero of mine ever since I read his 2004 book, Raising the Bar, which outlines a business philosophy of responsible and sustainable growth—I was also anxious. Yeah, he’s almost 20 years older than me, but the man rides his bike a lot, still taking long European tours. And I was given no clues about the kind of ride we’d take, other than that it would last a few hours. So I decided to bring along a ringer, my friend Mark, a former semi-pro cyclo-cross racer. If Erickson put down the hammer, I’d just draft behind Mark and try to keep up.
It was a great plan—at least while we were on pavement.