Celebrating the CLIF Pro Team: Part 1
After two decades of racing, the 2021 season will be the final chapter for the CLIF Pro team. In celebration of 20 years of history, we will be taking time to honor and reflect on the impact this team had on the sport.
The Early Years—The LUNA® Pro Team aka Team LUNA Chix®
The CLIF® Pro Team is among the most storied teams in the history of professional mountain bike and cyclo-cross racing, spending 20 years at the top of the result tables. Its roster has been a veritable who’s-who of women’s off-road racing and served as inspiration for two generations of athletes.
Originally known as the LUNA Pro Team (but organically known as the LUNA Chix), this program has won medals and championships in mountain bike, cyclo-cross, and off-road triathlon events. In late 2016, the title sponsorship changed from LUNA® — CLIF BAR’s women’s brand — to CLIF BAR® but everything else about the team stayed the same.
Team Inspiration and Formation — A Day at the Beach
In early 2001, the owners of CLIF BAR® were on a Greek holiday watching their daughter frolic in the surf. She was just seven years old and carefree, and they thought about what the future could hold for her as a woman (or an athlete), and it was at that moment an epiphany struck them to create an elite, all-women mountain bike team. The team would have the pay and support on par with the best men’s programs; and in LUNA®, they had the perfect title sponsor.
After they returned from their trip, they reached out to Paul McKenzie, a Clif Bar employee and their go-to guy for bike-related projects, and Dave McLaughlin, a veteran of cycling team management with a reputation as a talent scout with numerous world cups and world champions to his credit as a team manager, to assemble this exciting new program from scratch.
It was the late summer of 2001 during the lead-up to the World Mountain Bike Championships in Vail, Colorado, where Alison Dunlap — a Colorado native and Olympian in both road and mountain bike racing — was competing as a member of the U.S. squad. The bookmakers listed Alison as a potential podium contender but a long shot to win the world championships despite her home-field advantage of Colorado’s rarified air.
The race was to take place Sunday, Sept. 16 — the Sunday after 9/11 — so things were weird amid a shroud of disbelief and shock over the previous Tuesday’s events in the world’s most cosmopolitan city. In the wake of the terror attacks, it was uncertain if the race would take place (not to mention most of the world’s flights were grounded). Fortunately, because this event was at altitude and required time to acclimate, most of the competitors had already been in the U.S. for some time to adjust to the thin air at over 8,000 feet above sea level. Ultimately, the race took place as a full field of athletes representing their respective countries toed the line. A couple of hours later and despite the odds, Alison Dunlap, waving a U.S. flag about, crossed the line as the new world champion, then collapsed to the ground in tears, surrounded by the deafening roar of the crowd.
A short time later, Alison signed on as the leader of the fledgling LUNA Pro Team. With Alison aboard, the team immediately gained legitimacy and began to assemble the rest of its staff, rider, and co-sponsor roster, many of whom followed Alison to LUNA from their former team, which was folding due to lack of sponsorship.
Marla Streb Signs Up
Downhill star Marla Streb was the next athlete signed to the squad. Marla was an eccentric downhiller who first made headlines in a national ad campaign of going through her pre-race routine of repeatedly smashing into a tree and then later appearing tastefully nude on the cover of Outside magazine. Because of her antics, Marla was popular with sponsors, fans, and the mainstream media, all while posting top results as one of the world’s most accomplished downhill racers. As a member of the LUNA squad, she would go on to win the U.S. National Downhill championships, bolstered by a string of impressive international results, including a win in the world cup downhill finals in Austria.
Katerina Nash (Hanusova)
A virtual unknown named Katerina Hanusova (now Nash), rode to a quiet 11th place in Vail. Despite competing in the 1996 Olympic mountain bike race at the tender age of 17, mountain biking was really just a way to maintain fitness for her primary sport — cross-country skiing — where she was a world cup competitor and member of the Czech Olympic team heading for the Salt Lake City winter games a few months after the Vail world cup.
Attending school in Reno, Nevada, and based just up the hill in Truckee, California, she was introduced to us by a friend who ran the local cross-country ski area where she trained. Although being an unknown quantity on cycling, we jumped at the chance to sign her up, not knowing that 20 years later she would come to define the team and develop into one of the most successful off-road racers of all time, one of the few — male or female — to win UCI* world cup mountain bike and cyclo-cross races.
Gina and Kelli
The team rounded out its first-year roster with two American performers in cyclo-cross star Gina Hall and up-and-comer, Kelli Emmett.
A Berkeley local and friend of Clif Bar, Gina was a star on the national cyclo-cross circuit and a member of at least two Clif Bar-sponsored cycling teams, thus a natural fit for the LUNA Chix. As a Clif Bar “insider,” Gina was adept at navigating the confines of the Fifth Street building for the most direct route to the sample table in the warehouse.
Kelli was a promising future talent who joined the team upon the recommendation of Alison Dunlap. The two had been teammates on Alison’s previous team, and Alison had taken to mentored Kelli as she developed. Although no longer a member of the team, Kelli remains active and competitive in a variety of off-road race disciplines.
Nuts and Bolts
Throughout the fall and winter of 2001-2002, the LUNA Pro Team was assembled, enlisting the best sponsors and staff the bike industry had to offer — and as luck would have it, the team came out of the blocks firing, winning on their debut weekend and capping off its first season by taking the UCI* world cup title. These results combined with strong performances throughout the year cemented sponsorships for another “two” years. And here we are now, 20 years down the trail with one of the best women’s cycling teams the sport has ever known.
*Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s international governing body