How a preeminent sports scientist built a brand based on authentic values out of the ashes of cycling’s doping scandal.
The man with the S on his chest has arrived. No, we’re not talking about that hero, although the man I have been waiting for has been linked to the superhuman strength of too many pro athletes to name, ranging from the Pro Cycling Tour to the Olympics and beyond. Dr. Allen Lim, the inventor/owner of Skratch Labs, is here.
Lim takes on different appearances depending on where and when you run across him. He may be hiding under a giant sun hat, or sporting a Skratch Labs trucker cap, or in full kit with a road bike helmet and sunnies. These days his long goatee is rather recognizable. No matter what, he’s almost always in jeans, and almost always one of the only Asians running around with a bunch of skinny white dudes in spandex.
No matter whether he’s serving bowls out of the Skratch food truck, on a ride, or in a business meeting, Lim’s intense personality far outreaches his physical stature. And the success of Skratch Labs as an omni-present sports drink and now food-product line found in more than 6,000 specialty bike, run and outdoor shops from coast-to-coast—as well as Whole Foods—has only cemented his aura as Boulder, Colorado’s sports nutrition thought leader.
This winter, when Lim and I were making plans to connect for an interview (almost more of a formality, since I’ve been interviewing him for the past six years), I got a text: “Aaron, my schedule shifted. I’m heading down to Spring Training in Arizona to work with some baseball folks. When you can meet?”
Allen Lim is one of the most sought after trainers in the world, and chatting with him, you quickly realize why. He brings a unique mix of philosophy, holistic nutrition, science, passion and humor unlike anyone else in sports. He has the ability to hold opposing views in a kind of exercise physiology cognitive dissonance, and to humanize sports science in a completely unique way. He’s also uncannily approachable, even though many are a bit starstruck when he pops his head out of the Skratch catering truck at random events like Ride the Rockies or the Sea Otter Classic.
“Anyone who has met Allen Lim is immediately taken by his empathy, expertise, and authentic desire to help athletes. Allen is a team builder, an athlete, inventor, scientist, student and his passion to help athletes to improve performance transcends the norm,” said Connie Carpenter Phinney, Olympic Gold Medalist in cycling in 1984, and now perhaps more well known as the mother of cyclists Taylor and Kelsey Phinney and chairman of the board of the Davis Phinney Foundation. (We exchanged emails from the Spainish Pyrenees where daughter Kelsey was cross country ski racing in the Europa Cup finals as part of the U.S. Ski team.) Carpenter went on to describe Lim as a seemingly tireless problem solver, and a genuine inspiration. She witnessed him at work first-hand when he worked with Taylor extensively prior to both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
My own first deep dive with Lim began about four years ago when I got a call to come down to Arizona for a cooking and training camp with the mysterious PhD—who I had been told trained Lance Armstrong, Floyd Landis and President George W. Bush, among others. The company was two years old at that point, officially founded on Super Bowl Sunday, 2012, a day not insignificant due to the fact that Lim’s partner, co-founder, former pro cyclist and current Skratch Labs CEO Ian MacGregor is probably a bigger football fan than he is a cycling fan, not to mention the fact that roadies love to take advantage of the open roads on Super Bowl Sunday.
If you were around Boulder in 2011, you might’ve even seen Lim out on north Highway 93, selling his original Secret Drink Mix by the side of the road, in Zip Lock baggies marked in Sharpee with an X (the same Sharpee Lim carries around with him all the time, perfect for signing cook books or otherwise leaving his mark) to the core and amature riders who continuosly spin down the route.
“We knew that if we could win in Boulder, we could win everywhere,” Lim told me back in 2014, just two years after the official, rocky, and accidental launch of the brand.
Living in Boulder I take the proliferation of Lim’s drink mix for granted, given it’s not uncommon to see the Skratch food truck at almost every bike-related event in Colorado, or to see Lim himself, as well as his employees and athletes out riding the roads east of town, sometimes head down digging into hard work but more often laughing and ribbing each other and passing cyclists, all of whom they seem to know personally.
The First Itch
Sitting on the couch in Lim’s rec room, slash meeting room, slash brainstorming room inside Skratch Labs’ Boulder HQ our current conversation picks back up. Talk jumps from fresh coffee to office naps to Lance to the differences in American culture compared to other places in the world.
“We love winners here in America, don’t we,” Lim waxes.
I quickly learn that what seemed like a meteoric rise to become the largest sports drink seller in the specialty bike channel (according to data from consumer research group NPD), was actually far from it. The journey began when Lim was 13 years old.
His father grew up in wealth and prosperity in China, but he saw that all snatched away when Communists took over around 1938 and his family fled to the Philippines. With the rise of Ferdinand Marcos, they fled again, and on May 19, 1973, Lim landed in Los Angeles, and his family started over.
“My dad’s first job here was bagging groceries. Back in the Philippines they had been teachers.”
Starting over meant Lim and his brother grew up as latch key kids, but instead of going home, they spent their after-school special hours riding bikes around Los Angeles. Days playing on the bike gave them a freedom beyond the urban sprawl of Los Angles. Lim soon fell in love with all aspects of the sport of cycling, and he began his career as a sports nutritionist.
“Back in the 80’s we couldn’t afford the sports nutrition available at that time, my parents were too poor to buy Gatorade, so I made my own,” Lim said.
Laying a foundation for things to come, that spirit of creating his own mixes continued—when he was racing, he would dilute the commercial sports drinks and add more salt. Eventually he started doing well in school, and his nascent interest in exercise physiology grew, fueled by the cycling magazines of the time. He got into UC Davis, where he raced bikes and continued making his concoctions—essentially gels and sports drinks and what he would later term “portables.” He studied exercise physiology and coached the women’s cycling team at UC Davis, besting rival CU, which eventualy led to him making his way to Boulder and as he describes it “talking his way into grad school,” eventually attaining a Ph.D. in Integrative Physiology.
Even if he had never founded Skratch Labs, Lim’s place in the science of training would have made him one of the key figures in the development of the sport. His academic work led to a residency at USA Cycling, where he pioneered new ideas in cycling performance and began working with some of the top pro men’s and women’s teams at all levels during that time. He then went on to develop the Power Tap product with the Saris Cycling Group, trying to figure out how to use power to better understand the demands of professional cycling, and coaching juniors Timmy Duggan and Ian MacGregor among other athletes.
He worked with what is today called the Education First Pro Cycling world tour team with Jonathan Vaughters. That was a big deal in a sport that came under heavy fire with doping scandals as this was the first world tour team that explicitly put an authentic focus on clean riding ahead of results.
Lim was not only discovering new ways to access power, but also nutrition. He brought his rice cooker to every race, and began to uncover the secrets to marginal gains and the emotional connections to food and community that influenced race results. His cooking became as important to the athletes as his monitors.
All of this made Lim one of the world’s leading experts on how to train cyclists, and ultimately pulled him onto the Pro Tour, where he worked with the best of the best, including Armstrong and Landis between 2005 and 2009. But he was derailed in 2010 when the feds began to sniff out doping rumors in Lance and Team Radio Shack.
“I was literally benched,” Lim said. “I was persona non-grata. Life went dark for me. I had effectively lost my job, I was embroiled in a federal investigation. But all these athletes were still asking me for drink mix.”
At first, Lim was slightly appalled. The investigation and tainting of his name left him frustrated, heartbroken, embarrassed, disappointed and disillusioned with the sport he had devoted his entire life to. Cycling had let him down—but, once again, life had him starting over.
“Skratch Labs was an accident,” Lim said. Without knowing what it would become he started picking up the pieces. In 2011 he began making the same drink mix he’d made for the pros and selling it rogue. Before long, he got an offer from a big company to buy the recipe. It was a shitty deal, literally. The day Lim reviewed the contract a bird flew overhead and shit on the paperwork.
During this same time, he started writing a cookbook called Feed Zone Portables with Chef Bijou Thomas. The book put into writing the nutrition plan Lim had been devising over the years, not only in his own racing but also in the training regimens of top cyclists in the world. That year, the nascent brand sold $100,000 in drink mix just through word of mouth.
Finally, thanks to a nudge from Clif Bar founder Gary Erickson and soon-to-be Skratch co-founder and cyclist Aaron Foster, Lim settled on the name Skratch Labs, a nod to the idea that the product had indeed started from Skratch, and officially went into business selling to the public at large.
“We immediately started hearing from people who said they’d become better riders because of our product,” Lim explained. “So I relived that need to have to reinvent myself, to start over.”
Over the past six years, every product Skratch has developed has been because of those emails, impassioned requests from loyal customers, not because they thought they could sell something.
“Because we weren’t funded by anyone else, we had the luxury to learn at our own pace, on our own scale,” Lim said. “We grew at a human rate, not a corporate rate.”
That meteoric, yet organic growth rate has meant that Skratch Labs had to get very systematic. Last year, the burgeoning brand had to rethink its approach to business, essentially starting from scratch one more time. The revamped philosophy revolved around a single conundrum: What are we doing and why?
It was ultimately Ian MacGregor who provided a blunt answer to that question.
“Simply put, as a company, we don’t do business with assholes. We’ve been very specific in drawing a line about that, about paying employees more, doing business in the U.S. and doing what’s right first and foremost,” MacGregor said.
Skratch Labs makes everything in Colorado, even the packaging (except for the energy chews, launched in 2015, which are made in California). Last year, the company performed a salary audit, committing to pay all 24 of its full-time employees an equitable wage-based on job description, bucking the industry-wide trend of paying people in the cycling and outdoor worlds less, just because so many people want to work there.
Skratch is the ultimate values driven company, working to “help people become better. As long as Skratch Labs exists, that will be our why,” Lim said.
“Allen has this unique ability to hold opposing ideas in his mind,” said MacGregor. “He’s as good of a sports physiologist as you’ll find at any university, but he has the ability to ask an athlete, whether it’s an Olympian or someone running their first 5K, what they like and don’t like. He’ll listen to that feedback and believe that it is important, and that’s what you don’t necessarily find very often in sports.”
The values that drive Skratch 2.0, Lim and MacGregor personally, are authenticity, empathy, performance, and teamwork. “We do this together,” said Lim. “We’re into productivity, being American and doing shit. Just like when you show up at the starting line for a race, you wouldn’t be putting yourself on the line if you didn’t want to be accountable, demonstrating grit and accepting the results.”
When it comes to food products, again, it’s all about starting from scratch. “It has to be able to be made in your own kitchen,” said Lim, and that’s evidenced not only by the giant commercial kitchen in the back room of HQ, but by the products themselves. Long before they ever considered making a pre-made energy bar, launched last year at Interbike, they started with a cookie mix, allowing athletes to learn to make food for themselves, something that worked for each individual.
Lim’s ethic has resonated in the cycling community. “Our family knows and understands sport and has valued Al as a family friend, close advisor and supporter,” says Carpenter. “He’s also a living American success story, and who doesn’t admire that?”
Today, Skratch offers a full product suite and a roster of athletes that reaches far beyond its cycling roots. “Effectively what they have in common is that they’re all athletes who sweat,” Lim says. And while some may still view Lim as mysterious, it’s clear that he kept way more athletes from cheating than any other single factor during some of the dirtiest years of the Pro Tour.
The one principle that truly drives Lim is so simple it almost hurts to hear: “No matter what you do, if you apply immigrant hussle to it, and keep your cool, there’s nothing you can’t do,” he says. “Do it right and finish it.”