If they ask you what “winning” is, what is the first thing that comes to mind? You'd probably think of trophies, podiums, magazine covers, etc. There's no doubt that this is important for athletes and for the brands that support their professional careers, but what is the true meaning of the word “win”?
We first arrived in the United States around the year 2003. Back then, we had our sponsorships well covered in both mountain and road competitions. These were the years when Euskaltel Euskadi shone bright in the Tour de France, with riders such as Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo, who gave Lance Armstrong a run for his money in the mountain stages. In MTB, ever since Julien Absalon joined the Orbea Racing Team in 2006, it was the team everyone was talking about, with bikers like Jean Christophe Péraud and Iñaki Lejarreta.
“This was how we started to gain visibility in the United States,” remembers Jon Fernández, General Manager of Orbea. “However, we were aware that we still needed to create a presence for ourselves in women's cycling, in particular in a country with a significantly higher percentage of women cyclists than in Europe.”
First we did it with two road teams, Velo Bella and Webcor, and in 2006 we reached an agreement with Luna Pro Team that enabled us to get started in MTB. Over these 10 years of collaboration, the road we've traveled together has taught both sides the true meaning of the word “win”.
Trust, listen, communicate.
“In 2010, Orbea sent me a prototype of the new Oiz right before the World Cup in Mont Sainte Anne,” reminisced Catharine Pendrel, current World Cup XC champion and bronze medal winner at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. “Since the design was so perfect and I had so much confidence in Orbea bikes, I decided to use it on the day of the competition and I came away with the victory. When this happens to you, it is because the designs are perfect.”
This level of trust only comes about over time and as the result of a chain of work in which everyone gives it their all. “Before each new bicycle design, we meet with Orbea's engineers to share experiences and ideas,” Catharine (Kika to her teammates) indicates. “For me, it is very important that Orbea values our contribution as bikers. We know that our suggestions are accepted and that we can trust in the bikes.”
“A brand that is in competition must listen to the riders, learn from them, ask them what they like about the current bike and what can be improved,” says Julien Happy Feet Brugeas, head mechanic at Orbea for the Clif Pro Team: “In the end, they are the ones that take their bikes out six days a week, that train every day year-round in rain, heat, mud…the ones that can't eat any fat, the ones that get up at the same time every day…who better than them to test the bikes to the fullest,” he adds.
“The Luna Pro Team has made a very valuable contribution to the fact that we now have the best full-suspension XC bike on the market, the Oiz,” affirms Jon Fernández, General Manager of Orbea. “The value of sponsorship for me is not so much the impact of a victory, which can be the result of many different factors. For me, it is much more important that the athletes are satisfied with our products, because they help them improve their performance, as well as the knowledge that comes from having professional team in the most demanding competitions when it comes to developing our bicycles.”
The value of persistence, of the ties that we have created over these ten years, also enable us to delve deeper into what the word “win” means…and what we can do to support each other. “There was one time that Waldek (Stepniosky, the team manager) and Julien (Brugeas) wanted to stick close to the area during a race in case we needed their help,” remembers Kika Pendrel. They made friends with a local who loaned them his laundromat to use as a workshop. When I saw them working on bikes surrounded by women's T-shirts and underwear, I thought: What wouldn't these two do to help us!”
Another example is Katka (Katerina Nash,) who once read a book on the history of the Basque Country to better understand Orbea's roots, and who always shares the delicious pastries her mom makes with the staff whenever she competes with the team in Europe (she is Czech). And she's not the only racer to make such thoughtful gestures. “Georgia (Gould) keeps bees in her garden and makes her own honey. She usually gives us a jar,” reveals Julien. “Catharine (Pendrel) sent me a handwritten letter to thank me for everything after winning the bronze medal in Rio. We bring some ham and cheese to the rider's meetings, even though they don't eat much because these foods are not included in an athlete's diet,” he adds with a smile.
The last link
These ten years of collaboration have been characterized by a relationship that is as close as it has been smooth. “The relationship has always been very easy, because both the team and Orbea are very similar, transparent and open. And what unites us is a passion for cycling,” claims Jon Fernández.
“I like the fact that my bike changes and evolves little by little, year after year,” says Katerina. “Even if it's been months since I've ridden it, I can climb on one at any time and race with it, because you end up knowing your equipment very well.”
In our experience, that is winning: the last link, the result of shared, intense work, persistence, earning the absolute trust of those who work with you. Winning is a verb that we use in the plural form. “When I have good results, and thanks to the family atmosphere that we've created during this time, I have the feeling that I'm also winning for all those who make up Orbea,” Catharine concludes.
Today, the Clif Pro Team is the most successful team in women's XC (with two MTB World Championships, three World Cups and two Olympic medals), but in this story, for us, Catharine Pendrel isn't the two-time World champion…she's Kika. And Katerina Nash is not the biker who has competed in the most Olympic games in the world…she's Katka. And our Julien Brugeas will always be Happy Feet for them. Isn't that also what winning is?