Brian Vaughan, president of GU Sports, is a Rockridge family man (father of three Chabot Elementary School students) who bikes daily to the Berkeley headquarters of the sports energy gel–making company. An avid mountain biker who gets his jollies doing 24-hour solo MTB races, Vaughan, 41, is involved with the NorCal High School Mountain Bike League to make mountain biking an organized high school sport. Vaughan, a high school and college track and cross-country runner, left a New York City gig consulting in finance and management to become the chief GU operations guy in 1995 as general manager. His father, a UC Berkeley biophysicist, started the company to develop a nutrition gel to give endurance athletes like his ultra runner daughter, Laura, a competitive edge after she struggled through the grueling Western States 100. GU also makes a sports drink, GU2O and sports “chews.” Other beverages are on the horizon.
When did GU arrive on the scene?
It was introduced to the commercial market in ’94, and the product started evolving out of my dad’s lab in 1990 and 1991.
Was it the first sports nutrition gel?
There was a product in Europe called Leppin Squeezy. It had the consistency of Karo syrup, and so it was very sticky, and it was mainly corn syrup. So it was not at all engineered to meet the demands of an endurance athlete. It was just getting calories in a simple form.
What’s in GU?
The calories are coming from a corn-based maltodextrin and fructose, and there’s 100 calories per packet, 25 grams of carbohydrates. What we’ve done is isolated the amino acids that really benefit the endurance athlete. So we have branched chain amino acids, which provide some caloric burn, but they really help to develop a concentration so that you’re more alert, your central nervous system is more focused. We also have some muscle buffers in there, which take the burn away; antioxidants, which will help cure those free radicals that are produced during anaerobic exercise. In six of our flavors we do have caffeine, as an aid in central nervous system response as well as helping unlock stored fat.
How’d the name GU come about?
Well, it was very gooey. Instead of g-o-o, we decided to take a humorous direction and just call it GU.
For all practical purposes, isn’t GU the generic name for sports gel?
It is. It’s the Kleenex, I suppose, of the energy gel category.
What’s the market like for sports nutrition gels? Who’s your main competition?
It’s a really great market. I don’t think there’s a single race in the U.S., or for that matter in the world, that doesn’t consider a gel station on the course as being a necessity, which is nice. Water and gel are the core components of these stations. Power Bar Gel, Clif Shot, Hammer Gel, Carboom.
Are you a GU user?
Yes, I am.
What do you recommend?
Right now, Roctane is my favorite. We launched it this year.
How’s it different?
More amino acids, branched chain amino acids—leucine, valine, histadine and isoleucine—and another amino acid complex called ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate. The idea is to spare the muscles from the catabolic process that occurs when you’re out there for a long time.
How many types of GU are sold?
Eight GU varieties. Six are caffeinated, two are decaf, and then Roctane comes in orange-vanilla and blueberry pomegranate.
How do you come up with flavors?
We have a wonderful flavor house. And we understand the food chemistry so that we’re able to mask some of the bitterness of the vitamins and the amino acids. It really is a challenge to try to figure out where the flavor profile will really sit so you’ve got spectacular flavors—things you want to put on your ice cream because it tastes so good.
Have you actually done that?
Yes. Really the best, I think, is chocolate and, of course, banana on a couple scoops of vanilla ice cream. Together.
It has gone out of favor. But we do have a couple in back stock, and since we know the formulation and the recipe, we can make up another small batch.
What’s GU got to do with your MTB training?
GU gets me up, it gets me energized, it gets me through my workout. It helps me recover. It allows me to put in a full day at the office. And hopefully be a family person as well. It’s challenging. Most of us in the office will have a season-defining race. I got into 24 solo four years ago where I would race on a lapped course—it’s generally a 10-miles per lap course—through a bet saying, hey, we’ve got to live the culture here.
So GU is your fuel of choice?
On some of these 24-hour solo mountain bike races, I’ve consumed 40 to 50 packets of GU. So it is a lot of GU.
Is that your record?
I think it is.
Do you ever get sick of GU?
Yeah. That’s probably the genesis for these other products like energy chewables and probably more hearty drinks, recovery drinks, as well.
—By Judith M. Gallman
—Photography by Mitch Tobias