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Colin Strickland: The five races that changed my life

Colin Strickland
Colin Strickland after the 2018 Gravel Worlds (Image credit: Kenza Barton Schlee)

It's Gravel Week here on Cyclingnews, and so who better to continue our 'Five races that changed my life' series than the reigning Dirty Kanza champion Colin Strickland.

The Texan triumphed ahead of WorldTour pros Peter Stetina, Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton, but it was a long road to the top of the gravel world. Only starting out racing at the age of 23, Strickland took in road and fixed gear racing en route to where he is today.

Here, Strickland talks us through his career so far, picking out five key races that have meant the most to him.

Gravel Worlds 2018

The race organisers basically claimed the title of 'Gravel Worlds' about ten years ago in a tongue in cheek sort of way. It's a race in Lincoln, Nebraska and it was important to me because it showed where I was in comparison to other gravel racers at the time. I had won the race in 2017, but this time around I was competing against a much stronger field that included the 2017 Dirty Kanza men’s champion Mat Stephens.

The race couldn't have started any worse. I flatted at around mile 25 and it was nightmare change. I lost over ten minutes, but it felt like an eternity as I stood there and watched the lead group get smaller and smaller before eventually disappearing out of sight.

When I finally got going I had to chase solo for 50 miles, and that point I just thought 'fuck it'. I was either going to give up there and then or bury myself to get back into the race. I was literally 12 minutes behind a group of 50, so I just burned down the barn to see what would happen and luckily there was still something left afterwards.

I was riding on these endlessly long and rolling Nebraska roads. They were like waves on the ocean almost, and I could see the leaders up ahead even though I was still three minutes back. But I felt that if I could bring them within sight then I could make contact.

I managed to catch the lead group at mile 80 and from there I made the selection for the main break. The final guy I was with was Stephens and as he was the reigning Kanza champion I was watching him like a hawk as we entered the final couple of miles. I put in a massive attack with every bit of power I had left in my legs and it was just enough to pull him off my wheel and take the win.

The first 80 miles of that race had been a solo time trial at over 300 watts and I really only started to 'race' once I caught the leaders but the event taught me that I had an engine for races that long and against a high level of competition.

Until this win I still saw myself as a fixed gear specialist, but in terms of gaining confidence, this was the race that set me on my way and proved to me that I was good enough. As for everyone else, they had to find out the slow way.

Red Hook Criterium 2015

Colin Strickland winniing thte Red Hook Crit

Strickland winniing the Milan Red Hook Crit in 2015 (Image credit: Red Hook Crit)

I hadn't messed around with the format for three years and was totally inexperienced at it during my first attempt but everything worked out and I won after being alone for the second half of the race.

From there I believed that I was suited to the fixed gear style of criterium racing – it was a revelation before my gravel days and I've had a couple of epiphanies – but this race took place in Milan, Italy and it was also my first time in Europe. The course had no hairpins, which was good for me because my fixed gear skills weren’t exactly polished.

The roads were narrow, and it was so loud and it was just fucking wild. It was insanely energetic. It was almost like a trip, you know? When you're in the moment things are so intense and when you think back all you can remember are flashes of events.

I had been invited by my friend Sammi Reynolds who now races cross for Squid Bikes. She saw that I might be good at the crit scene, and she knew me pretty well, so she called up the boss on her team and sure enough things just clicked. Until then I'd never raced outside of the States, and my only time outside of the US had been to Mexico.

The race showed me that fortune favours the bold. I'd travelled all that way from Austin, Texas and I wasn't just going to ride around and wait for the sprint. I showed me that at some point in a race you need to throw your hand down and go all in. You're either going to pull it off you're fucked. It's first or last.

US Elite National Championships road race 2015

Strickland atop the podium at the National Championships

Strickland (second right) on the podium at the Elite National Championships in 2015 (Image credit: US National Championships)

I was on Ben Spies' team, which was called Elbowz, and I picked up a solid third place at altitude up in Lake Tahoe. Ben had lost a bunch of riders that year and I was called up as a recommendation.

A rider called Colin Davis won and I had been setting up my teammate for the win but he botched it up and we ended up getting second and third. The race finished with this 5km climb up to a ski resort called North Star but right before that you hit this massive open valley.

We had a group of ten guys left and there was this rugged cross-wind and my teammate attacked solo going into the valley. I'd been in the break for a lot longer than him and he was our best climber and I was just furious with him. He was the climber, and we were approaching this 5km ascent, and we didn’t need to spend any matches before the climb started.

I remember watching him go away and thinking 'oh fuck no. Now I have to try and win if he fucks this up.' It was still a beautiful and fun race and gave me a lot of good memories. I thought that from there I could perhaps make it like a pro road rider, back when that was a thing in the US.

It wasn't even the pro nationals, but there were still a lot of good riders there. I'd had some good results in Redlands and there was some serious interest from the Rally team. But it’s always been about fun and I've always had to try and convince myself that I should take things more seriously.

Maybe that comes from the fact that I started so late. I only made my racing debut in my final year of college, so I was 23 or 24, and this was only three or four years later. When I was younger I was never exposed to bike racing. My parents weren't into it and there wasn't anyone to encourage me towards the sport. I rode bikes for transportation and it just never occurred to me until the next race on my list that I could race at a high level.

North American Handmade Bike Show (NAHBS) 2011

Colin Strickland at the NAHBS

Strickland at the NAHBS in 2010 (Image credit: Colin Strickland)

I was at the event in Austin and decided to enter this alley cat race because someone told me that the winner would receive this amazing frame. My prep for that race was non-existent. I was at university so I was probably drinking the night before, and I was certainly enjoying some beers after the race. In the end, I won by a couple of minutes and thought 'damn, I should think about this bike racing thing.'

As a kid, I didn't have a bike and I wouldn't have even have known where to start. It's a niche sport and it's not been effectively developed here in America. But I entered this alley cat on a titanium fixed gear bike with no brakes. I was obsessed with retro Campagnolo so I had old Campy cranks on it. It was a really incredible bike to ride, especially for Texas and Austin area because there are some rolling areas where you can have fun. It made me strong.

But I turned up for this race in jeans and no shirt. I feel like I have to explain a bit more about what an alley cat is. Basically, in this instance, it was a 30-mile loop around Austin and you had to choose your own adventure as you ticked off several checkpoints. There were five spots around the city and you'd have your papers signed at each checkpoint.

It was at night, on your own and there's moving traffic. If you commute on a bike that's not really an issue for you. Looking back, it sounds slightly dangerous but it's an alley cat so you leave the accountability at home as you risk life and limb for an $800 frame.

You'll have to ask the other racers as to whether they took me seriously or not but it was my first race and my first win. From there I made my way through the ranks to where I am today: still racing, taking it a bit more seriously, but not that much.

Dirty Kanza 2019

It's on my list because I get a lot of calls about it. But seriously, I’d already proved to myself that I could make that sort of effort over such a long distance of 200 miles but everyone else was surprised. It was cool to surf that wave because going into the race there was such a perceived difference between the WorldTour riders and everyone else.

People thought that there was something inherently different but there really isn't. They've just had the right track and have been more into it. No disrespect to those riders but there’s still a lot of untapped potential out there. When it came to Kanza it was seized upon as a David versus Goliath story at the time but most people heading into Dirty Kanza seemed resigned to comply with the style of race that the WorldTour riders wanted to put in play.

Colin Strickland left the front of the race around mile 95 in a technical area with steep climbs and deep rock. He rode on own for the next five hours to take the win.

Strickland on the move at the 2019 edition of Dirty Kanza (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

I don't remember anyone other than Lachlan Morton attacking. The front of the race was more or less just moving swiftly and everyone was pulling through unless they were fucked at the back. No one was really trying to poke the bear but as I'd learned before, it's better to race on offense than defense. For the WorldTour riders, their biggest rivals were each other and not me, so they had to form a cohesive union and work together when they're really just looking at each other and thinking 'fuck I don't want to give this guy any advantage whatsoever.'

That's a challenge, and it made my job of just pedalling as fast as possible really easy. They had to come together and that always ends in spats and bickering as the miles tick away, the morale starts to dip and the gap doesn’t come down.

I went away at mile 105 but at first, I felt on the back foot. I felt shitty that morning and then I punctured at mile 75 and had to chase for about 20 minutes. That somehow woke my legs up. I tried to keep it under control because you don’t want to go crazy but I saw Lachlan throw in a few attacks and some of the US non-WorldTour favourites were looking sluggish in their response.

You could just see it in them. We were about 100 miles in and it was starting to sink in just how long that day was going to be. We were in the sun all day and those tinges of cramps were starting to creak in, and with the wind shifting over the course of the day I knew that there would be a brutal crosswind right after I attacked, but if I go through that then it would be a tailwind most of the way home.

You see people hesitate and that’s the moment to try and go up the road. I preferably wanted to get away with a rider from EF but if no one goes with you that’s just how it goes.

I put in some big digs until I was out of sight but at no point did I think that the race was over. Not with so far still to race. I had three minutes but from there I still had 70 miles to go. I made a concerted effort not to get excited about winning that race until I got to the final climb. The moment you start letting your concentration slip, that’s when bad things can happen.

I was just trying to maintain my gap and taking one moment at a time. Most of gravel is all about finding the best line, and how the gravel is distributed on the road. It’s fully engaging all the time and that was enough to keep me occupied.

Looking for professional advice on gravel and all other groupsets? Your local font of knowledge is your nearest Shimano dealer. Discover yours here: gravel.shimano.com/en/dealers