Colin Strickland has admitted that he will have a different race to his victorious 2019 effort this time out at Unbound Gravel 200, but then again, that is what makes the off-road endurance contest in the Flint Hills of Kansas so appealing to the defending champion.
The day before the race, he had a bike choice to make, new wheels to set up, and a handmade half-frame bag to complete. All this came on the heels of tendinitis issues and getting a new transmission for his truck to pull a recently-renovated, vintage 'home on wheels' trailer.
"I'm definitely not going in with as many race days and nearly as many hours as before. I've had some tendinitis in my knee at the beginning of May, at which point I took two weeks off to work on some projects and just didn't ride," Strickland told Cyclingnews.
"The tendinitis didn't subside with riding, so I just took time off and worked on other stuff. I tried not to let it drive me crazy.
"So I'm going in with a lot less fitness and fewer hard days in the heat. Austin has had an extremely wet spring. I'm not going to win by nine minutes again under any circumstances. I'm still confident that I have a great shot at winning. If I were a betting man, I like my chances as good as anybody else."
The last edition of Unbound Gravel was held in 2019, the first year of new ownership with Life Time. Strickland attacked from a lead group of seven riders at around the 105-mile mark and left his competitors in the prairie dust, setting a new course record by going under 10 hours by a few ticks of the clock.
"This is a fast race. It is a fast gravel race. My moving speed [in 2019] I was over 22 miles per hour. I love rolling terrain. It's very similar to Austin. It's also very dynamic when racing is fast," the 34-year-old Texan said.
"There are more variables in this race than probably any other one-day race – surface, terrain, machine, climate, number of riders, the fact that you are on gravel so there's a shifting landscape."
There are 911 men expected to line up Sunday for the 200, with a long list of strong contenders including former WorldTour road pros. Even with "many variables swirling around" on the gravel and rutty roads, which riders does Strickland consider to be threats this year?
"I don't give a damn who my competitors are, because there are so many. And there are so many variables that could take out anyone in a moment. I think it's a waste of time to think about competition maybe until you are in the final group because it's a long event," Strickland said.
"If you put any energy to focusing on one single rider you are doing yourself a disservice by distracting yourself from keeping your shit together and keeping your bike rolling down the road in the right direction."
Back in 2019 Strickland won by 9:06 ahead of former WorldTour racer Peter Stetina, and the Top 10 filled with other notable roadies, including EF Education-Nippo teammates Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton, former race winner and WorldTour pro Ted King and Stetina's Trek-Segafredo teammate Kiel Reijnen. Even without riders from EF Education-Nippo this year, there are host of current and retired road stars, including Dutchmen Laurens ten Dam and Thomas Dekker.
"No question, there are some impressive road talents coming in who have incredible road engines. But honestly, if you've never proven it, who cares. No disrespect to anyone," said the past champion of the Red Hook Crit series, the international series of fixed-gear racing, who prefers the off-road racing now.
"Some guys like climbing because that is what they do, and they like a slow battle, drawn-out suffering. I like attacking at high speed. [Peter] Stetina likes attacking at low speed on a climb and hurting people with gravity. I like hurting people with wind. There's just different styles of riding.
"In road races you often win with one big move. Gravel racing is so long, with so many variables, different terrain. It's like you are trying to get rich by stacking one dollar bills to buy that mansion in Malibu. But you are stacking one dollar bills, not thousands of dollars at once. So we are stacking individual, little bits of advantages and will try to win the race."
Bike choices ahead of a big day in the saddle
Strickland was making his bike choice on Friday afternoon, picking between whether to remount the Allied Able he rode to victory in 2019 in Kansas, or to prep his new Allied Echo, the model he used for the first time last month to finish second at Gravel Locos in his home state.
"The brand new Echo, variable wheelbase, jack-of-all-trades bike and is an impressively aero bike with integrated and tight components.
"The Able is much more rugged, and a specific 1x gravel bike, which I used when I won the last edition here. I'm not sure which one I'll use," he noted, but was leaning on the new Echo since his sponsor Orange Seal provided British mechanic Gareth Jones to complete the setup Friday afternoon outside his renovated Spartan trailer.
Strickland showed off his bike choice – he went with the Allied Echo – on his Instagram Live story on Friday evening.
Unbound Gravel is the maiden voyage for the Spartan, which he purchased in Kansas three years ago. He spent the last year gutting and renovating the circa-1955 home on wheels, which he pulls with a heavy-duty Ram truck.
"I did an absolute, full gut renovation, new electrical, new plumbing, wood stove, new spray-foam insulation, all new surfaces inside, and completely clean."
Another project from his down-time in May was to design and construct a custom half-frame bag to cater to his theory about fatigue. Using basic polypropylene plastic, a zipper and zip ties, he was putting the finishing touches on his aero bag on Friday.
"This kind of a race has so many hours in the saddle. It adds up over the day and can negatively impact your ability to perform. So I am engineering, and last minute of course, a half-frame bag. It's aero, a lightweight bag that will zip tie to the frame, and allow you to quickly swap a water bladder," he proudly declared.
"It is a sleek fit, so it won't cause any drag. We'll see if that works or not. The goal is to reduce core fatigue by putting the water on the chasis [of the bike] rather than your personal chasis."
Just hours ahead of the defence of his gravel title in Emporia, Strickland was trying not to be too concerned about his equipment, or competitors, or a 10-hour day in the saddle.
"I have my bike to build and my bike to race, and I'll do that to my best ability. That's all I can control."
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