The 2021 gravel campaign hasn't quite gone to plan for Colin Strickland – the leading male star of the 2018 and 2019 seasons – but he's hoping to turn the corner and find his best form at SBT GRVL this weekend.
Strickland finished fourth in the 2019 event, won by Ted King, but this year's campaign has been a complicated affair, with training hampered and a knee injury affecting his schedule.
"I’ve been trying to get focused on getting fit because I’ve had a distinct lack of fitness this season," Strickland told Cyclingnews as he made the long road trip from Austin to Colorado for this Sunday’s race.
"I’m trying to get back into actual race-winning form, which I don’t know if I’ll be able to attain by the end of the year."
The 2020 season was a taxing affair for everyone on the gravel race circuit. Races were almost unilaterally cancelled or postponed and Strickland’s out-of-competition condition dropped dramatically as he focused on other projects and concentrated on mountain biking. At the same time, a new wave of gravel riders like Laurens ten Dam and Peter Stetina have raised the bar to a new level within the men’s field.
Strickland has remained competitive but in the longer races, such as Unbound and The Rift, he has become distanced in the final stages. Strickland admits that in the past he has raced himself into fitness but that the disjointed race programme over the last 18 months hasn’t helped him.
"I just haven’t been on the bike as much," he explained. "I’ve been avoiding Strava, but I think that my average this year has been nine hours a week in 2021. Last year was low because I went into mountain bike mode because I felt all races would be canceled, which they were.
"I was in good form in early 2020 and from then I just didn’t up the mileage. I got distracted with other projects, like starting a business and eventually the racing suffered. You can’t race guys at full gas, or beat them when you do that. You get fifth place in Unbound Gravel when you do nine hours a week."
This season did start well enough for Strickland but he feels as though the early results in some ways papered over the cracks and that, as the year has unfolded, more riders have been able to distance themselves from him in races. The knee injury ahead of Unbound certainly didn’t help matters either.
"I won a local race, and then I got second at Gravel Locos behind Laurens ten Dam but since then the form hasn’t stayed regular. I had two weeks off before Unbound because of a knee injury, and I don’t know if anyone wants to hear the excuses but I’ve just not been doing the time for various reasons," he said.
"It’s starting to show. It’s depressing because it’s your job and your identity. I plan to rearrange life and get it together for next year. When I put the time in and train, I get extremely fast.
"I’m sniffing around and in the mix but I’m used to being the hammer not the nail. You're distinctively helpless to it when you discover that you’ve got nothing left when the racing really starts."
It’s not just the racing that has moved on in the last year or two, but the training methods, too. A couple of years ago, a fully fit Strickland would have been able to dispatch with the WorldTour riders who occasionally dipped their toes into gravel but now, with more riders switching from the road on a full-time basis, the caliber of athlete has moved up a notch.
It’s not just in-race fitness that has improved but training methods and dedication, too.
"That’s been the biggest crutch for training. In the past, I’d race a lot and we’ve always had a very robust early season in Texas but it’s all been disrupted," Strickland said.
"I could have done the hard miles myself but some of these ex-WorldTour guys are just better at training. I’ve realized I’m good at racing but, fuck, not at training."
The form is coming, though. In The Rift, in Iceland, Strickland was in the mix until illness took him out of contention. At that point, he was in the group of three that were set to decide the race, with Stetina eventually coming out on top.
At SBT GRVL the competition will be even stronger but the former Unbound Gravel and Gravel Worlds winner is optimistic that the form is just around the corner.
"In endurance gravel you don’t really get fit until you’ve experienced a great deal of suffering. You have to suffer and I’ve been suffering a lot in these races, and in between Belgian Waffle Ride, The Rift, and in training of late," he said.
"At some point, my form will kick in, I just can’t guarantee it’s there yet. I’ll probably just race conservatively and it might take a few more long races but sooner or later it will happen. Right now I’m the kid who shows up for class but didn’t do the homework. Everyone else has done it but not me."
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