Professional cyclist finds a new career path on the gravel roads of Kanza
© Jon Lopez / Red Bull Content Pool
From short-track criteriums to massive 200-mile gravel races, Austin, Texas racer Colin Strickland has made a transition that led to one of the sport’s biggest victories.
In June 2019, Colin Strickland—a relative newcomer to the world of gravel racing—showed up in Kansas and took the win in one of the most famous and grueling gravel races on the globe. Kanza is a 200-mile (321.8km) course and the now 34-year-old Strickland took the victory in less than 10 hours. A year later, we catch up with Strickland to find out how he did it, why he loves bikes, and where he’s headed next.
Red Bull: Last year, you won Kanza as a first-time contender. What makes this race—and your victory—so special?
Colin Strickland: I think the fact that I had never competed in this event before made it an exciting challenge. I had no preconceptions of what it was going to be like, which is kind of my favorite way to approach a race; ad-libbing it without a plan based on previous experience. I can just go out and race without limiting myself to the precedent of what happened last year, and therefore how I should race this year. I really thrive in that environment of improvisation.
You have a reputation for doing things a little differently than other racers.
Yeah, definitely. It’s what keeps it interesting.
Being a little different is also a hallmark of gravel racing. It's so aligned with exploration and doing new things. Is that what draws you to it?
Absolutely. It's an adventure. It's a new discipline. I like that aspect…instead of building yourself a specialized procedure to follow, you just build your skillset to adapt on the fly. You train your adaptability rather than your procedural reaction.
By the time you raced Kanza, you had a solid foundation in your cycling career. Can you outline the biggest differences between gravel cycling and fixed gear?
The biggest difference is obviously the length of the effort. Fixed gear events—like the Red Hook Crits or Mission Crit—would be at the most one hour long. Physiologically, that kind of effort versus a 7-to-10-hour effort is on really different ends of the spectrum. It’s a like a velodrome track effort versus a triathlon.
I thought my cycling career might have been coming to an end, and I was okay with it being over.
Why did you make that transition from fixed gear racing to gravel riding?
Well, I always enjoyed training and riding on gravel roads; it was initially done for road race training. But also, a lot of athletes don't approach sport like this, but in any business, you have to look at your career in terms of sustainability. Keep an eye on where cycling is going. I started to notice the criterium losing steam. They had a sponsor contract with Rockstar Games and it expired after 10 years. That alone showed that it was destabilized. And then there’s a huge amount of groundswell for gravel racing. And rightly so, because the more I did it the more I understood that these endurance cycling events and their community are more social and appear fun. I could tell the gravel race is going to be the next big thing in the US. I thought my cycling career might have been coming to an end, and I was okay with it being over. But it turns out I have a pretty good endurance engine as well. [laughs]
That big ol’ endurance engine took the win at Kanza 2019 pretty handily. What were the conditions like during that race and how did that weather factor into how you prepared?
We had a really hot summer. I was coming in on the back foot, with only four weeks to get ready. I was in San Diego training. Prior to that, I had two weeks of bronchitis. I had a lung infection, so I came in very flat. Four weeks to get my s*** together. So, I did seven-hour days pretty much every day for two weeks in the heat. It's pretty miserable in East Texas in summer. It's not enjoyable. I didn't go to altitude…I focused on heat because it would be more of a factor. That was the decision and it turned out it was the right one.
During the pivotal moment—when you took the lead—what went into that decision to distance yourself and make the break when you did?
It wasn't the plan to go solo. It was the opposite of the plan…a spontaneity decision. I was trying to figure out what the other riders are doing, and I'm starting to see the other riders fatiguing. We're about halfway through the race and I could see that riders were feeling the fatigue. I was wondering what they were thinking—about conserving or how they’re going to pull out any results. I wasn't feeling that good the first half of the race. I didn't have a good sleep night before. Just about mile 90, I started feeling a little fresh. On the second attack, no one came with me and they'd really didn't react at that point. I figured I may as well see where this goes.
And just another 110 miles to go…
Yeah just like a normal Century, except after a century. [laughs]
How did the Kanza win change the way that you train, if at all?
It didn't really change that much. It just goes to show that you really don't have to do the punctuated interval efforts to win these races. I don't have a coach. I don't work with any training plan, other than a little advice. It really is mental toughness and the ability to take things as they come that makes a huge advantage. It's undertrained in a lot of riders.
Gravel enjoys a casual scene which is part of its success. Will it become more competitive and serious as it grows?
I think that's inevitable. There are very few rules right now. We had a consortium of the original [Kanza] race winners…trying keep it on this more fun train, as entertainment with individual riders versus team tactics. We did that already. It was called road racing and it’s a game of chess. Gravel is a different game. It's actually more fun to watch every single rider ride as hard as they f****** can all day long rather than seeing a team leverage their numbers to get themselves in a position where they can go ahead. That's the game: you outmaneuver the other riders. That's the point of road racing. But people want to see athletes physiologically crack. We want to see complete and utter suffering and watch people fall apart in sport. You want to see if we will go as hard as they can and reach limits and that's what our job is as the athletes. Not to set rules but to go to an absolute limit.
So, you’d prefer no rules?
I'm a bit torn as whether there should be rules. I know Rebecca Rusch wants to make that rule [no teams - ed]. I don't know if that's the way to do it, but these races garnered so much attention and publicity and that's the whole point of professional sports. There’ll be an inevitable drive to do what is necessary to win a race. I also think we might be able to just do a court of public opinion in what people are interested in. Do you want to watch teams of five, or do you want to watch teams of one—everyone riding their bike as hard as they can.
What advice would you give someone who wants to race gravel?
I would tell them to get to know their equipment. A lot of it is Boy Scout/Girl Scout…solving problems yourself, which is part of the fun of it. You have to get to know your equipment. Get to know your tires. You don't have to become a bike mechanic but you know how to repair a puncture. That could ruin your race or ride prematurely, and leave you stranded. Nutrition is also a huge part of it. Use your bike as an excuse to go on an adventure somewhere you never thought you could go and explore it and use that…integrated into your training.
You were a privateer for a long while. Have you gone fully professional yet?
I think that's a weird thing. They call it professional. There's a lot of “professional” cyclists in the U.S. making $6,000 a year. [laughs]. But yeah, I am 100% focused on cycling now. All my focus is on training and adventuring and pushing and trying to keep it fun. My job is to inspire people to ride their bikes and if I can do cool stuff on my bike that I can encourage them to go out and push their limits.
That’s not a bad job.
The bicycle is a transformative tool. Public health is a massive issue across North America. In terms of childhood obesity, the bicycle is an amazing tool to help society.
The simple joys of a bike are unlike anything else…
They are! We have a natural proclivity towards bikes. When you get older, and you get out of shape, you lose it. But children are inherently drawn towards bicycles. The feeling is undeniably fun and, if you circumvent parents and get kids introduced to cycling, you can inspire every single child. From anywhere. No matter where they come from, you can inspire them to be passionate about this activity. It’s beautiful.