From Red Hook podiums to conquering Dirty Kanza, Colin Strickland knows a thing or two about what it takes to be the best. We spoke to him at home in Austin to get his reaction to a particularly muddy edition of The Mid South gravel race and find out what he’s up to with gravel racing rivalries postponed for now.
In the brave new world of American cycling, road races are struggling – the Tour of California has folded and Dirty Kanza is now the biggest event on the calendar. As the winner of last year’s race, that makes Colin Strickland one of the biggest names out there, but he’s not letting his new-found, gravel-grinding fame affect him.
Like many of us around the world, the King of Kanza is adjusting to a quieter life and as we speak to him, he’s cleaning the bike he rode to second place at the recent Mid South gravel race. Even gravel racing royalty has its feet planted firmly on the ground, it seems.
“I don’t have a mechanic so I do all the wrenching and cleaning myself. This bike went through 100 miles of thick mud at The Mid South so most of the bearings are pretty shot,” he told us, his voice straining with the effort of removing the thick Oklahoman clay from the jockey wheels.
“That race was an interesting study in what mud does to a bike. It’s thick clay in that area, with a beautiful reddish look but a peanut butter-like consistency. In the end it sticks to your frame and weighs your bike down, and I’m not talking a little bit, I’m talking like ten to twenty pounds (5-10kg).”
“The Mid South was an interesting study in what mud does to a bike.”
“It was also four degrees Celsius and raining at the start,” he added, clearly in no rush to repeat the ordeal. “That was miserable because I don’t do well in the cold. I am better at races like Dirty Kanza where it’s blazing sun for ten hours and I tend to emerge with less heat exhaustion.”
In a testament to how tough he is on the bike, Colin still placed second, beaten only by Payson McElveen who took an impressive solo win. Since both men grew up in Austin, Texas, Strickland is no stranger to McElveen.
“Out of all the guys doing gravel now, I know Payson the best because he comes from Austin. Physically, we’re relatively similar, though he’s a little lighter than me which probably helped at the Mid South. I know him best but the main thing is that I consider all the top gravel guys to be my friends, you know?”
The community aspect of gravel riding is what sets it apart from road racing in Strickland’s eyes. Though the sport has seen a recent influx of road racers, the Texan senses no change in that spirit and relishes the chance to pit himself against current and former pros.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re all trying to win but there’s no need to resent each other’s talents. We’re all friends and while we have brutal battles on the bike, you don’t have to villainise your rivals. It’s a really fun scene to be a part of right now because we have a super strong group of riders competing but no one is racing nasty or negatively. That’s the best part.”
This lack of team tactics and negative racing is key to the allure of US gravel racing. Just like the images of mud-coated riders, this purer form of racing harks back to the early days of the Grand Tours. Whilst Colin has no intentions of changing the way he races, he admits that the gravel scene will shift.
“Road racing becomes a game of chess and mastering the art of not working.”
“As the fields get larger and deeper, the racing will start earlier and people will start to bring teams. At that point, it becomes a game of chess and mastering the art of not working. So far on the gravel, we have all been willing to work together to keep the racing fast but exciting, rather than turning it into a one-on-one 80-mile chase at the end. It will evolve, for sure.”
Though Colin hopes that team tactics do not seep into gravel racing, he has an enormous appreciation for their application in road racing, in particular at the Spring Classics.
“I watch those races a lot. At the moment, I’m going through a phase of watching races from five or six years ago. There is so much to be learnt technically and mentally, watching riders as they are just cracking. How people react under those physical conditions is fascinating to me.”
On the topic of the Spring Classics, there is one question that is too tantalising not to ask a man of Colin’s talents, with a physique that could lend itself so well to those races. Does he ever wonder how he would fare in the crucible of cobbled Classics racing?
“I do,” he chuckles. “The cold would be a big challenge for me but aside from that, if I could keep my shit together, they are races that would suit a guy like me who likes the wind and can sustain long efforts. The problem is I’m coming to the sport relatively late, and a lot of those races I suspect are trial and error.”
“Even if you have the engine, it would take an incredible amount of luck for everything to come together. You’re not really in command of your own destiny as a roadie. You are a small soldier in a big war, and shit happens. If I was 25, I would jump at that opportunity but I have had a good run at Red Hook Crits and I’ve positioned myself well in gravel racing so there comes a point where you say ‘alright, let’s just enjoy the ride and not get too greedy.’”
In sharp contrast to the lycra-clad lottery of road racing, Strickland reckons gravel racing is a good deal simpler: you get out (roughly) what you put in. Many of the races on his calendar are mass participation events and, as he points out, the effort reward ratio is the same for everyone.
“Those of us at the front of these races are training to do this. It is absolutely harder for people with a full-time job doing exactly the same thing.”
“That’s the cool thing with these events, it is a shared experience. I think that is why they resonate so well with people because they are completing a challenge that is just as hard, if not harder, than ours. Those of us at the front of these races are training to do this. It is absolutely harder for people with a full-time job doing exactly the same thing.”
As well as acknowledging the importance of the mass participation model adopted by so many US gravel grinders, Strickland, far more than your average racing cyclist, recognises that he is an entertainer and wants to make the sport more engaging for fans.
“I think that is the future of cycling: to come up with more interesting games. We are all just playing a game here, but right now it’s not working. People are not inspired, in the US at least. We’re in the entertainment business and if you don’t get to entertain people, it’s hard to justify our value, right? So let’s find another way to format it that is more exciting and interesting.”
The indefinite racing suspension currently in force means there will be no two-wheeled entertainment of any kind for now. Whilst disappointed at not being able to race, Colin is typically measured.
“That is the future of cycling: to come up with more interesting games. We are all just playing a game here.”
“I was coming in with better form than ever ahead of the Belgian Waffle Ride and Dirty Kanza. I’ve done a shit load of work and put the hours in but it doesn’t always work out. You can keep it going but it is mentally taxing when you don’t know when the next race day is.”
The Texan is excited to return to racing as soon as reasonably possible but in the meantime, he is occupied by other projects, not least the seven-foot 1954 Spartan caravan currently undergoing refurbishments outside his house.
“I’ve gutted the thing down to chassis and shell and I’m building a tiny home on wheels that I can take to the mountains and the desert to train. Austin is fine but getting out to West Texas and up to Boulder has been a dream up mine, and I have a lifestyle that is conducive to that. In fact, getting out to beautiful training locations is favourable so having a way to get there sounds good to me.”
King of Kanza and also an accomplished caravan craftsman, Colin Strickland’s credentials are wider ranging than most. But before he builds his tiny home on wheels, there’s still the small matter of those jockey wheels. Expect to see them shining and spinning off the front when the gravel racing season resumes.
This season, the King of Kanza rides in Rapha. Two of his favourite bits of kit are:
“It packs down to the size of a walnut. I’ve never had anything that’s so adaptable and versatile. You can wear four pieces of kit layered on top and still only have it fill one pocket as you shed it. It’s hugely functional from a practical standpoint, it’s really designed to ride.”
“It fits my Allied Able really well. I’ll shamelessly wear a jacket for the first ten minutes of a ride just because I hate being cold so much, then stuff it in there.”