Gravel
Colin Strickland "Rolled the dice" with this...

Commentary: A perfect battle at Dirty Kanza 200

My friends, this is why we must still write about bicycle races. No amount of tweets or Instagram video can capture the full scope of the two-man chase between Colin Strickland and Peter Stetina in the final 75 or so miles of Saturday’s Dirty Kanza 200. It was a mano-a-mano drag race across the gravel […]

My friends, this is why we must still write about bicycle races.

No amount of tweets or Instagram video can capture the full scope of the two-man chase between Colin Strickland and Peter Stetina in the final 75 or so miles of Saturday’s Dirty Kanza 200. It was a mano-a-mano drag race across the gravel roads of Eastern Kansas, and Strickland held off Stetina in a show of strength that will be talked about for years.

The battle between Stetina and Strickland carries some extra weight, and I’ll tell you why. It was elevated by the pre-race question surrounding the 2019 Dirty Kanza: Would WorldTour racers simply ride away from the gravel specialists?

And the chase involved two riders from opposing ends of the ever-broadening spectrum of American cycling. Stetina is the talented scion of a great family of U.S. bicycle racing, and his journey to cycling’s highest echelon started when he was a teenager. Strickland, by contrast, started racing in his mid twenties and followed a nontraditional pathway through the fixed-gear and gravel scenes. Just two years ago he pushed papers at a desk job.

The fact that these two riders, with their disparate pathways through the sport, battled for the victory sheds light on the distinct challenge posed by gravel’s premier race. Out there on the plains, where the sun bakes and the wind blows, a grand tour finisher and a fixed-gear/gravel guy can be equals. And both Stetina and Strickland pushed themselves to their respective physical limits to prove it.

“Make no mistake, this was pure racing,” Stetina told me. “We took it seriously and I raced as hard as I could, and [Strickland] came out the better. It was a great ride.”

Every year Dirty Kanza serves up thousands of races within the race, as riders of all shapes and sizes battle the elements to reach the finish line in Emporia. So, let us examine the storylines that collided on those Kansas backroads, and try to understand the significance of Strickland’s win.

Heavy Metal bike racer

Thirty-two-year-old Colin Strickland has followed an unorthodox progression in pro cycling. A bike commuter throughout his undergraduate years at the University of Texas, Strickland’s foray into organized cycling events began the year after he graduated when he was lured to a local group ride by Heavy Metal music.

“There was a guy with a boombox strapped to his back rack, and we’d race around Austin at night blaring Slayer,” Strickland says. “It was called the Heavy Metal Fitness Ride, and eventually we turned it into a regular spandex racing ride.”

Natural talent always pushes riders to the top of the amateur ranks, and Strickland charted a meteoric rise in regional races and at Austin’s weekly Driveway Series. It was Cat. 5 to Cat. 1 from 2011 to 2012, which led to a spot on Texas’s regional elite team, Elbowz Racing. Simultaneously, Strickland pursued ambitions in fixed-gear races after winning a bike messenger event when Austin hosted the North American Handmade Bicycle Show. He dipped his toe in the fixed-gear crit scene in 2010 and 2011, and then won the Milano round of the Red Hook series in 2015 by simply riding away from the field, which included retired WorldTour riders.

“Colin is the most genetically gifted cyclist I know,” a former teammate told me. “Had he started earlier he could have been one of those big domestiques at Quick Step. He’s that strong.”

Throughout his rapid rise, however, Strickland never entertained thoughts of the sport’s pinnacle events in Europe. WorldTour riders trace their careers to teenage stints at the U.S. national team, not to midnight group rides. Plus, Strickland pursued a career as an environmental scientist in Austin. Why give that up to try and race in Europe?

“The more I started to understand how bike racing works, I was like, ‘Oh, that will never happen for me.’ That is impossible,” Strickland says. “I just didn’t have bike racing in my life when I was growing up, so it never seemed like a career path for me. Plus, that seemed like a really hard life.”

Instead, Strickland raced for fun, never dreaming of sponsorship or a paycheck. Over a six-year span, he matured into the don of Texas road and crit racing: a versatile rider who can blaze a fast individual time trial, navigate the chaotic ebb-and-flow of criteriums, and even win long-distance gravel events. Strickland gravitated toward nontraditional events by choice, because, as he says, “I go to races that make me happy.”

In 2016 he won three of four Red Hook races with dramatic solo breakaways. In 2017 he won Nebraska’s Gravel Worlds and San Antonio’s Last Man Standing fixed-gear race.

Shifting dynamics within the American cycling scene shone a spotlight on Strickland’s exploits. The attention brought sponsorship inquiries, including a personal deal with Red Bull. In 2018 Strickland was able to quit his day job and become a bonafide professional cyclist at the tender age of 30.

“I feel like someone left the back door open and I snuck into the party,” Strickland told me after inking his Red Bull deal. The career path put him on the trajectory to race Dirty Kanza 200.

Stetina’s mid-career shift

The same season that Strickland got his Cat. 3 upgrade, Peter Stetina took his own step forward at age 24. During stage 20 of the 2012 Giro d’Italia, Stetina rode with the group of favorites over the Passo Tonale and Mortirolo, before taking a huge pull up the lower slopes of the Stelvio. Stetina’s ride helped teammate Ryder Hesjedal clinch the overall title.

Much has been written about Stetina’s lineage, and his early success in road and mountain bike races. He excelled on the mountain bike and was twice a U23 national champion in the individual time trial — a result that hinted he could have WorldTour success.

Stetina’s WorldTour career saw high and low points; in 2015 he slammed into a metal pole during the Tour of the Basque Country and shattered his kneecap. Then, in 2018, Stetina simply could not get his body to respond to his normal training load. Eventually, Stetina would trace the problem to an Epstein-Barr infection. During the months that he went undiagnosed, Stetina battled his demons.

“Instead of taking a step back and resting I just doubled down on everything, and I’d keep pushing. I was so obsessed with fixing myself that I didn’t know I was sick,” Stetina says. “I was not happy and not the same person around my friends and family. People could see that I was stressed.”

Stetina’s stress stemmed from the fickle world of WorldTour racing, where domestiques like him are often judged by their most recent result. Stetina had little to show for his 2018 campaign, and his contract with Trek-Segafredo was up. As he looked around the U.S. road racing scene, Stetina saw multiple teams fold, and talented riders spill onto the labor market. He faced the reality that his career may be over.

Stetina had an idea, that was born from a training race he did at Northern California’s Grasshopper Ride gravel series. What if his racing schedule included grassroots gravel races, where he could interact with riders in a one-on-one level? In late 2018 he pitched his bosses at Trek on a racing plan that included Dirty Kanza and Belgian Waffle Ride, among other events, to help the brand gain credibility in the new market.

Trek-Segafredo signed the deal. 

“I can go to an event where there are 2,000 people and race and hang out with them,” Stetina says. ” I just felt it was something the industry would appreciate.”

In early May Stetina launched his gravel foray at the Belgian Waffle Ride. He won the event, and marveled at how much media attention he received — more than from any result he’d earned on the WorldTour. Stetina was also surprised by how hard the race was, and how the field of gravel specialists — Strickland among them — pushed him to his limit.

“I was cramping with two hours to go and these guys were just hammering me on the dirt sectors,” Stetina says. “These dudes can rip. I had to pull out all of my tricks to win.”

The chase

Two years ago I wrote about Strickland’s heroics on the Red Hook series, and I noticed a pattern to his four victories. In each win Strickland attacked early in the action, at a point when a solo move seemed like suicide. He then pushed a hard pace to the finish, knowing that the one-speeded peloton (fixed gear bikes have just one gear) had a finite top speed.

Strickland says similar dynamics persuaded him to attack at the halfway point at Dirty Kanza, even though his original plan was to go at mile 170. He felt good, and the 10 or so riders in the front group — Stetina, Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton, Ted King, Payson McElveen, and others — looked fatigued. Why not test them early, to see if anyone wanted to gamble on a risky move?

“I pushed it to see if anyone wanted to roll with me, and then I said [screw] it, let’s see if anyone comes with me, and if they give me a huge leash, I am just going to take it,” Strickland says. “I went full gas to try and get out of sight, because that is a powerful piece of psychology, and it changes the way people work together. It’s like screw it, I don’t even see him, and it’s so early.”

There was another racing dynamic that Strickland contemplated before making his move: Wind. The new 2019 course sent riders into a headwind for the first half of the race, which meant they enjoyed a cross or tailwind in the final 50 or so miles. Strickland calculated that if he could gain an advantage in the headwinds from mile 100 to 150, he could surf the tailwind to the line.

“You have 50 or 60 miles of tailwind and the chase is going to be less effective, especially on gravel,” Strickland says. “Even gravel racing there’s the art of outfoxing people who are stronger than you. All of these little details over 200 miles add up.”

Strickland calculated correctly. When he attacked, the other riders in the chase group looked at each other in confusion. A solo move from this far out was sure to fail, right?

“I thought [Strickland’s attack] was perfect for us,” Stetina says. “It’s like, ‘Okay, I’ll see you soon buddy.'”

Stetina’s calculus was that he and the other riders would pour on the effort in the final 50 miles and catch Strickland. Surely, a group of even four riders would have an advantage on one over such a long distance. And that’s where the Dirty Kanza’s very specific effort became an advantage for Strickland and not his chasers. WorldTour riders have physiological engines that can rev and recover again and again, dishing out huge spikes in power on Pyrenean climbs or Belgian cobblestones.

That’s not the type of effort required to win Dirty Kanza, however. At Dirty Kanza, riders must slowly pour on the effort and gauge every pedal stroke. Spikes in power lead to muscle cramps several hours down the road.

“You’re always racing between 200 and 350 watts, but all of a sudden you’re at seven hours and you’ve been in the wind and heat, and you just can’t tap into your high-end anymore,” Stetina says. “So when it was time to kick it into gear and start chasing this guy, it’s like, ‘No, I can’t.’ Everyone is just stuck at diesel speed.”

And then, luck smiled on Strickland. Stetina gave chase alongside Howes and Morton, and then the EF riders stopped together to fix Howes’s flat tire. Stetina decided to push onward, figuring he would link up with the duo at the final checkpoint. When the EF riders never showed, Stetina decided to strike out by himself.

The final battle at Dirty Kanza became a two-man chase to the line.

The gap to Strickland hovered around three minutes, and Stetina occasionally saw him on the horizon, atop one of the course’s countless rolling hills. As Stetina chased, he felt his body begin to reject the effort.

“I hit the wall and it was like everything started shutting down and the lights were going out, and I wanted to vomit if I smelled another gel,” Stetina says. “It really seemed like Colin was pouring it on.”

In truth, Strickland was fighting his own body and mind. Like an Ironman triathlon, Dirty Kanza 200 is a battle of both body and brain, and riders must control their negative emotions in order to push onward. An hour into his move Strickland began to question the tactic, and his feelings soured as his body tried to recover from the initial effort.

And then, with 20 miles to go, Strickland hit rock bottom. He took a wrong turn on a stretch of road, and the momentary lapse shot fear through his system. Then, he heard the telltale psssst that signaled a puncture. Strickland checked his rear wheel and saw a sharp nail sticking out of his tire.

“At the same time I had these cramps shooting down my legs and now it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I’m losing time,’ and that was the lowest point,” Strickland says. “I downed my Skratch and had this one Walmart bottle of water in my back pocket. It’s like, ‘This is not ideal.'”

Stetina likely gained on Strickland at this point in the chase — we will never know due to the race’s lack of moment-to-moment timing. But Stetina had to battle his own low moment as he chased inside the final 20 miles. Dirty Kanza fans may have read about the Twizzler Stetina received from a Dirty Kanza 100 racer with 10 miles to go. The candy hand-up came just as Stetina’s body was nearing empty.

“I was getting lonely and I was hungry and I was so ready for the pain to be done. I probably misjudged the last checkpoint and was rationing the last sips of water,” Stetina says. “And this [rider] was just holding out a Twizzler whenever someone would pass her, and she’d say ‘Twizzler feed!’ I love licorice and with my one sip of water and that piece of candy, it brought me back.”

A showdown to lift gravel

The candy feed wasn’t enough to propel Stetina to the win, and Strickland pedaled to the finish line to finish in under 10 hours, the first person to do so at Dirty Kanza. The victory marked some redemption for Strickland, who missed the event in 2018 after he tried unsuccessfully to get in via the lottery, and then missed the deadline to get in via an entry transfer.

The drag race between these two is a storybook ending for the 2019 Dirty Kanza. It’s no secret that the race supports its own thriving global community, which grows larger every year. Strickland’s chase with Stetina was perhaps the perfect storyline to elevate the race within the global cycling community. WorldTour riders put their best effort at the race and heavily influenced the dynamics amongst the favorites. Yet, it was still a gravel specialist who won, and he did so with a dramatic gamble that required brawn and brains.

And the showdown will undoubtedly convince more high-profile athletes to test themselves against the heat and distance. Stetina says he will return in 2020 to try and build on the lessons he learned this year.

“It was totally different than anything I’ve ever done,” Stetina says.

We can all pat Strickland on the back for his heroic show of strength, but we must also give him kudos for winning with his intellect and experience. His victory is proof that Dirty Kanza 200 rewards those riders who are dedicated to the craft of training and racing long distances on gravel roads.

During Strickland’s drive back to Austin on Sunday, he stopped at a local criterium to pick up a spare road bicycle from a friend. As Strickland walked through the pits, he noticed riders and fans stop and stare at him, and whisper to their friends. It was as if everyone, in unison, thought, ‘There goes the man who took on the WorldTour roadies and won.’

“It was a surprise,” Strickland says. “I guess there are more people following [gravel racing] than I thought.”