Colin Strickland chose Dirty Kanza over Paris-Roubaix and EF Pro Cycling. Here’s why:
“More interviews, more videos to produce,” Strickland told VeloNews. “I’m always busy but yeah, there were more things to attend to, which was all good.”
The outreach was understandable. Not only had Strickland won gravel cycling’s biggest race, he had handily beaten the handful of WorldTour road racers who attended the 2019 edition of the race. And Strickland’s personal story—the late bloomer who didn’t get into bike racing until his mid 20’s—quickly made its way through cycling media. At VeloNews, Strickland’s victory reminded us of a comment made in 2018 by Strickland’s then teammate Michael Sheehan at the Red Hook Criterium.
“Colin is the most genetically talented cyclist I know,” Sheehan told us. “If he had started racing younger he could have been a domestique at Quick-Step. He’s that strong.”
As it turns out, other people in the world of cycling saw a similar quality when they looked at Strickland and his win, and in the weeks following Dirty Kanza, Strickland received outreach of an entirely different nature. Jonathan Vaughters, CEO of EF Pro Cycling, contacted him about racing for the WorldTour team in 2020. Vaughters wanted Strickland to race the cobblestone classics, most notably Paris-Roubaix.
“I was interested because he has a big motor,” Vaughters said. “I was like this guy has an interesting engine and maybe he can do a hyper-accelerated Mike Woods thing where you get up to speed on how to race on the tiny roads in Europe. It’s a super outside bet, but I’ll make that bet.”
Strickland, 33, was also interested in joining the WorldTour squad. Although he was best known for gravel and fixed-gear racing, Strickland came up as a road racer, and blazed through the Texas road cycling scene as an amateur.
He learned the ropes of cycling at the Austin Driveway Series and at other regional events. From 2014 through 2016 he competed for the regional elite road team Elbowz Racing, and won a number of tough road races in Texas and Oklahoma.
“It was super exciting and hugely flattering,” Strickland said. “I’ve been watching the classics for years, and that would be the area of pro cycling I would most want to jump into. It was like wow, that’s exciting, let’s do it.”
In the ensuing weeks, however, the conversation stalled and eventually petered out. Vaughters’s proposed plan for gravel cycling’s newest hero to race Paris-Roubaix did not come to fruition, and Strickland recommitted himself to another year on the gravel circuit.
What happened? As so often in cycling, money, opportunity, and pro cycling’s rigid sponsorship model became impediments that the collective push was unable to overcome.
Vaughters’s offer to Strickland carried a smaller salary than Strickland was currently earning from his collection of sponsors. In Vaughters’s eyes, the entry-level salary made sense, since Strickland was an unproven quantity in WorldTour racing.
“On a super outside bet like that, I’m going to pay him the same as I’m going to pay any first-year guy who is coming in,” Vaughters said. “My perspective was like hey, take the risk and take the small paycheck. If you finish top-10 at Roubaix then that will become a big paycheck really fast.”
The salary was also reflective of Vaughters’s philosophy on the team’s much-hyped alternative racing program in general. The goal of EF’s presence at Dirty Kanza, Leadville 100, and other events was to bring proven WorldTour riders to mass-participant events. So, in order to generate value for the team, Strickland needed to first become a proven WorldTour rider.
“I’m not going to just hire Colin Strickland to win alt calendar races,” Vaughters said. “We’re about connecting WorldTour racing with mass-start events.”
On Strickland’s end, the smaller salary was not an insurmountable obstacle. But the short-term nature of the deal was. So was pro cycling’s rigid sponsorship model, which makes it nearly impossible for riders to maintain personal sponsorships.
Under the WorldTour sponsorship model, sponsors must back the entire team, not individual riders. Individual deals with bike brands and major non-endemic brands like Red Bull are forbidden.
So, if Strickland signed up with EF Pro Cycling, he’d have to abandon the portfolio of sponsorships he had spent years building, including his personal deal with Red Bull.
“It would mean sacrificing the program I’ve been steadily building over the last three years that launched off of my Red Hook success,” Strickland said. “Scrapping those relationships with brands that are all in behind me with gravel, to jump on the EF train and let them do all of the deal-making and hold the contracts and hope that I prove myself valuable to them.”
The more Strickland thought about the move, the less appealing it became. What if he had a bad debut season in the WorldTour? What if the cobblestones and hyper-aggressive racing at Paris-Roubaix was simply too much for him? What if he was a bust? Tossing away his sponsors for the prospect of one shot at Paris-Roubaix all of a sudden didn’t sound as attractive.
“If you have a bad year they could decide not to sign me back, and then you’re back to square one, banging on the doors of sponsors who you left for this shinier thing,” Strickland said. “It’s like baby, I want you back so bad!”
In the weeks before the end of the year, Strickland made up his mind. He declined the offer, and went back to preparing for the upcoming gravel season. He will likely face off against EF riders once again at Dirty Kanza and at other races. For now, he is still focused on being gravel racing’s top rider.
Vaughters said he understood Strickland’s decision, even if he wished Strickland had taken the bet on the WorldTour.
“My dream for him wasn’t to win Dirty Kanza, it was to do well at Roubaix. But that’s a scary risk for a 33-year-old. I’m sure he has more financial responsibilities than a 22-year old kid,” Vaughters said. “I get his logic. What I was hoping for is that he’d have taken the chance.”