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What’s Colin Strickland’s secret sauce for Unbound Gravel? Staying chill and confident

The 2019 DK champ wants to win Unbound Gravel, and he has his own way of getting there.

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The buzz of a power tool keeps interrupting my phone conversation with Colin Strickland, but he issues no apologies for the noise. The reigning champion of Unbound Gravel seems to be very preoccupied with one thing leading up to the marquee gravel race — finishing up the Spartan camper he’s been renovating so that he can tow it to Emporia in a week.

Strickland’s huge win at Unbound, known as DK in 2019, produced a series of storylines. First, how he’d broken away with 95 miles to go. Then, a sub-10 hour course record. How he’d put the hurt on three WorldTour pros, Pete Stetina, Lachlan Morton, and Alex Howes, to nab the win in Kansas. And the fact that he came from a background of quick and dirty pro crit racing also turned heads.

Then, the most intriguing headline of all: Colin Strickland chose Dirty Kanza over Paris-Roubaix and EF Pro Cycling.

In May of 2021 I ask him, does he regret it? 

“Not once,” he said. “Ever. I have way too many interests outside of cycling to even remotely consider that.”

Training not training

In addition to renovating old campers, Strickland also tinkers with the trucks he needs to tow them. While we’re on the phone, he texts me a picture of the 1998 Dodge diesel Cummins 12-valve that he’s also trying to get ready ahead of the trip to Kansas. Next to it in the driveway is a Land Rover Discovery 2. There are motorcycles in the midst.

He’s already told me it’s a rest day, but still. Is racing bikes even remotely on his mind amidst all of this metal?

“I still do love riding bikes,” he said. “It’s just been a strange year.”

While the dearth of racing since the pandemic began in March of 2020 gave Strickland time to work on his myriad other projects, he’s not fooling me with how low-key he is about training for 2021, and in particular for Unbound.

The Texas-based rider has long espoused that the conditions indigenous to where he lives — heat, humidity, headwinds — make every ride a training ride. He doesn’t have a coach (nor, coincidentally, does 2019 DK women’s champ Amity Rockwell) and doesn’t always follow a prescribed workout.

He just takes what Texas gives him and goes out harder than most.

“It’s just suited to that type of racing,” he said. “It’s always what I have around here in Austin — hot, fast, rolling. You pedal all day. There’s no pedaling up mountains and then coasting down, it’s all pedaling. I don’t ever coast on training rides.”

“So, in that sense, Unbound does suit me, and in that sense, I have been training for it.”

All aboard for Unbound

In January, Strickland traveled to southern California to Red Bull’s Athlete Performance Center (APC). There, he spent a few days working with exercise physiologists and trainers doing the types of things he does not normally do, such as threshold tests. The team pinpointed things for Strickland to focus on and compiled training plans to that effect.

While numbers and data may not be Strickland’s love language, he’s not above admitting he has weaknesses on the bike. He came away from Santa Monica more aware of them and still steadfastly committed to the notion that the type of hard training rides he does in Austin is the best preparation for racing gravel.

“In road, track, and short track XC MTB, it’s more significant to have these massive short hard efforts,” he said. “In gravel, it’s more subtle physiological adaptation and mental toughness which comes from riding your bike. That said, no question it helps me add some dimension to my preparation and fitness to be able to incorporate some more data-driven insights.”

Then, in April, Strickland traveled to Marfa, Texas with a film crew from Red Bull to shoot ‘The Road to Nowhere.’ Conditions were hot, windy, and brutal for the five-hour time trial — which is exactly what Strickland is used to and exactly what he believes gives him his edge. 

“It’s the formula that’s made me strong, being comfortable riding into the wind solo,” he said. “That’s usually how you win a race.”

Last weekend, Strickland was part of the stacked pro field at Gravel Locos, a new race in Hico, Texas. Conditions weren’t typical — it poured rain for the last half of the race — and Strickland’s usual tricks didn’t pan out. He finished 34 seconds behind WorldTour refugee Laurens ten Dam.

Now, the two are spending a few days together riding in Austin before they both head out to Emporia — ten Dam in a rental campervan and Strickland towing his Spartan trailer.

As the reigning champion of the race, Strickland said that he hoped he wouldn’t have to do anything “foolish and dramatic to agitate the race this time.” However, he also admitted that he anticipates a very competitive field — a point driven home in Hico last weekend.

I think the field will have changed a lot since 2019,” he said. “I think we were surprised by the level of competition in 2019, but I think we’ll be really surprised by who shows up this year.” 

Strickland will have fierce competition from dozens of riders, including WorldTour pros Quinn Simmons and Matteo Jorgensen, as well as gravel specialists Pete Stetina and Ian Boswell. While Strickland takes a notoriously more chill approach to race preparation than some of his competitors, it’s a bit like the ‘unstructured’ training — it’s actually part of his strategy.

“I kinda like to just show up and feel it out in the race, it’s the most fun way to do it,” he said. “I never was the most focused on preparing. I like tuning my skill set of reaction. Being comfortable in the moment. No question, it’s effective to prepare yourself with pre-riding and detailed studying. But, I’m better at reacting on the fly. That in itself is a skill set.”

“I’m going in confident. But I always go in confident ’cause that’s what serves you best. Why think you’re not gonna win it?”