Colin Strickland: on gravel grit

Reading Time: 4 minutes

By Colin Strickland

In my adventures racing bikes I have found that a fundamental tool for success is maintaining an unwavering positivity. Believe you can do it, until absolutely proven otherwise. It takes a special kind of effort to hold positivity through extreme adversity, but often it is your only hope for salvaging something positive out of a FUBAR’d scenario. The moment you stop giving yourself the benefit of the doubt, it’s over. As soon as the will has broken, the body follows suit.

After racing bicycles for a while, you begin to realize how much success depends on variables outside of your control.

These forces become more pronounced the longer a given race drags on, making them primary protagonists in the European classics. And more locally, American endurance gravel races.
Call it whatever you like – luck, good fortune, juju, mojo, suerte, karma. The fact is that these unpredictable factors beyond your control are applying powerful forces to either swing a race in your favor, or drag you off the back of the group and into a desperate struggle to get back into contention. Manifestations include crashes, punctures, missed turns, dogs (yes dogs), drones (WTF? Yes, drones. I was hit by a crashing drone at 2017 Gravel worlds) and an endless supply of miscellaneous mechanicals too numerous to include here. These forces test your power to stay positive, and they bait you to call it and just give up.

Through all of these variables, it’s easy to lose sight of a simple principle – you are racing YOUR race. You gauge your efforts and make calculated moves as you navigate this dynamic rolling chess game. Through the mayhem you are in control of your bike, until forcefully dislodged, or compelled to dismount and address mechanical issues.

Early in the 2018 Gravel Worlds race in Lincoln, NE, I found myself drifting off the back of the main field with a slow leak in my rear tire. I felt it becoming squishy, accompanied by a sinking feeling in my gut. “We are 30 miles into a 150 mile race. It’s way too early for this shit. I guess it’s going to be a long day.” After a lengthy tire repair that concluded with a tube and a hand pump, I started out on a long 50 mile solitary chase. The first checkpoint alerted me that I was 12 minutes behind the lead group. So clearly, it was time to go. My chase lasted 2hr 15min at 310 watts and would eventually bring me back into contact with the main field around mile 82. Upon making contact, I was relieved to learn that my teammate Michael Sheehan was still in a group of 5 riders roughly 2 minutes up the road. I then settled into some much needed R&R until mile 90, where Mat Stevens, Josh Berry and other hitters began attacking to form a final chase selection. Ultimately I made that selection, and was able to turn a potential disaster race day into my second consecutive Gravel Worlds victory.

That day was a testament to the power of optimism, mental positivity and not giving up.

Bike racing (and sometimes bike riding) is full of shit luck and adversity, but if you don’t tough it out and fight through it you miss out on extreme character building experiences. And potentially a breakthrough result against all odds. Those days rarely end in triumph, but when they do, it’s so damn sweet it’s like you stole something valuable right out of Luck’s filthy fingers.

When you draw a joker card, you gotta put your head down and grit it out until the wheels come off. Yes, you may be 12 minutes behind the field. Yes, you have 120 miles of gravel left to race. And yes, you are chasing your way back into contention alone. But if you stop pedaling, you will definitely lose. Hell, you won’t even finish. Dig in, get to know yourself, and what your real limits are. Keep pushing as hard as you can, until you can’t push anymore, or you win the damn race.

Colin’s Strava file from Gravel Worlds, for the number geeks: