If Colin Strickland (meteor X giordana) wanted to defend his 2017 Gravel Worlds title on Saturday, it was going to take some work.
The annual Gravel Worlds race is hosted by Lincoln, Nebraska’s Pirate Cycling League, and not surprisingly, embraces the pirate theme. With the lead group out to a blazing start on the warm, foggy Saturday morning, Strickland got marooned on a deserted island (the side of the road) with a slow leak in one of his tires. When he finally got his tire fixed, he faced a 10-plus minute gap to the race leaders with 100 miles of racing left to go.
Strickland’s misfortune was to the benefit of the others in the fast field.
Lincoln native John Borstelmann (Harvest Racing) has had a strong season of criterium racing and was hoping to add a Gravel Worlds title to his palmares. Tim Mitchell (CCB Foundation-Sicleri), manager of the CCB Foundation-Sicleri U23 development road team, traveled from Massachusetts to race for his own gravel title. Josh Berry was looking to build on his impressive second at the Dirty Kanza 200.
And finally, Mat Stephens (Panaracer/Stan’s NoTubes p/b Bicycle X-Change) was looking to grab one of the few gravel titles that has eluded him during his impressive run over the past several years.
Even though Strickland was out of the lead group, there were still over 125 miles of gravel roads left to race before the Saturday’s proceedings would be decided.
With fast-rolling gravel and a lot of straight roads, Gravel Worlds organizers said they would not be surprised to see road-type tactics at the race. Their premonitions were spot-on, as Brendan Housler (DNA Racing) shook the race up by blasting solo off the front in the first 10 miles of the race.
Mitchell and Michael Sheehan (meteor X giordana) eventually followed his move to form a lead break of three.
It was during this time around mile 15 where Strickland noted a slow leak in one of his tires and stopped to repair it. Even with the strong “spirit of gravel” inspired by the Pirate Cycling League’s short nine-rule rulebook, the gravel peloton did not wait for the defending champion.
“I just had a slow leak,” Strickland said about his mechanical. “It was kind of a mysterious flat, so it took me a while to sort out how to remedy it.”
When riders reached Checkpoint One at Mile 58, the lead trio hit the stop first for their pipe cleaner, followed closely by Soren Nissen, Borstelmann and Patrick Walle. After leaving the checkpoint, the two groups of three merged to form a lead selection of six, and the chase group followed, about three minutes back. Strickland then rolled in 10 minutes behind the leaders.
The Comeback Begins
More or less riding solo, Strickland closed the gap to the chase group within 30 miles after Checkpoint One. The group was starting to break apart as the relentless hills started to take their toll on the riders, but the chasers still faced an 8-minute gap to the 5 leaders with 70 miles to go.
“I really enjoy this terrain, whether it’s racing or riding, and honestly, that’s how I go out and train anyway,” Strickland said about his solo chase back. “Ride alone and go as fast as I can for as long as I can, so it was advantageous that I had the mental strength to stay on the gas for that long.”
With 50 miles to go, the front of the race had a strong group of five—Borstelmann, Mitchell, Nissen, Sheehan and Housler—off the front being chased by Strickland, Berry, Stephens and Adam Ventling. It appeared either one of the lead five would win with a heroic effort, or they would be overtaken by a chase group featuring a lot of firepower and several of the race favorites.
Mat Stephens talked about how the small chase formed after the race. “The group never was super-cohesive to start with, until finally Josh Berry just kept a hard tempo and he’d end up off the front solo, and we’d kind of jump across to him. We ended up with Adam, Colin, Josh and me as a chase group of four, but at that point, we had no idea if we’d catch them. We just kept our heads down and kept riding.”
Before reaching Checkpoint Two at Mile 128, riders tackled the Denton Wall Randy Gibson KOM. Gibson was a long-time member of the Lincoln cycling community who was tragically killed by a drunk driver while riding last year. Because of Gibson’s love of climbing, the Pirate Cycling League dedicated the climb in his honor, and his wife Christy and daughter Sofia presented a climber’s jersey to the first rider to the top.
Local hero Borstelmann captured the KOM climb and used the effort to create some separation from the group along with Mitchell. The two hit the second checkpoint first followed by Nissen and Sheehan one minute later and then the Strickland-Stephens-Berry-Ventling group shortly thereafter. With just over 20 miles to go, the leaders were hanging on to a small advantage over the race favorite group.
Riders at Gravel Worlds are only allowed to receive support at gas stations and support stops designated by the race. There are also two mandatory checkpoints where riders have to check in and take a colored pipe cleaner for their handlebars. As we saw at Dirty Kanza, checkpoint speed and efficiency is important.
At the second checkpoint, Stephens and Strickland got in and out and back on the road. Berry, however, took a bit longer and found himself chasing Strickland and Stephens.
“At the last feed I was getting water and stuff, and then they just disappeared,” Berry said about the second checkpoint. “I thought the three of us would go on together, but gravel racing is scrappy. I should know that.”
An Exciting Last 20 Miles
Strickland and Stephens came roaring out of Checkpoint Two and quickly caught and surpassed Mitchell and Borstelmann. The race finally had its two arguable favorites at the front.
With a little over five miles to go, Stephens and Strickland started trading attacks. Stephens attacked on an uphill, but Strickland was able to mirror his move and counter at an unexpected spot.
“At mile five, in some of the final gravel rollers, Mat put in a big attack, and I was able to close it over the top of a hill. I let him get a little bit of a gap on the descent and then ripped it up to about 36 miles per hour and just flew by him when he wasn’t really expecting it. Because no one attacks on a downhill.”
The gap would be what Strickland needed to win. He rolled into the Fairbrook neighborhood with a comfortable one-minute gap that allowed him time to celebrate his second-straight Gravel Worlds win. He finished in 7:09:54, with an average speed of 20.9 miles per hour.
Stephens rolled across a little over a minute later to take home second to go with his third-place finish from 2017.
The race for third had a little bit of drama and controversy. The Gravel Worlds course finished with a right-hand turn into a roundabout, with the exit to the finishing stretch at the first exit.
Mitchell hit the final turn first ahead of Borstelmann and Berry, but both Mitchell and Borstelmann misssed the turn to the finish, allowing Berry to cruise home to take third. Berry finished three minutes behind Stephens to round out the three-person podium.
“The end was kind of weird,” Berry said. “Two guys took a wrong turn like 50 meters from the finish, so I rolled on past them. I was trying to time it where I could kind of push them all the way to the outside and sprint around the corners. I saw them set up for the last turn and I was like, that’s the wrong way to do it. Thankfully the karma kind of paid off from the guys disappearing previously.”
Strickland joined Alison Tetrick in receiving a sweet sword commemorating his win and designation as 2018 Captain of the Gravel Seas.
Full results from the Men’s race are below. For more, see our race report from the Women’s race.
For more from Nebraska, see our 2018 Gravel Worlds archive.
Men's Results: 2018 Gravel Worlds
|85||Travis Van Dyke||9:50:29|
|175||Rob Van Pelt||12:51:59|