A Murder Roils the Cycling World
The last weekend in January, Strickland and Wilson were both guests, but not competitors, at an international bike event in Arkansas. Strickland was there with Armstrong. At the end of the weekend, Wilson messaged Strickland, in a way that suggests that, up to this point, he had kept open the idea of a relationship that was not purely platonic and professional. “Hey! Sooo . . . This weekend was strange for me and I just want to know what’s going on,” she wrote. “If you just want to be friends (seems to be the case) then that’s cool, but I’d like to talk about it cause honestly my mind has been going circles and I don’t know what to think.” Strickland’s response was apologetic but not clarifying: “Hey Mo—I feel very shitty for putting you in a position where you don’t feel comfortable.”
He explained that Armstrong had joined him in order to attend a meeting about their trailer business. “In hindsight, this was not a good idea,” he wrote.
Strickland told the police that he had changed Wilson’s name in his phone contacts, to disguise the fact that he was communicating with her.
On May 7th, Chris Tolley attended the rescheduled Red Bull Rio Grande event. Strickland and Armstrong arrived together. They had just met up again after Strickland had completed a road trip, during which he’d lived out of a Dodge truck that he’d modified himself, adding a platform with a tent on top. He’d seen family; he and Wilson had ridden in a race in Monterey, California, then taken a training ride together in Santa Cruz.
An ad described the Rio Grande event as a “duel among gravel’s best.” In Tolley’s description, the day was a “shit show.” Willis, the organizer, is barely more upbeat about it. Registration for the competition’s three races—which started together but ended at different distances—fell far short of the limit of five hundred riders. Conditions were brutally hot and hard. Armstrong completed the fifty-mile race; Strickland and Tolley rode the longest race, which was eighty miles. A high proportion of racers didn’t finish, and many who’d committed to camping overnight went looking for a hotel instead. An after-party with d.j.s, hosted by Red Bull, fizzled in the heat. It didn’t help, Willis said, that Strickland barely participated: he spent most of his evening a quarter of a mile away, at an alternative tailgate event, jamming on a guitar.
A day and a half later, Strickland and Armstrong met Tolley for breakfast at a deli an hour north of the ranch, where they were joined by a video crew. Tolley had arranged to interview Strickland for a YouTube series, “Riding Fixed, Up Mountains, with Pros,” produced by a bike company that sponsors Tolley. The crew began shooting at breakfast, then followed the two men as they rode uphill, talking. At the top, they engaged in a bit of comic business. Tolley told me that he had stowed some “runway clothes” in the crew’s vehicle, and had invited Strickland to help him pick out an outfit for “cycling’s Met Gala”—the upcoming inauguration of gravel’s hall of fame. In Tolley’s memory, Strickland said that he’d lost the will to train for competitions: “It was, like, Why the fuck am I still doing this?” Strickland hadn’t done well in a big race for a long time. The event that he’d just helped promote, half-heartedly, had attracted few big names; nevertheless, he had come in third. He seemed tired. An interview with Strickland published online the previous week had referred to retirement; it was accompanied by a dozen photographs of Strickland and his trailers, along with an uncaptioned photograph of Armstrong, who’s not mentioned in the text. She’s sitting in a trailer kitchen, looking uneasy.
Tolley’s video with Strickland has not been released, but Tolley showed me a brief clip. Strickland, responding to a question from Tolley about the oddest thing he’d been asked to endorse, recalls being approached by the manufacturer of a masturbatory aid. Tolley and Strickland talk over each other for a moment before Strickland says, in mock affront, “I could have a girlfriend if I wanted!” It was a jokey remark, but Tolley was taken aback. In an exchange that would be seen by tens of thousands, Strickland seemed to be muddling the status of the woman with whom they’d both just been filmed having breakfast.
Strickland and Armstrong returned to Austin that evening, May 9th. Two days later, Strickland picked Moriah Wilson up at her friend’s apartment, which was off an alley; they rode across town to the outdoor pool, then had burgers and rum drinks at the restaurant next door. Wilson had just decided to leave her job at Specialized and commit to a professional racing career. She had launched her blog, and planned to sublet her apartment. She was courting sponsors. (Strickland had already introduced her to the Meteor.) Strickland dropped her off at her friend’s place just before dusk; at 8:36 p.m., she entered an electronic code to unlock the door. At about the same time, Strickland texted Armstrong: “Hey! Are you out? I went to drop some flowers for Alison at her son’s house up north and my phone died. Heading home.”
Soon afterward, a security camera recorded a dark S.U.V. with a bike rack at the back—just like the one Armstrong had on her Jeep Cherokee—coming to a stop in the alley. Another camera picked up Strickland’s short ride home. He got to his house at about 8:45 p.m., and Armstrong joined him there about forty-five minutes later. A little before ten, Wilson’s host returned to her apartment and found Wilson on the floor. She had been shot three times.
Wilson’s friend knew that Strickland and Wilson had planned to meet earlier that evening. Strickland spent much of the next day talking to detectives. That morning, thanks to the S.U.V. footage, the police began to take an interest in Armstrong. She was arrested on an outstanding warrant: a few years earlier, she’d allegedly walked out on a bill of several hundred dollars for a Botox treatment, leaving a credit card behind. She was questioned for less than an hour and then released when detectives decided—incorrectly—that the warrant was invalid.
When the police talked to Strickland again, a few days later, he described the strangeness of the hours after those first interviews. He’d returned home, to Armstrong, and that night they’d barely slept. In the morning, they’d gone to get coffee, “in just a daze, in a stupor.” He recalled her saying, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s going on.” He’d said, “I just can’t believe I— you’re in this— I dragged you into this situation.” The police had seized their phones, and after getting coffee she went to buy a new one. He hadn’t seen her since.
According to the authorities, Armstrong sold her Jeep that day, May 13th. The next day, she flew to New York, with a rolled-up yoga mat on her back. Strickland texted her on her old number to ask her a money question—she’d put a hundred thousand dollars of his in an investment account. He didn’t hear back. On Tuesday, police received a report that noted possibly significant similarities between spent cartridge casings found at the apartment where Wilson died and those produced by a test firing of Armstrong’s sig Sauer. An arrest warrant was issued.
Strickland’s statement, a few days later, described the “regret and torture I feel about my proximity to this horrible crime.” He outlined the history of his relationship with Wilson, and added, in language that echoed his usual tone on social media, that “Moriah and I were both leaders in this lonely, niche sport of Cycling.” Soon afterward, Strickland was dropped by all his sponsors except Red Bull. (That month, a company representative wrote, in a statement, “Colin Strickland has been a friend of Red Bull for more than 4 years.” Recently, the company declined to answer my questions about Strickland or the Red Bull Rio Grande, saying, “This is a matter for the authorities.”)
Amity Rockwell skipped this year’s Unbound; for a period of time, now ended, she felt detached from the gravel community, which seemed too ready to see the murder as a “random act” quite unconnected to an image-obsessed sport that empowers self-involved men. “They don’t really want to dive into everything behind it,” she said. Rockwell had been unnerved by the thought that Wilson, while launching herself as a professional racer, had perhaps felt obliged to keep in touch with Strickland because of his “access to brands and sponsorships and connections.”
Just before Tolley and I met at the Meteor café, in June, he sent me several brief texts, including “Plastic surgery” and “This is a movie.” He was reacting to an announcement, made that morning, that Armstrong had been detained in Costa Rica. Local authorities had found her at Don Jon’s Surf and Yoga Lodge, in Santa Teresa. (According to a Times travel article, the town has “an edge-of-the-world vibe that . . . inspires dreams of relocation.”)
The U.S. Marshals reported that Armstrong had reached Costa Rica six weeks earlier, departing from Newark and using the passport of someone “closely associated with her.” Once there, Armstrong had used various aliases, including Ari Martin. Her hair, formerly long and fair, was now shoulder-length and dark. When she was apprehended, she had a bandage on her nose; she’d told people that she’d been in a surfing accident. A photograph provided by Texan authorities suggested that her nose might now be narrower. A locker at Don Jon’s contained the passport of Armstrong’s sister and a receipt for sixty-three hundred dollars’ worth of cosmetic surgery.
The Austin American-Statesman later posted a video interview with Teal Akerson, an American surf instructor who’d gone on a few dates with “Ari” in Santa Teresa. “She said that she had just been through a real traumatizing breakup, and she hadn’t healed from it yet,” he said. “So we were just being friends.” He added, “Most of the time she wanted to kind of be at a secluded spot, not a lot of people.”
On July 2nd, Armstrong was deported, and flown to Texas. A couple of weeks later, she pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. Bail was set at three and a half million dollars. (Armstrong, through her lawyer, declined to comment for this article; the judge in the case has instructed those involved, including Strickland, not to speak to the media.)
Tolley last saw Strickland a few days after Wilson’s death, when he dropped by Wheelhouse Mobile’s lot. Strickland was working on an old engine, and looked despondent.
It hadn’t been easy to become famous through a niche sport that was new and unformed—and, perhaps, not quite a real thing. “Colin’s been very calculated,” Tolley said. “He thinks a lot about strategy, in a life that’s very planned out. So this whole event flipped him on his head.”
At the time of Tolley’s visit, the police account of Wilson’s final hours was not yet public. Strickland did not mention the pool or the rum drinks. Rather, he said something about having dropped off a mountain bike at the apartment where Wilson was staying. He seemed detached, Tolley said—zombie-like.
“He’s good at reinventing himself,” Tolley told me. “The trailers are super cool. They’ll sell whether he’s famous or not. He can do that, or engine-swap stuff, for these redneck people. They don’t know about this shit. He will not make a living in cycling, though. He’s not riding a bike anymore.” ♦