Few professional riders, if any, become more famous after they’ve retired, but that’s exactly what’s happened to Ian Boswell since he romped to victory at the Unbound Gravel race last June.
That 200-mile trek, set the picturesque Flint Hills of Kansas, is the blue riband event on the gravel cycling scene and Boswell is now defending champion after outsprinting (fellow ex-pro) Laurens Ten Dam after a gruelling ten-and-a-half-hours on the bike.
The news of that victory made waves around the world and Boswell was bowled over by the number of media, race and sponsorship opportunities that came his way in the wake of it.
“It really makes me laugh”, he said, sitting on his bed in his farmhouse in rural Vermont. “Since that win I’ve been on the cover of magazines, been invited to a whole host of events and done countless interviews, none of which ever happened to me when I was a pro.”
It’s a far cry from when he called time on his career at the end of 2019. Back then there was relatively little fanfare, despite him having an enviable palmarés which included appearances in all three Grand Tours and top-10 finishes at the Route du Sud, Tour of California and Coppi e Bartali.
The retirement was brought about after a serious crash at Tirreno-Adriatico left him severely concussed, with doctors telling him any future tumbles could bring about even longer-lasting damage.
“I’d never anticipated stopping racing at 28 years old, especially entering what should have been the best years of my career, but it was forced upon me.
“It was scary. I didn’t have anything lined up and didn’t have the financial means to not work again, so I knew I’d have to jump into a job straight away. Fortunately I’d spent my career building relationships with people and an opportunity came about with Wahoo Fitness. I was lucky that there was very little downtime.”
See Ian Boswell at Rouleur Live 2021
Boswell was offered an athlete liaison role at the company and it was through that that he eventually found his way back into competing.
“It wasn’t planned. As part of that role I knew I’d be going to some of the bigger gravel events and I thought ‘if I’m going, I might as well ride my bike’. I didn’t really know much about the races but having competed at a high level in the past, I knew how to train and prepare properly, and that immediately paid dividends. Unbound was only the second gravel race I’d ever entered and it was a huge surprise to win.”
The publicity that came with that success was equally unexpected and reflects just how popular gravel racing has become in the States.
“I’d say it’s the frontrunner in America right now. Road racing has been on the decline over the last four or five years and gravel racing has really taken over. I’d say there’s more people riding gravel than on the road in the US currently.”
Asked why, he was unequivocal in his response. “I think people like it because it’s new and different. For a long time races over here were perhaps guilty of trying to copy races over in Europe and working to the same model.
“Gravel racing also began here and that resonates with a lot of American riders. With traffic being what it is, people have been retreating to gravel roads for years, this is what we ride. There’s something uniquely American about it and our gravel events really reflect that.
“The scene is super inclusive as well and there’s been a huge push to welcome new people into the sport. That’s created a really friendly, positive environment and I think people find it less daunting to get involved at gravel events than perhaps they do with road ones.”
Inclusivity is something very close to Boswell’s heart and he’s used his newfound profile to try and make the scene more accessible to people from minority groups.
“As a white, straight, male cyclist I realised there were a lot of people finding it way harder to feel welcome and comfortable attending events and races than me. That hit home when my nephew came out as trans around 12 months ago. I wanted to do what little bit I could to try and change that.
“At Unbound I wore a trans pride sweatband to pay tribute and raise awareness for that community and it really captured people’s attention. Since then I’ve seen those same sweatbands at almost every event I’ve been to, which is awesome.”
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The former Team Sky and Katusha-Alpecin man also feels more could be done to make the world of elite cycling a more inclusive environment to athletes from different communities.
“I don’t know of any openly gay male pro riders and there’s probably many reasons as to why that is. Cycling is a very traditional sport in many ways and it’s been following a similar model for the last 100 years.
“I’d love our sport to be a place where people from all different backgrounds can feel safe and welcome. That’s beginning to happen naturally at a grassroots level, and a lot of great work has been done, but I think more could be done by the governing bodies to address this.
“I realise they have a lot going on but sometimes I think they have their priorities wrong. They seem to be more concerned with things they can have an immediate influence on, like sock heights and TT positions, rather than addressing these more societal issues.”
Boswell’s elevated status on the gravel scene brought with it some interesting offers to return to racing full-time, but the 30 year old resisted the lure of full-time competition in favour of the more varied and rich lifestyle he currently enjoys.
“I have too much going on. My wife Gretchen and I have a new puppy and we’re also expecting our first child in December. As well as my work with Wahoo, I’m also a volunteer firefighter and we run our own farm.
“Racing full time would mean 100+ days on the road and I’d much rather have the flexibility to choose the events I’m able to attend and be able to fit them around everything else I do.
“Wahoo have been super supportive of that and I’m gaining a whole host of skills in my job that I simply wouldn’t get if I went back to full-time racing. I love the balance I have right now, riding 7-8 events a year. That makes the racing much more fun and I ride them with a totally different mindset. Instead of wanting to dominate and win every race I enter, it’s now much more about enjoying the experience and having a good time.
“I ride in a much safer way now as well. When you’re flying down a descent in the Giro you’ve got to hold that wheel, but it’s not like that in gravel racing. It might sound surprising but the level of risk racing off-road is much lower, and given the injuries I’ve had, that suits me far better.”
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You can hear Ian talk much more about his retirement from the road, his gravel racing resurrection, and the things he’s learned along the way every night at Rouleur Live on November 4-6th.