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Ian Boswell: There’s a camaraderie in gravel racing that you don’t get in the WorldTour

Ian Boswell rides ahead of Laurens ten Dam at Unbound Gravel
Ian Boswell rides ahead of Laurens ten Dam at Unbound Gravel (Image credit: Wil Matthews)

Ian Boswell has had a stellar first year in gravel racing, winning Unbound Gravel 200, Rooted Vermont, and taking a stage in the Migration Race. This weekend he heads to Colorado for SBT GRVL, another blue-chip race on the calendar, as one of the main contenders for the victory, but as he explained to Cyclingnews the aspects he loves most about the discipline come secondary to whether he crosses the line first.

The Black route at SBT GRVL is one that certainly suits Boswell’s characteristics as a climber and all-rounder and in recent days he has leaned on his opposition for advice and expertise.

“From what I’ve gathered from speaking to Ted King and Colin Strickland, I think that it’s a decent course for me. I’ve been swamped with many things that have been going on this week, and I don’t want to downplay my chances but I’m really looking forward to it,” he told Cyclingnews during his journey from Vermont.

“I love Colorado and I’m really looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to seeing the riders, guys like Laurens ten Dam, who I’ve not seen since we raced in Kenya. We’ll be getting the crew back together.

“Obviously we’ve not raced together too much recently but one of the coolest things about gravel racing is just how open everyone is. A couple of days ago I was texting Pete Stetina and Strickland and asking if we needed hydration packs and what tyres to use. Never in the WorldTour would teams divulge that information. To be able to call these competitors friends, and probably friends before competitors, that’s cool. I’ve never done this race so being able to reach out and ask about topics like aid stations and hydration is really helpful. People are really open to sharing and that really resonates with the communal feel as we had at Unbound.”

While the bond between the top-line competitors remains strong, there’s still a race to be won this weekend, and several riders including Stetina and Ten Dam will be competing in the Leadville Trail 100 MTB before embarking on SBT GRVL the very next day. Boswell will not race the mountain bike race on Saturday and should therefore be fresher than two of his main competitors but the depth of the gravel field is improving with almost every race and several WorldTour level riders are set to take part.

“I know that Pete has been on a strong run of form recently winning BWR and then with what he did at The Rift. I think that he and Laurens both doing Leadville is clearly a big ask with two big races back to back but with the background and history of both of those riders, I don’t think that it will affect them as much as people think. With their pedigree in Grand Tours I don’t think it will take as much out of them. 

"Ted and Colin are both riders to watch and I read the Cyclingnews article with Colin and he’s such a good dude and I’d love to see him perform well. He always races aggressively and he’s always willing to give it everything, even if he doesn’t always finish it off. It would be cool to see him come back to form. There are a lot of unknown riders who pop up and then there’s Alex Howes, Lachlan Morton, and Payson McElveen. You just want to see a fair race and for the strongest rider to come through and win.”

No WorldTour return

There had been speculation of a possible return to the WorldTour for Boswell following his dramatic win over Ten Dam in Unbound. The pair could only be separated in a nail-biting sprint after 200 miles of racing back in June. The attention Boswell received after his win was huge - not least for the proactive and commendable stance he took on inclusion and the transgender community - but he ruled out an about-turn and a comeback to full-time road racing. The former Team Sky and Katusha rider is content in his new surroundings and while he faces plenty of challenges, his role as an athlete and an employee at Wahoo have his full-time attention.

“There was no call from Jonathan Vaughters after winning Unbound,” he joked. “But I was reached out to by various gravel programmes to see what my plans are for next year but it’s still something that I’m trying to figure out. I have a great set-up now working for Wahoo and having support from Specialized and SRAM. 

"What I’ve come to realize is that I’ve got things in my life that are challenging but there’s not been pressure to perform as I go into this privateer life. I’ve been performing well because I’ve enjoyed what I’m doing and going forward I’m not going back to the WorldTour. Maybe I’ll do a local race here or there.”

Another reason Boswell wants to remain on his current path is that he has reservations about road teams, and teams in general, altering gravel racing. Not just that but he also has strong opinions on the level of support that should be awarded to riders in gravel races. According to Boswell the very fabric of gravel racing is sown in fair play and creating a level playing field for all competitors to have the same chances of success – from the very beginners and those racing on a tight budget, to the world’s elite pro riders.

“Teams haven’t really come to gravel in the way that it would change racing yet and I wouldn’t say that I’m against it but maybe I’m not a fan of it at the moment. What I like is that riders like Strickland can come through and have a different career and rise through to the top due to his own ability and drive. That’s one thing that I’m very cautious of, and I noticed it at BWR with riders having support and someone feeding them on the course,” he told Cyclingnews.

“These other events have aid stations so you can fill up your water but it’s one thing that I’m sad to see in terms of riders being able to have feeds and hand-ups because I think it makes it difficult for young riders who have already paid a tremendous amount of money to travel to races, and for their equipment. To then race against riders who then have support crews, that really limits people who are new to the sport because all of a sudden they need to fly out another person, and a car. I think SBT has said no to outside support and I think that’s awesome. 

"One of the cool things is that gravel racing brings things back to the roots of cycling and that you have to look after yourself. It’s like how mountain biking started out. I think outside support should be limited because it really allows for more riders to compete on a level playing field.”

Whether he wins or not on Sunday the American can class his 2021 season as a huge success. When asked what his proudest moment was so far he was forced to pause and reflect but his answer – in typical Boswell style – was based around more than just his athletic achievements and more about what he has put back into the sport.

“It’s hard to say. Winning Unbound was a really cool experience but with it came a lot of extra attention, which is funny as this isn’t why I’m doing it. I think my proudest moment was probably racing over in Kenya at the Migration Race and seeing the drive and determination of those riders. Seeing this new arena of gravel and how it can inspire new riders to get involved has been huge. In the WorldTour you can feel a bit disconnected from the fans. You don’t always know your impact on other athletes, especially ones from other countries but seeing how much inspiration gravel is giving to fans and then seeing them go out and doing it themselves has been the biggest reward this year.”

Editor in Chief - Cyclingnews.