A debut ride in the Tour de France is a special moment for any rider, and this weekend Ian Boswell will embark on his first Tour experience. The American climber, who grew up dreaming of a ride in the grandest sporting event in the world, is ready to take on three weeks of racing as he looks to support Ilnur Zakarin's podium aspirations.
Boswell's opportunities of riding the Tour de France while at Team Sky were limited. In a five-year period, the American rode three Grand Tours but was never able to make the cut as part of Chris Froome's squad. So when the call came from Katusha-Alpecin over the winter of 2017, Boswell jumped at the chance to ride the Tour and support Zakarin. Of course, the only guarantee within professional cycling is that there are few certainties, so despite being in the provisional Tour roster since January, Boswell still had to come through tough times and prove his value.
At the Tour of California – where he placed 20th – doubts began to creep in. Having rocked up on the west coast hoping to help decide the overall classification, Boswell quickly fell away, and despite a few gutsy moves, he was found wanting. Sometimes you need to take a step back before you can move forward.
"The only real doubt came from myself at the Tour of California, when I wasn't riding to the level that I wanted," Boswell said. "So, I spoke to the team, Jose Azevedo and some of the coaches. I just made the point that I still wanted to go to the Tour but that we needed to change something, whether it was the training or how I was coming into the race. It was a mental turning point in my season and good to hear that the team really did believe in me and needed me at the Tour. It was just a case of me being confident enough to head to the Tour and ride at the level that I wanted to."
With the team's unequivocal support, Boswell was able to recalibrate, and at the Critérium du Dauphiné he began to show his form in helping to guide Zakarin to 10th overall. That ride effectively sealed his Tour spot. For Boswell, this is a seminal moment in his career and one that he has been building towards since the age of eight.
"It's been about a week since I officially made the team, and it's been busy. It's made me realise that the Tour transcends cycling almost. It's such a big event, and being an American, where cycling isn't almost at the forefront of the media, but the Tour breaks that boundary, and the exposure has been really something else compared to a Giro and Vuelta, which have been big deals for me personally. You come to the event, and you realise that it's such a global event," he said.
"Growing up in the US, the Tour was the only event that I was able to watch. This was before you had streams to different races, and I don't think that I knew what the Vuelta was until was 19 years old, but since the age of eight or nine I've been watching the Tour in July. That would mean getting up around 6 a.m. on the west coast. I'd eat breakfast, sit around and watch the Tour and then I'd have all this motivation to go out and ride."
Nostalgia will count for little when the peloton rolls out for stage 1 on Saturday and the Tour de France gets underway. The American knows that his primary task will be to support Zakarin in the mountains, but with Katusha sharing resources between their Russian leader and sprinter Marcel Kittel, Boswell is aware that working on the flats might become par for the course. It's a task he's willing to grasp with both hands.
"We've not really spoken much about tactics yet," he said. "Obviously, we're a split team with four guys for GC and four guys with Marcel. We'll see how we allocate our resources, but I'm more than happy to do an early job in the first week, even if that's riding on the front for 100km, so I don't have to help in the sprint finales. Also, if Marcel wins a stage, I want to be part of it. I don't want to just sit at the back all day."
The relationship between Boswell and Zakarin will be of major significance. Katusha are not blessed with a stack of climbers, and although the Russian climbed to third at 2017 Vuelta a España without much in the way of support, Boswell provides cover when the likes of Team Sky and Movistar begin the lift the pace in the mountains.
"I think that Zakarin is capable of top five or even a podium, but I don't think that other teams are going to be looking to us to ride mountain stages when you look at what they have at Team Sky and Movistar," Boswell said. "Me and Zakarin get along really well and not just as teammates but also as friends when we're not at races. We see eye-to-eye with a lot of our interests off the bike, and we both come from countries where we don't see a lot of home during the season. We've really bonded in that way and built a level of trust and understanding."
Those qualities, trust and understanding, have brought Boswell to this point. Over the next three weeks, both he and the watching world find out how much further they can carry him.