'A world away from the Tour de France’ - Pro cyclists are finding solace off-road, but why switch from WorldTour to gravel?

Sleeping in a tent and beers after the stage - former Team Sky rider Ian Boswell shares his thoughts on life off-road

Unbound Gravel 2021
(Image credit: Wahoo/Andy Chastain)

‘We were sleeping in tents and we had one litre of water a day to shower,’ said Ian Boswell from his hotel somewhere in Kenya.

The former Team Sky rider had just finished his third ever off-road event Migration Gravel Race, a four-day stage race over 650km through a national game reserve in east Africa. 

“It was a communal buffet for dinner, we were drinking beers after the stage, it’s a world away from the Tour de France.”

US rider Boswell, who retired from the pro peloton at the end of the 2019 season, is part of a wave of elite riders taking a leap into the unknown.

Boswell, along with Ted King, Laurens ten Dam, Peter Stetina, have all tasted the highest level of cycling, before leaving the professional peloton behind in search of roads less travelled in the blossoming gravel scene. 

The leading group in Unbound Gravel 2021

(Image credit: Wahoo/Andy Chastain)

While the benefits of gravel will be clear and obvious to many Cycling Weekly readers - the adventure, the sense of achievement, the absence of traffic - but why are so many former professional riders leaving the tarmac behind? 

Boswell’s route to the gravel, fittingly, was not a straight line.

As he left the peloton, the 30-year-old from Bend, Oregon, took up a new day job with fitness tech company Wahoo, which took him to some of the biggest gravel races in the world as part of his role, and he quickly decided he might as well try and a few. 

But beyond the obvious convenience, Boswell is sees a different side: “I think it's just like a fresh take on cycling in many ways, it's something new and different. 

“In road racing, you become an expert and become so comfortable. It’s such a cycle, you just go through the same process more or less every year with a similar schedule and preparation.

“You come into gravel and it’s something new and different.

“It's still highly competitive and it's still fast racing but it's just fun because it's different.” 

Boswell started his racing career in 2010 and swiftly moved up to WorldTour level in 2013, joining the biggest team in the world Sky Procycling.

After remaining with the British WorldTour squad for most of his career, he then switched to Katusha-Alpecin in 2018, where he was given the chance to race on the biggest stage there is, the Tour de France. 

But not long after, Boswell opted to end his racing career as Katusha-Alpecin folded at the end of the 2019 season, instead finding a new challenge. 

His WorldTour career ended without a pro win on his palmarès, but Boswell’s gravel career has actually started with glory, albeit amongst a more niche crowd.

After initially planning to start gravel racing in 2020 before the pandemic shut down those plans, Boswell started the new step in his career at the Rule of Three 100-mile gravel event in Bentonville, Arkansas earlier this year where he finished second, before he hit the Unbound Gravel event in Kansas.

Unbound, previously known as Dirty Kanza before the name was changed due to connotations linking it a Native American tribe, has been organically growing in esteem in the cycling world, but in 2021 was boosted by the inclusion of WorldTour pros like Boswell and Laurens ten Dam (formerly of Sunweb and CCC Team).

Ian Boswell wins Unbound Gravel 2021

(Image credit: Wahoo/Andy Chastain)

After more than 300km and 10 hours of racing, the brutal one-day event came down to a two-rider sprint between Dutchman Ten Dam and Boswell, with the latter emerging victorious. 

>>> 'It's been an incredible journey': The story of Nic Dlamini and his first Tour de France

While we may look back on Boswell’s win in his second ever gravel race as a pivotal moment in his double-sided career, he says it still doesn’t quite match his number one career highlight - riding the 2018 Tour de France: “I would still say just racing in the 2018 Tour is probably the biggest highlight of my career just because it was such a childhood dream.

“Racing Unbound and winning that was, I don't want to say it was a fluke, but it was like it wasn't something I really thought that much about. I went there with very low expectations because I am so new to gravel racing and especially that event which does take a lot of experience and luck.”

“To win Unbound is fantastic but it just feels so funny that like the minute I retired and kind of stopped caring about winning... I won.” 

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Alex Ballinger

Alex Ballinger is editor of BikeBiz magazine, the leading publication for the UK cycle industry, and is the former digital news editor for CyclingWeekly.com. After gaining experience in local newsrooms, national newspapers and in digital journalism, Alex found his calling in cycling, first as a reporter, then as news editor responsible for Cycling Weekly's online news output, and now as the editor of BikeBiz. Since pro cycling first captured his heart during the 2010 Tour de France (specifically the Contador-Schleck battle) Alex covered three Tours de France, multiple editions of the Tour of Britain, and the World Championships, while both writing and video presenting for Cycling Weekly. He also specialises in fitness writing, often throwing himself into the deep end to help readers improve their own power numbers.  Away from the desk, Alex can be found racing time trials, riding BMX and mountain bikes, or exploring off-road on his gravel bike. He’s also an avid gamer, and can usually be found buried in an eclectic selection of books.