The allure of gravel racing for WorldTour pros? ‘Dave Brailsford never came up to me and said “well done Ian, you finished!”’

Ian Boswell talks about tuning into regular life post-WorldTour career while still winning bike races

Ian Boswell
(Image credit: Getty)

“It's kind of the weirdest thing that's happened to me as a cyclist,” Ian Boswell says.

“In the sense that…I never had the amount of attention and media obligations [when I was a road pro] than I did after unbound. That kind of blew my mind and I was not expecting it.”

Boswell had been settling into life post-WorldTour career, working a full-time job at Wahoo whilst also signing up for gravel events to scratch the lingering competitive itch. Then, he won Unbound, one of the premier gravel events in the world.

The Monday morning after the race Boswell had to tell his colleagues at Wahoo he needed the week off. Not because he was tired from the race but because of all the magazines and newspapers getting in touch. Luckily, that attention, while unintentional, is of benefit to his new employers and also gives Boswell a bit more longevity to his career on two wheels.

At Rouleur Live last year, Boswell was part of the panel discussion on gravel and offroad racing, succinctly summing up one particular benefit of his new discipline.

“After a race, Dave Brailsford never came up to me and said ‘well done Ian, you finished!’” the American announces to laughter from the audience. But this is the reality of off-road racing where a larger onus is placed on participation rather than performance.

>>> Pete Kennaugh: Dave Brailsford said to me, ‘trust me, normal life sucks’

“When you're in Team Sky you're surrounded by the best athletes in the world. My training rides were with Philippe Gilbert, Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Geraint Thomas and Michal Kwiatkowski. You're comparing yourself to people who are like...I haven't won the World Championships, or I haven't won four Tours de France and so you feel unsuccessful, and you're being viewed by media or team management like ‘oh, you haven't won the Tour yet’," Boswell tells Cycling Weekly.

“You're not being rewarded for these accomplishments but you're failing to realise where you've come from. I hoped but I never thought I would be in the Tour de France. This journey to being at the top of the sport…your reference point is only around people who are above you. 

"That's one thing with gravel, there's a sense of accomplishment. You're not comparing yourself against them…there's more of a sense of like this shared kind of accomplishment of just making it there, the journey of realising what a privilege it is to be travelling to these races and to be participating with all these people on awesome equipment on beautiful roads. That opened my eyes to realising everyone at this race, whether they are fast or slow, have come through a journey to get here. It’s about appreciating everyone's experience, not just the person who won.”

It’s not that life is better now his professional career is over, it’s just different. Boswell acknowledges the beautiful brutality of a professional road racing career, being able to pour yourself completely into what is effectively your day job. A savage lifestyle no-one has forced you into, as he describes it.

As a WorldTour pro, life is about constantly chasing something, but with gravel racing is still about being competitive but he has nothing to prove. Nowadays, his biggest challenges are his desk job. Four calls back-to-back before we speak around lunchtime, and meanwhile, his email inbox has been filling up.

“I almost see it as a game at times,” he says of working a desk job. “To make this transition away from professional sport is hard, I never made enough money to be in a position where retiring means actual retirement, I needed to find a job right away to pay my bills.”

And although his gravel career has now taken off and he could probably now make a career out of that, the support and structure a ‘real-life’ job has given him, and an understanding employer in Wahoo who get it when Boswell says he’s off to race across 200km of dirt track at the weekends, he’s more than adjusting to life outside of the pro cycling bubble.

“I still speak with friends, I don't need to name names, but American riders living abroad and their life is still fully in cycling. They don't have a partner they haven't…every year goes past and I'm like ‘wow, like, all these things have happened to me’. I bought a house, I got a job, I'm in the volunteer fire department, I have a baby on the way. In a way, life has started and for them, it's like life is still at a standstill because of the chase of bike racing. 

“I think it's something that's probably more unique to riders from the US and Australia because you're so far away from home. It's like everything's on hold until you move back home. Lawson Craddock has two kids and Tejay van Garderen has kids but it's almost like a temporary existence, like you're living in this foreign country full time and you have friends and stuff. But, you know that when this ends  I'm going to move back to wherever I live in the US and it's going to be a completely different lifestyle.

"At the same time, you have to have that mindset as a professional athlete, to be fully immersed, you can't have these distractions of ‘oh, what am I gonna do when I stop?’ because the minute they start to creep into your mind it's easy to be like ‘well I guess I'm going down to go down that avenue now’.”

For Boswell, that avenue is very 21st century, a fluid hybridity to how he earns a living, an understanding of modern-day nomadism, and a re-found sense for what, actually, really matters. 

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