Boswell is Back
Name: Ian Boswell Age: 30
Profession: Wahoo Fitness, Athlete Liaison
Family: Wife, Gretchen
Sports: Road and gravel racing.
Lives in: Peacham, Vt.
Ian Boswell was a pro cyclist on the WorldTour, racing the Tour de France and living half the year in Nice, France when he a crash in 2019 left him with a traumatic brain injury. Boswell, who grew up in Oregon, had recently moved to Peacham, Vt. with his wife Gretchen, a Vermonter. While Ian recovered, the couple settled into life in the rural Vermont village and started the Peacham Fall Fondo (happening on Sept. 25). This past summer, Ian jumped back into competitions, racing gravel for the first time. In June, Ian won Unbound, the 200-mile gravel classic in Kansas, following a sprint where he beat Laurens Ten Dam, a pro Dutch road racer, and Colin Strickland, the 2019 winner as well as Vermont’s Ted King. We caught up with Ian just after he won Rooted Vermont and as he was headed to race the Belgian Waffle Ride in Asheville, N.C., a race he also won.
This summer you won the premiere gravel race in the country, Unbound Gravel. Not bad for someone who has allegedly “retired” from pro racing. Was there a moment when you said, “I’m going to get back into racing, but go for gravel?”
I guess it didn’t really happen until I was there, you know. I didn’t have any expectations going into Unbound. It was good to be in the lead pack of five or so for much of the race, but I certainly didn’t think I was going to win, even right up until the final sprint. I had a level of fitness from my career of racing bikes in the WorldTour, but Unbound was only my second gravel event. There were a lot of unknowns and I had no idea how I would do against guys like Colin (Strickland), Ted (King) or Pete (Stetina)—all former pros. But I just had a magical day. I really surprised myself there. I wasn’t used to all the other factors that go into a 200-mile gravel race – the flats, the hydration. It’s similar to road racing, but these events are super long and you are looking after all your own stuff. The riding can also be really technical.
What’s the biggest difference for you between racing on the World Tour level and just going out and riding on your own in the gravel circuit?
I think the biggest difference is that I’m doing this because I love it. I really think the time I spent not riding, post my crash and concussion in 2019, was when I realized just how much I love riding my bike; how much positivity and health it brings to my life in so many ways. And that’s kind of why I’m still doing it today. I love the people I meet and riding different areas. But it’s not a job anymore. There’s no pressure to perform. I feel incredibly fortunate that I still get to travel to these events and races and make time in the day to ride.
When you were racing road events, you had several concussions including a bad one that left you with a traumatic brain injury and some vision problems. Are you fully recovered?
I would say that I am doing fairly well. I mean I am still racing, obviously. But I am not always comfortable taking turns at high speed. I don’t know whether its physiological or psychological, but I limit the risks I take. There have been numerous gravel races this year from Rooted to Unbound where I found myself off the back because I was just not willing to take on a certain level of risk. I still suffer from some visual effects, especially when I am tired or it’s been a long day on the computer, so I try to stay rested and hydrated. And it sounds strange, but it’s very apparent if I’m riding (or if someone’s riding behind me) that my body just doesn’t want to turn left. I guess maybe it’s the fear of the tire sliding out or just not committing to the turn. Sometimes it’s something as simple as not wanting to unclip on my left side.
How do you stay in race shape now that you are living away from a team and have a full time job?
In January 2020, I took a full time position at Wahoo Fitness. I do the Breakfast With Boz podcast and manage all of our athlete relationships. I end up going to a lot of events and because we are in the endurance sports world, Wahoo is fully supportive of my, say doing a 3-hour ride in the middle of the day. My training is pretty random, but I try to get in at least one long ride per week and a couple of times this summer I’ve been able to do some hard rides with Ted (King) or Ansel (Dickey) or Mike Barton. And during the pandemic, a group of Northeast Kingdom riders got together and we started the weekly St. Johnsbury Creemee Ride – we meet at the Milk House and it’s anywhere from 15 miles to 27 miles. I don’t always do it, but it’s fun to see it growing and some days it’s 50/50 men and women. But often I’m indoors using a Wahoo platform called the Sufferfest. It combines cycling workouts with yoga and strength training.
You recently were invited to race Migration Gravel in Kenya. What was that like?
The Amani Foundation reached out to me and a few other riders and invited us to come race this four-day, 650K gravel ride through the Maasai Mara. It’s a race to help support Kenyan riders and they really wanted us to ride our hardest so their athletes could gain experience and see what it’s like to race internationally.
It was one of the most unique and influential races I’ve done. It was point-to-point every day and at night we’d set up camp with these different Maasai tribes. The terrain was a mix of Paris-Roubaix and mountain biking – some of it was more like an adventure race with dirt tracks or riding through grass. And the landscape was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. We were up at 9,000 feet one day and then down in the Masai Mara in open grassland with elephants and giraffes and wildebeest. Just leaving at sunrise and seeing herds of wildebeest running in front of us was amazing. One time we even had to stop because they weren’t going to slow down.
You ran into someone you knew there, tell us about that?
This was a crazy story. My senior year in high school a friends’ mother was passing away with cancer. She had done a lot of work with the Maasai and a Maasai chief, Salaton, flew over to see her. He held a ceremony where we shaved our heads and he burned some grass in her honor. At Migration Gravel, the first day in camp we were sitting down and I hear the name Salaton and there he was, the same guy I had met 12 years earlier. He was the chief who was helping organize all the stays at different camps. He remembered me and the next night he cooked for us at his camp.
How do you see gravel racing evolve? Will it go the route of road and mountain bike racing and lose its grassroots feel?
To be quite frank, I think that’s inevitable as these big races are becoming more contested and people are making careers out of them. But there are so many different types of events now around the globe that there’s something for everyone, from some of the big races that get a lot of media like the Vermont Overland or Unbound or to local gravel events. But the grassroots participation model is still so strong that I think people will seek out events that fit their desire.
Speaking of which, your Peacham Fall Fondo is back. What are you planning this year?
We’re super excited to bring it back. Peacham is still very grassroots and I tried to call it “Vermont’s easiest gravel ride” – which isn’t exactly accurate because there is a lot of climbing. But it’s not a race. There’s no timing, no finish line and we actually try to slow people down. We’re bringing back the Roam Gnomes – these gnomes that we hide along Rake Factory Road with these little rakes. If you find one, you take a rake and you can bring it back for a prize. And we have the pie station at the library. I can’t imagine why people would pay money to enter and not stop for pie. We actually want people to slow down and arrive at the finish line at the same time. A couple of years ago Ansel Dickey stopped after the last aid station and went for a swim in the lake. That’s awesome. I’ve raced in so many intense races I wanted this to be about community and a ride where you could just spin and have a conversation.
How does gravel riding here in Vermont compare to elsewhere?
We’re spoiled in Vermont: it is the best gravel riding in the world. The SBT GRVL race in Steamboat, Colo. has this quote “The world’s best gravel roads” and they have some great roads and they’re very nice, but Vermont’s really are the best. The roads are well graded, the scenery is awesome—and every time I come home, I realize that.
So, what’s next for you?
After Peacham, I’m taking some time off. Gretchen and I are expecting a child in December and we have a lot of stuff to do this fall – cut wood, gather apples, get the gardens put to bed. I’ve joined the volunteer fire department in Peacham, too. I’m looking forward to just staying put and being part of this community. —L. Lynn