The crash that ended one career and started another
Something was in the air on the fourth stage of the 2019 Tirreno-Adriatico. Stage winner Alexey Lutsenko crashed twice in the final 20 kilometers. Geraint Thomas abandoned mid-race, citing stomach problems, but is said to have noted the race was sketchy. Tony Martin and teammate Laurens De Plus slid out in separate crashes on the same section of road.
On a narrow stretch of tarmac, the peloton bunched up and Ian Boswell overlapped a wheel. He tipped, went over his bars, landed on his head, and didn’t move. Help arrived, and still, he didn’t move.
The crash ended Boswell’s race, then his season, and ultimately, his professional road racing career. It set off a perspective shift, a personal and professional realignment, and a new way to make a living on two wheels.
Boswell was originally scheduled to race Paris-Nice, but a last-minute schedule change from his Katusha-Alpecin team sent him to a one-day Classic, Strade Bianche. After a few days rest, it was on to Tirreno-Adriatico, a notoriously challenging preparatory race for bigger goals later in the season.
In the early kilometers of stage 4, Boswell remembers finally feeling the sensations he’d been working towards. He’d been focused and methodical in training, leaning on the 15 years he’d spent racing at a high level on the road, including having ridden all three Grand Tours. He was hitting his stride in the WorldTour, he said. Then, in a flash, his life changed profoundly.
“The first thing I remember was seeing my director and asking for my bike,” Boswell said, now sitting at his home in rural Vermont. His reaction was the same as any pro: “It’s only three Ks to the finish – I’ll just ride.”
It’s remarkable how WorldTour riders scramble for their bike seconds after a crash, fueled by pure determination to get back to the task at hand. They often don’t even look at their marred bodies. The team mechanic will race towards them, not with a first aid kit, but with two wheels or a spare bike. The goal is simple and mutually understood – if your body is capable, get back to the bunch as quickly as possible.
It wasn’t three kilometers to the finish line, it was more like 60. Boswell had been severely concussed, had lost track of where he was. It would take many months for him to fully understand the lasting effects of his traumatic brain injury – the sixth in his career.
When Boswell got up from his crash, he thought he was fine. Luckily, his director knew otherwise. Boswell was loaded into an ambulance and driven to the finish line. The team doctor had seen the crash on the TV mountain in the team’s bus and knew Boswell needed to go to the hospital.
The now-28-year-old spent the night in a crowded hospital room outside Fossombrone, Italy. Still in his sweaty race kit, his knees were covered with road rash and stuck to the bedsheets. The next day, his fiancee, Gretchen, and former teammate Phil Deignan drove from Nice to pick him up.
Several days after the crash, Boswell visited a neurologist in Monaco who confirmed his concussion. MRI scans found damage from a prior concussion that had gone unchecked. Still, Boswell thought it was just a small hiccup. A few days’ rest, he thought, and he’d be back to work preparing for a strong showing the Tour of California that would hopefully set him up for another shot at the Tour de France.
Gretchen insisted he take it easy and stay away from his phone screen, but she was heading home to Vermont. Boswell, meanwhile, had anticipated heading up north to Isola for an altitude camp. He started off by trying to pedal his bike gently on the trainer. He got off almost immediately. Dizziness, nausea, mood swings and a general sense of frustration for things not feeling right signaled he was not okay. This wouldn’t just be a few days off the bike. Big changes were on the horizon.
With his wedding coming up in May and the full support of his team, Boswell went home to Vermont.
The road to recovery from a severe head injury is rarely straightforward, like it would have been had he simply broken a bone. And though concussion awareness is definitely growing within pro cycling, many teams’ lack a structure for recovery from something nuanced like a brain injury. “In cycling, every team has a connection with a hospital or specialist where riders can go get a broken collar bone plated, but there’s nothing like that for a head injury,” he says.
Taking matters into his own hands, Boswell started working with the Love Your Brain Foundation, founded by professional snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who also suffered a career-ending brain injury. Boswell began meditating and joined a support group through the foundation.
The lasting effects of a brain injury are often invisible, making patience paramount. Boswell struggled to be patient with the process as pressure mounted. “It’s the middle of the season, a contract year; you have a concussion but you want to get back to racing as soon as you can,” he said.
After getting married in late May, he was feeling better and began a more regular training routine. The intention was to return to Europe to race as early as Clásica San Sebastián in late July, thinking that perhaps he could build towards the Vuelta a España in late August.
It wasn’t long before many of his symptoms came back. “Double vision, dizziness, extreme fatigue,” he said. “It was different than the fatigue I’d have from [normal] training.”
He felt foreign in his own body. “Going to the grocery store was hell — the fluorescent lights and all.”
Boswell struggled to gain footing in any direction. The summer of 2019 was the first summer not racing his bike in more than a decade and a half. He was searching for solid ground. “It’s been a real journey since Tirreno; a lot of ups and downs. What’s going to happen? Will teams still sign me? Should I go back to racing this year? There’s been a lot of unknowns,” he said. “For the last 15 years of my life there’s been a lot of consistency with very specific goals, time windows, and objectives – what to do and how to do it.” This was a reset unlike any he had experienced.
Before his crash at Tirreno, Boswell had been completely focused on his job as a professional cyclist. He was wrapped up in his sport, his identity tied intimately to his ability on two wheels. Without the routine he was accustomed to, he started to question his identity. The pause gave him an opportunity to note some of his internal dialogue and see it from a new perspective. “You always have this little voice in your head that makes you think about your career,” he said. “It’s always on your mind.” Boswell sought help and started seeing a therapist who worked with him on identifying who he was if he wasn’t a professional athlete.
By July, Boswell’s instincts told him he should be training, but he had to deny those impulses and learn to fill his days in different ways. Fortunately, he lives on a beautiful property with a barn that’s more than 200 years old. He doesn’t like to sit around and do nothing, so he got busy learning new skills.
“Plumbing, electrical, deck building, handyman skills,” he said. “I’ve been so focused on bike racing the past 15 years, it can be challenging to find the time to learn new skills. I’m so good at this one thing [racing] it’s hard to be bad at all these other things. It’s hard to ask for advice. I’ve missed out on all these other things in life.”
Slowly, step-by-step, Boswell began to look at himself differently. Crucially, as more than just a bike racer.
“To really be able to find new things and be patient with new things; tedious things like collecting apples off our trees when we could just go out and buy them at the store,” he said. “Learning to appreciate the simpler things, and just slowing down and not thinking, ‘Oh, I shouldn’t be on my feet, I should go take a nap,’ or ‘Let’s have dinner now because I want to go to bed early’. To just live in a more relaxed way has been something nice, and realizing that other things in life can bring you joy and happiness beyond riding a bike. Although I still think riding will probably always will be a part of my routine for daily happiness.”
As the summer drew on, Boswell continued to wonder about his chances of signing a contract for 2020. His team, Katusha-Alpecin, was rumored to be shutting down or morphing into something else. Like everyone else, Boswell was as in the dark about the whole situation. Stress continued to mount, and he needed to make a decision.
“Am I going back to racing?” he asked himself. “Am I good enough to go back to racing?”
One thing he knew: Cycling is a small world. If word got out that he was even looking at other opportunities beyond racing, teams would sense his hesitancy. “You really have to be all in. Your whole life has to be based around it.”
Realizing he needed something concrete to say yes or no to, Boswell’s agent went to work looking for teams that might be interested in signing him. “Do I wait for teams to get back to me? Should I explore other avenues for a different line of work?” Boswell asked himself. “I have other passions and goals. One of the things I’ve learned in this process is that cycling doesn’t last forever.
“At some point, you’re going to go through this transition phase into another part of life and it’s never going to be easy. Even if you win the Tour de France then retire, you’re still going to have a hard time with the transition to normal life.”
Boswell began to see how different his lifestyle had become.
“In [professional] cycling, you’re consumed by the sport,” he said. “Your perception of time, days of the week, is all different. In November, after a few weeks’ break, you start training for the next season; it’s all that really matters. Everything else is scheduled around that.
“Like, we better go on vacation in October but no one goes on vacation in October. One year Gretchen and I went to Corsica in October and half the buildings were closed up.”
By August, the thought of racing at all in 2019 was out the window, but he was feeling better on the bike. He still hadn’t decided what he was doing, even if it was always on his mind.
“I’d sit there and ask myself, ‘What am I going to do? Am I going to get a contract? If I don’t, what do I do?’ If you wait until December, maybe a team needs a last-minute rider,” he said. “The more I thought about it, the more I flip-flopped on it. I was getting fit, feeling good; I’d go out for a ride and come back and speak to my wife and be like, ‘Oh I love cycling, I want to keep racing.’ Then I’d watch a stage in the Vuelta and see these crashes and think, ‘Screw it, that sucks.’
“Tony Martin had that bad crash, then three days later there’s a picture of him out for a training ride getting ready for Worlds. I was like, ‘What are you thinking?’ It’s not stupid, it’s admirable, I’ve been there before, but through the last few months, something in me has changed.”
On a Friday in early September, Boswell’s agent called saying a team was interested. He quickly sent over power files and medical records, not knowing what would happen. The team wanted to make Boswell an offer, and they wanted to do it quickly.
“All of a sudden I had to make a decision,” he said. “And then it was like, ‘I don’t have time anymore.’ There I was still thinking ‘Am I going to race again or not?’”
Boswell called the team manager and said he was sorry but that he wouldn’t be racing road bikes in 2020. The manager was surprised, as he thought it was a done deal. “I just needed to speak with him and be honest in saying there’s something within me – I don’t want to take a spot on the team if I’m not 100% into it because I know how hard athletes work to get to that level,” he said. “I know what it means to people and what it’s meant to me for the last 15 years of my life. I still love riding a bike but I just came to a point in my life and my career where I decided that I actually don’t want to race road bikes next year.”
Finally, relief. He had made the decision that had tormented him for months.
“In a sense, I could move forward. But it was difficult as well,” he said. “Once you’ve made that decision, closed the curtain. Well, of course, I could come back to racing in 2021 or halfway through next year, who knows? Maybe I really miss it and want to get back on the road. But I feel confident in the choice I’ve made.
“I’ve had an awesome career racing my road bike, it’s been my passion since I was eight years old. I have no regrets. I’m not cynical towards cycling at all. I love cycling and still love watching cycling.”
Once Boswell made the decision to not pursue road racing in 2020, he started to see the sport in a new way. And yes, that meant looking at the stoke building around gravel. In 2020, he’ll join the growing ranks for former WorldTour pros taking on the likes of Dirty Kanza. The details of his new program are due out this week.
“I still love riding my bike and still love being fit,” he said. “I’ve kept my eye on the gravel scene — the alternative race calendar. Knowing the level of these riders and their performance on the road, it’s interesting to see how some of these riders have transitioned and have been more successful in gravel than they were on the road.”
Boswell’s time in the WorldTour was spent largely in a domestique role, which means he’s a diesel – perfect for gravel riding. “I love long stuff, and the gravel season, the signature events are far enough apart – you race 10 or 12 races rather than the 85 or 90 race days I had last year. The last two years, there were a lot of other events I wanted to go to. Partners invited me to things like the Belgian Waffle Ride and Steamboat Gravel and I wanted to go but I couldn’t because it wasn’t important to the road team.”
Almost a year after the crash that ended his pro road career, Boswell has a new perspective on sport, and on himself. The myopic drive toward athletic perfection required to succeed in the WorldTour is behind him. Ahead? Balance, and a few thousand miles of gravel.
Update: As promised, Boswell has now released details of his 2020 plans. You can watch the first of his Frontier videos here.