Ian Boswell on the gravel blueprint: ‘Athletes have a lot of power at the moment’

As the defending champion readies himself for another 200 miles of Unbound Gravel, he discusses the ever-changing landscape of the sport.

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When I send a mid-afternoon WhatsApp to Ian Boswell it’s the 10th request he’s had that day in the run-up to his title defence at Unbound, the marquee gravel event of the year.

“I doubt you’re texting Wout van Aert being like hey can I give you a call?” Boswell says. “I’d rather have personal relationships with no middle person anymore, which is what I love about it. But I’m really bad at saying no to things.”

Various people are all trying to get hold of him in the same week, journalists, brands asking if he can turn up to a certain place at a certain time, photographers wanting to take photos of him and/or his bike.

“I’m trying to fulfil everything I can but I realised I’m going to get to Emporia, Kansas, tomorrow and don’t know when I’m going to have time to get my shit organised. I don’t know when I’m going to have time to sit down and get my bags organised for the aid stations. But my thought process now is anything I can do to give back to the sport whether that’s helping other riders or doing a shake-out ride with people doing it for the first time, that’s important, but it almost comes to the detriment of trying to perform.”

The thing is, performance wasn’t necessarily something Boswell had in mind when it came to gravel racing. Sure, he still likes to ride fast, find a former WorldTour pro that doesn’t, but the plan wasn’t necessarily to win Unbound in 2021 and try to change his life.

“Last year I felt I was on the periphery of gravel racing, people knew who I was from the road but I hadn’t really entered this scene. I’d only done one event coming up to it. No one was really talking about me or asked me to do anything before the race. It was a super pleasurable experience. I just kind of learned from asking people and trial and error.”

“I just find myself now in such a funny spot,” he says, fast-forwarding a year to when he’s building up to the race as defending champion.

“But in the last two weeks, I’ve felt like ‘what is happening?’ It’s my own impression of how the sport has changed…more changed for me just given the success I had last year. Because there are plenty of young athletes where this is the marquee event of their year and for me, it’s still by far the biggest event I’ll do in the year and by far the most prestigious, but you know, I’m not old, but I’m 31 now and I have a lifestyle set-up where I’m not really looking to make changes to my life.”

“Like if I win this race it’s not like I’m going to leave my job at Wahoo, or go do something else or seek a WorldTour contract, or try to find a different gravel program.”

When he was in the WorldTour with the likes of Team Sky, there would be a large number of support staff present to allow the riders to focus on racing. But in gravel, where riders race as individuals, most of the tasks directly fall to the person riding. During his road days, Boswell used to dislike the distance placed between riders and the outside world; how he would be told, for instance, to meet a journalist for an interview at 11:30 in the morning and half an hour later the press officer would appear to wrap things up.

“I now see the purpose of why they have those people in place,” Boswell acknowledges, saying during his previous career he wouldn’t be accustomed to the same number of press requests as the likes of Chris Froome or Peter Sagan, but now has had a taste of what it must be like to be them: “because if you do say yes to everything your rest days are more tiring than your race days.”

Boswell goes on to elaborate how the nature of gravel racing has not necessarily leant itself to creating a new world of processes surrounding bike racing, and instead he and other former WorldTour pros who’ve found their way to gravel almost inadvertently settle back into the ways of their old life.

“I’m by no means an original gravel racer, it’s only my second year, but because there’s already this template from professional road racing, how the media covers it or how athletes share stuff. [Of course] people are doing it in new ways but there’s already this template that to a large degree works so it’s easy to fall back into that. Especially for myself and Pete [Stetina], and Ted [King] to a degree, you came up through this system where you’re always kind of at the mercy of your team, you’re always trying to please your team so you can get a new contract. And sometimes fail to realise we are, in a way, groundbreaking what this career looks like.”

“For us, the default is we kind of act like we did in the WorldTour yet we now have this opportunity to do things differently, but we have this system we’re already accustomed to, the journalists are accustomed to, the brands are accustomed to, so we kind of default back to that rather than saying hey there are more funs ways we can do this.”

One idea Boswell had was to bring the top 20 or so riders together in the run-up to Unbound along with an assortment of media to get all that done and dusted in record time so the athletes can actually focus on the race. A brave new world of how to run bike races does seem like a necessity for gravel, as Boswell explains, because of the fact that not every rider is lining up with riding fast in the forefront of their mind.

“It’s also the weird thing with gravel at the moment where you have athletes who aren’t even trying to perform, they’re influencers, they’re there to do content or a video, for them this is their livelihood that comes from that side of it,” Boswell says.

“You’re also seeing athletes come at it from the side of this is their job, this is their career. There’s this confluence of how we manage both aspects. I see it from the standpoint of working in marketing in Wahoo and working with our athletes, are we viewing these athletes today in this space as influencers or as athletes? The line has become very murky because it’s kind of both.”

Even for Boswell, the line isn’t so simple.

“I’m doing a seven-hour photoshoot on Thursday, which is not ideal before Unbound, but someone’s asked me so I’ll do it.”

The fact we haven’t really spoken about the actual race, possible tactics, expectations or any other usual pre-event questions, speaks to the fact this event is more than about who crosses the line first. The fact it simply exists and is an area of growth away from the areas of cycling more bogged-down by tradition is much more interesting than talk of contenders.

But by winning Boswell has unintentionally earned himself a spot in shaping the future of the sport alongside other trailblazers who’ve seen how on the tarmac side of things there’s a lot that could be improved when given the chance to start from scratch again.

“I love that I’m a part of it, I guess a lot of my thought process at the moment is how am I, and those around me, acting now that will dictate what it’s like for the next group of athletes,” Boswell explains. “Because the decisions we make may not necessarily affect us. Pete, Ted and myself aren’t getting any younger. We’re at a different point in our careers than someone like Keegan Swenson or Russell Finsterwald, or female athletes like Sofia Gomez…this is their career.”

“So what are we doing positively or negatively that can affect how the sport looks for them in five years or ten years? For that kid that’s 18 now, what can we do that will benefit them in the future or harm them by the way we’re setting up the landscape in a sense. And by no means am I saying I want that responsibility or that job shaping this sport, but at the same time having had my pro road career I know the positives and negatives of that side of the sport, so how can we make this a more friendly place for the athletes, more beneficial place for the athletes. We have a lot of power at the moment to shape that but it’s easy for everyone to go along how we do so in other realms of the sport.”

The landscape of Unbound is the 200 miles the riders will tackle this coming weekend, but the more exciting terrain is that which is currently unchartered, lying in the future, waiting to be shaped by the riders themselves.

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