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Q&A: John Borstelmann on being a big guy in gravel and his love of racing on the road

The 31-year-old has twice won Gravel Worlds and is known for dropping the competition on fast, rolling roads. He's also a veteran of Latin American stage racing.

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When I reached out to John Borstelmann after SBT GRVL in August, I had to offer an apology — I told him that I felt like I should know more about him, given his accomplishments in the sport.

Borstelmann has been a stalwart part of the gravel scene since 2018, when he narrowly missed the podium at Gravel Worlds in Nebraska. In 2019, he won the 125-mile race and did so again in 2021. During his four-ish (because Covid) years racing gravel, Borstelmann has become a frequent member of the pointy end, known for making bold moves and going solo during some of the more grueling events. He did that at both SBT GRVL and Big Sugar Gravel this year; unfortunately, neither yielded a podium-worthy result.

One thing that I, and perhaps many others, didn’t know about Borstelmann is that he also races on the road — and loves it. Next week, he’s headed to Ecuador for the seven-day Vuelta al Ecuador. He’ll be guest riding for the Rio Grande Elite Cycling team; normally, he races with the Voler Factory Racing squad.

Borstelmann was part of the inaugural Life Time Grand Prix this summer, and we caught up between the last race of the series, Big Sugar Gravel, and his trip to Ecuador.

VeloNews: I heard you’re going to Ecuador, and then I heard this isn’t your first rodeo racing on the road! Tell me about this. 

John Borstelmann: I started racing road, the first bike race I ever did was a local road race in 2015. I raced road exclusively for three years before gravel. I did win a collegiate national championship on the road, for the omnium, at the ripe young age of 27. In 2019, I joined both my current gravel as well as current road teams, I’ve been with both ever since.

My road team, we’re domestic elite but still race at a pretty high level, mostly cat 1. Part of the big draw for that team for me is that they do regularly send squads to stage races in Latin America primarily. I’ve raced Vuelta a la Independencia in the Dominican Republic, I go almost every year. I’ve done Vuelta Guatemala, which is a UCI race. Tour de La Paz, a smaller stage race, and Volta de Goiás in Brazil last year.

VN: What’s the race in Ecuador like? 

JB: It’s gonna be an adventure. The first two stages are at sea level and relatively flat, and the following six are up and around Quito, which is at like 6,000 feet and mountainous. That’s about the average elevation for the rest of the stages. Stages 3-7 have almost 20,000 meters of climbing, which is over 10,000 feet a day for five days in a row at crazy altitude. These Ecuadorians, Colombians, and Guatemalans were born at altitude, lived there their whole lives, and are also pretty small guys. So the climbing will be pretty difficult for me, and I just hope that I can survive and make the time cut.

To put it in perspective, last year there was a less competitive field and four flat stages. The team won two of those, we were in the leader jersey in GC but by the end, everyone except one guy had been time cut. So, we went from being the best team in race to the worst. So yeah, altitude and mountains make a big difference down there. Hopefully, I can get a good result in the first two stages, get some UCI points, then hang on for dear life and enjoy the adventure of exploring a new place by bike.

john borstelmann
Borstelmann at the start of the 2021 Tulsa Tough (Photo: Kai Caddy)

VN: That brings up another question I wanted to ask you — how do you define your riding strengths/style? 

JB: I think I fit the traditional definition of a rouleur. I do just as well as the little guys on any climb that’s under about five minutes long because I can really push that VO2 max engine. Once it gets into really steep extended climbs, I don’t have the watts per kilo to be competitive with anyone like Keegan [Swenson] or Pete [Stetina]. Anyone in Grand Prix field who’s competitive is at most 160 pounds, and I’m a solid 170. Pete and Keegan are like 130 so that makes a huge difference. And it’s something I’ve thought about — in order to really have a chance in getting in top five at Crusher or Leadville, do I want to go on some crazy diet regimen and morph my body into something it’s not to keep up with those guys?

I think I could try to slim down without losing power and maybe do better, but I’m never gonna win a climbing race like that no matter what I do to myself. And I have a really strong engine for the more rolling courses and I like to go hard and pedal fast at the same time. Which is something that doesn’t happen in the Rocky Mountains. You’re either pedaling fast or going hard. A course like Big Sugar was really perfect for me, a bunch of punchy repeated climbs that weren’t really harder for me than they were for the climbing types but I have the advantage of the momentum on the downhills and rolling stuff.

VN: But, does it ever mess with your head? The notion that ‘you could be faster if’?

JB: I try not to let it mess with me. And I don’t. I just know going in that I don’t have a shot at Crusher or Leadville. I would have been proud to make top 20 in those races, and I also know I have an advantage on other courses. That’s the thing with the Grand Prix, on the surface it seems like a well-rounded series with short courses, long courses, climbing and flat. But how it actually felt racing it this year was that it felt like the Grand Prix favors the person with the mountain bike background over someone with a road or midwest-style gravel background. It definitely favors a climber because there’s four races that have very significant climbing compared with two that are more rouleurs courses.

Snacks — one of the perks of riding bikes (Photo: Brian Trapp)

There are so many races out there that do suit my riding style, with how competitive the scene is as a whole. I think I’ll lose some of my raw power and speed if I do become a climber. I like to train a ton and I like to eat a lot … that’s my recipe for success. I don’t want to starve myself, that would take away the fun of it for me.

VN: Another good segue: are you going to apply for the Grand Prix again?

JB: Good question. I haven’t completely made up my mind about that. I am leaning against it. I know they haven’t officially announced the calendar, but I’ve heard rumors that it’s gonna be the same six races. Honestly, my biggest gripe with it is that I’m required to pay the entry for Leadville, which is something like 500 bucks. In the past, the team has covered entry fees, but next year I’ll be doing an independent program for gravel so I’m budgeting for my own races.

VN: You’re one of few pro gravel racers who’s been on a team. What have been some of the advantages and disadvantages of that? 

JB: The biggest advantage is in developing new riders, and I think that’s really important for the sport as a whole. Especially with a discipline like gravel where the equipment is such a big factor and there’s so much to learn about tire selection, maintenance, things like overhauling your bearings when you do a muddy race. How to go about aid stations at a race like Unbound where you need a support crew and having an experienced support crew is really helpful. All these little things that aren’t necessarily intuitive but really important for people who are new to the sport.

The whole thing where a few years ago people were all scared about teams showing up and using road tactics, I think that’s proven not to be a factor. The amount of resources it would take to get enough riders of high enough caliber on the same team is sort of untenable for a team. Also, the way these courses work, especially the longer, harder ones, it’s a race of attrition and ends up being every person for themselves. So I think the team tactics of the traditional road team in gravel are a minor factor, if anything.

Borstelmann and Pete Stetina (Photo: Erin McGruder)

VN: In terms of gravel, for me at least, your name is inextricably linked to Gravel Worlds. Is that an accurate correlation? 

JB: Definitely. To date, that’s still the biggest gravel race than I’ve won. I’ve won it twice, it’s in my hometown. The organizers and I get along really well too, so it sort of feels like a family event, and maybe I get a little more attention than others because I’ve won it twice and O’m the hometown guy. Besides Gravel Worlds, I was on the podium at BWR and RPI last year. I’ve been in the podium at Barry Roubaix, gotten fifth at The Mid South. 

VN: Right, so what’s that like for you — people know your name, but you haven’t necessarily had a consistent spell of big wins or results that put you in the category of say Pete Stetina or this year, Keegan Swenson. 

JB: It’s interesting you mention Pete, because he and I do get along really well, I think we have a similar racing style. He’s a kind person and I think the recognizes that our value system around bike racing is pretty similar. But yeah, Pete will always destroy me at anything that goes uphill. He was at Gravel Worlds this year, and sure the tandem made a difference but that’s not his style of course, we dropped him on a downhill and into a headwind. I guess that’s sort of the balance for me, the style of course.

I think those guys, Pete, Keegan, Payson, the other mountain bike types like Finsterwald and Cole Paton, these smaller guys — for me it’s the size thing. That’s a big part of it. I guess the fitness level is tuned to a different style of race course. Like, if you look at the Belgian pro peloton for example, most of the guys who win The Tour of Flanders or Paris Roubaix, LBL, the Ardennes — they’re as big as me. You won’t see people Pete’s size every winning a race like that.

I know that I have the lactate threshold results to prove that I’m good enough to be on a pound for pound basis just as strong as those guys, it just takes some serious body morphing to keep up with them uphill. But they’re also an equal disadvantage to me at a course like Big Sugar or Gravel Worlds or even Unbound.

Borstelmann with Keegan Swenson on his wheel at SBT GRVL (Photo: Wil Matthews)

VN: What about Steamboat? Could that have been a course suited to you? You were off the front so much of the day!

JB: Maybe if I hadn’t done Leadville the day before, if I hadn’t been off the front all day, if I’d sat in with those guys — although that would have killed me a bit inside with all of the bullshit that was going on. But, I had a chance for sure. But, those climbs toward the end … those climbs are right on the edge of where I can hang with the Keegan’s of the world. Those two climbs are something like 5+ minutes. And they’re not right at the finish. So if I’d been within range, that flat rolling stuff or especially into a wind, I could have brought those guys back. But I was trashed. I’ve had so many mechanical and flats and wrong turns over the years, I hate thinking about the hypotheticals.

VN: Let’s end where we started — why do you continue to race on the road when gravel has become part of your mo?

JB: I do love it. Stage racing is still the most fun and the most compelling form of competition on the bike because of the team aspect, the chess game played out over the course of a week. Road racing is just so much more dynamic than gravel, the attacking and the drafting and the speed make a much bigger difference than they do in gravel. A lot of the roadie types who are in the Grand Prix have had their experience of road cycling tainted by the WorldTour, the cutthroat attitude and dog eat dog, ‘if you’re not this weight or can’t put out this power, you’re off the team’ nature of fit. If you’re a domestique you’re worked to death out there.

I’ve never raced at even a pro conti level, so I don’t have that. I still love the beauty of road racing and the excitement of it, I guess. Gravel’s still a little boring. Don’t  tell anyone I said that.