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Monuments of Gravel

Ian Boswell: ‘Not knowing is a gift’ at Unbound Gravel

The defending champion at Unbound Gravel says knowing too much can be a detriment at Unbound Gravel.

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EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — One of the most famous images of the 2021 Unbound Gravel shows Ian Boswell sprinting across the line to narrowly defeat Laurens ten Dam.

For Boswell, however, there’s a series of mental pictures that hold even more personal value. He remembers those painful hours of the race from miles 100-170 when only five riders remained in the front: himself, Ten Dam, Ted King, Colin Strickland, and Peter Stetina.

“At that point, it wasn’t a race anymore, it was five guys rolling through on this epic group ride,” Boswell told VeloNews. “That’s my favorite thing about racing is when the group gets small and it just becomes you and your friends riding as hard as you can.”

Even Unbound Gravel champ Ian Boswell runs a low-key gravel event in Vermont.

Boswell, 31, is back in Emporia this year to defend his title, but the Vermonter has loftier goals in mind for Saturday’s pro men’s race. He wants the front group of men to compete fairly and with honor.

He wants the champion to be the strongest rider on the day and not someone who sat on or played a tactical card. And, no matter if he crossed the line first or not, Boswell wants the winner to view himself as an ambassador for the growing sport of gravel cycling.

“You look at the history of this race, and it’s been a blessing—usually the strongest rider on the day has won, and that brings a really cool aspect to it,” Boswell said. “When Colin [Strickland] won, when Amity [Rockwell] won, when I won, it was a clean fight and the best came out on top.”

“My hope is that whoever wins has the sense of the influence they will have on this sport over the next 12 months,” he added.

A year ago Boswell came to Unbound as an untested wild card, a recently-retired WorldTour rider who was dabbling in gravel racing alongside his full-time job in the marketing department at bike computer brand Wahoo. Boswell’s life has changed both very little and dramatically since then: He’s still a working stiff who rides in his spare time, only now, he has a five-month-old child.

And a year ago, Boswell came to Unbound Gravel without any expectations or prior knowledge of the race. The night before the race, he asked journalists and other riders about strategic points on the course.

Now, he comes in as the defending champion and a seasoned veteran. Sponsors trail him throughout the race venue, videotaping his every move. Brand representatives deliver new product.

And the collective gravel world looks at him as an expert in gravel cycling’s biggest race, since he’s won it. What tires will you run? Where will you attack? Is your fueling plan dialed in? The questions follow Boswell everywhere here in Emporia.

Boswell says that ignorance can be bliss at Unbound Gravel. Having too much information about your gear setup, your racing strategy, or even the aerodynamic nature of your bicycle can cause anxiety. Not knowing this information, by contrast, makes things simple.

“The biggest lesson I learned is that not knowing is a gift at this race,” Boswell said. “Someone asked me: ‘Are you going to run a waxed chain?’ Well, I’ve never before. Will you use aerobars? Well, now I’m thinking about it.”

“Knowing more causes more stress,” Boswell said. “So honestly, I’m trying not to listen.”

Boswell says he’s fit this year, having ridden long miles in Vermont and Mexico in the spring and summer. He’s strong, motivated, and knows how to win. Still, Boswell isn’t going to worry too much about victory or defeat. In his eyes, that’s not the point of Unbound Gravel or the sport in general.

“I constantly remind myself that I’m doing this because it’s supposed to be fun,” he said. “Nothing changes, regardless of the outcome, for me.”