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Q&A: Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas on why he’s racing gravel

Formula 1 star Valtteri Bottas is in Colorado to race SBT GRVL. He spoke to us about his love of cycling.

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BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Formula 1 driver Valtteri Bottas speaks so earnestly about riding bikes that I am mildly surprised every time someone interrupts us for a photo or an autograph during our interview.

One guy: “I’m a Ferrari fan, but I have to bow to you.”

Another guy: “We don’t usually get drivers of your caliber in the States, but especially here in Boulder.”

It’s true, while the sunny sidewalk tables outside Boulder’s Boxcar Coffee Roasters have hosted their fair share of cycling royalty, Bottas might be the cafe’s first Formula 1 driver. Ironically, we’re here to talk about bikes.

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Bottas and Cromwell, in Boulder ahead of the SBT GRVL gravel race. Photo: Betsy Welch

Bottas and his partner, professional cyclist Tiffany Cromwell, are passing through Boulder en route to Steamboat Springs ahead of the SBT GRVL gravel race where Cromwell will race the 144-mile SBT GRVL Black course as part of her new program with Canyon-SRAM. Bottas, who is on a summer break away from Formula 1, will race the 64-mile Red.

We caught up about Bottas’s relationship to cycling, and the 31-year-old humored my limited knowledge of F1 racing.

VeloNews: Will SBT GRVL be your first bike race? 

Valtteri Bottas: I did my first and only bike race in Australia, a crit in January of 2020 just before COVID. I blew up completely. I was so upset that Tiff put me in the B group.

Tiffany Cromwell: How was I supposed to know they would start at 50k an hour? I’d taken him on a five hour ride two days before. Maybe I should have started him a little lower.

VN: Will you be taking it seriously?

VB: It’s mainly for fun, I’m just doing the 60 mile race. But, I’m gonna give it all I have, sure. I don’t mind doing that. 

TC: He’s all about the details, the weight, the aero gains.

VB: For this race, I want all the best parts, no compromises. Tiff got an upgraded group set this morning, and it was like, ‘where’s mine?’

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Bottas and Cromwell on an easy spin outside of Breckenridge, Colorado. Photo: Courtesy Tiffany Cromwell

VN: Do you think about driving while you ride? 

VB: It’s not really a time to think about driving, but in my sport, there can be quite a bit of pressure. It’s a high pressure environment overall, so it’s nice to get away, breathe, and process things. I’ve always been like that, sometimes I need to escape, whether for a hike or run or to see nobody for a while. 

VN: It seems like cycling is common with F1 drivers. 

VB: Most do. Well, either running or cycling. For cardio, it’s running or cycling. Some are quite passionate about it. Fernando [Alonso] tried to create a cycling team at one point. He’s probably the most into it. 

VN: How often do you ride?

VB: It depends. When I’m racing a lot, like if I have three weekends in a row then I need to rest between the races. I may ride once a week. When I have a week off of racing, then I might ride most of the days. Last week in Finland, we were riding every day. 

VN: It’s one thing to train as a cyclist where you can always jump on a bike, but what’s F1 training like? 

VB: It’s limited, you’re only allowed to do the official preseason testing on the track. Otherwise it’s just the races. Simulators have evolved quite a bit in recent years, too. But, once you’ve been in the sport for quite some time, I feel that you don’t need extra practice because we’re racing so much. Every race we have Friday practice sessions. It’s actually quite a lot of driving. 

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Bottas drives for Mercedes and has won nine races, three in 2017, four in 2019 and two in 2020. Photo: Courtesy Tiffany Cromwell

VN: What about training outside of the track? 

VB: In terms of strength and muscles, it’s upper body, actually the neck. Obviously you’re strapped into the car but your head is free. In some of the corners, we have like 5g in terms of g-forces, so it’s actually similar to fighter jets. So if you don’t have a strong neck, you can’t see very well. Core is also very important because there’s a lot of pressure and side-t0-side movement. Otherwise, it’s mainly endurance. We also do speed and skill training. You need good reactions, good coordination. That’s the one thing that is limiting my cycling a little bit because if I start to do too much long distance too often, that makes you slightly slower in terms of reactions and how speedy you can be, and your coordination might suffer a bit.

VN: How much does an F1 race take out of you physically? 

VB: Depends on the race. Some races can be a little bit easier physically, but some races you’re totally drained. The temperature gets quite high normally. The hottest races I lose normally more than three kilos of fluids.

VN: I just have to ask: Are you ever scared? 

VB: Scared? No. When I’m in control, I’m not scared. If I was a passenger and someone would be pushing a car to the limit, I might be scared, but when I’m in control everything is fine.

VN: OK, back to bikes, are you taking this race seriously? 

VB: I know that it will be a long shot, the professionals they’ve started young and dedicated their life to bike racing, and I do it for fun, but it’s nice to have little targets. The last weeks in my training, I’ve been focusing on it. I’ll just give it all I have.

I have my own duathalon event in Finland the week after, which is run-bike-run. Trail run, mountain bike, and trail run, it’s something I’ve done for four years. It’s also another target I want to do well in.

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Bottas rides a Canyon Inflite. Photo: Courtesy Tiffany Cromwell

VN: Do you follow the sport of cycling? 

VB: Definitely all Tiff’s races, of course, and a little bit of the Tour de France, end of the day highlights and stuff.

VN: Would you say you’re passionate about the sport of women’s cycling? 

VB: Definitely. And seeing how high level it is, I didn’t know much about women’s cycling before I met Tiff, but now seeing inside and how hard the athletes work and the efforts they put in, it’s really impressive. That’s why it’s really a shame that it’s really quite hard to follow women’s cycling and some of the coverage even in the big races, you only might see 30 minutes of the race. They definitely deserve more credit. The top women put in the same effort as the top men, it’s not like they’re working less.

VN: Do you two ever get competitive with one another? 

VB: Rarely. Sometimes, maybe. But in Monaco, for example, where it’s mountainous, I couldn’t compete with her on a climb in the mountains. If we would race difficult terrain, I have no chance. If we would race on a flat, I could maybe have a chance.

VN: Are there similarities between racing F1 and racing bikes? 

VB: It is different, but I would say when it comes to crit racing, when it’s about the lines, there are some similarities. And in the mountains when you’re descending switchbacks or something, knowing a bit about lines and ways to approach corners and pushing the bike to the limit, I really enjoy that.

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Cyclists = F1 fans Photo: Betsy Welch