2021 was a banner year for retired WorldTour pro Ian Boswell.
In June, the 30-year-old won Unbound Gravel. Later in the summer, he finished first at BWR Asheville, Rooted Vermont, and Vermont Overland. Throughout the season, he worked as an athlete liaison at Wahoo, produced a podcast, and was a tireless advocate and supporter of the Amani Project, an organization dedicated to increasing opportunity for aspiring east African pro cyclists.
Because of his successes in 2021, Boswell could have gone pro, again.
However, that would have meant giving up the exact thing that brought him to gravel in the first place: having fun.
And it’s the same reason that Boswell decided to opt out of the recently launched Life Time Grand Prix, a gravel and XC mountain bike off-road race series with a $250,000 prize purse.
“I signed up initially because I felt like that’s what I should do,” Boswell told VeloNews. “Then, I thought about it and realized this past year was the first time in my cycling life that I got to go to the events I wanted to go to for my own reasons. I’m all for everyone doing what they want, but this past year was so fun because I got to do me.”
When Boswell asked himself why 2021 was such a good year the answers weren’t that he was offered multiple bike sponsorships, brand partnerships, or even to leave his 9-5 job at Wahoo.
Rather, “bike racing wasn’t the sole focus of my existence, it wasn’t my job,” he said. “It was a privilege to go and have fun without any pressure or consequences.”
In the weeks since it was announced, the Life Time Grand Prix has garnered hearty attention from the cycling world, in the now-typical binaries of lavish praise and harsh criticism. The event is structured around six of Life Time’s six marquee off-road races and used an application-based format to select 60 elite male and female cyclists to compete for the prize money. Criticisms ranged from the familiar lamentation that gravel is being usurped by pros and will thus become a casualty of governing bodies to the fact that there weren’t enough spots for more people to apply.
The positive take was that the series was a step toward creating a positive culture around bike racing in the USA.
Boswell stands firmly in the latter court.
“It was like when the first announcements of UCI worlds came out, there was so much talk,” he said. “And we still don’t know what it’s gonna be like. There’s such a sense of ‘gravel’s so cool and we have to keep it that way.’ But what if it stays like this for 15 years, what if it became stagnant like road races became stagnant? Having the foresight to evolve and change is thoughtful. And especially North American events need people who can embrace the huge boom in participation. Let’s continue to embrace that and experiment and see what works. How to enhance it, bring more people in, help the sport as a whole.”
Boswell said that he doesn’t think criticizing others for what races they choose to do or how they want to embrace gravel does the discipline any good, nor does he want to pass judgment.
“I’ve come to this point with gravel racing in general whether it’s Life Time or the UCI,” he said. “Everyone is free to do whatever they want. Who am I to say? Whatever they find most rewarding. But that also means I want to do what I want to do. When I decided to pull my name it was nothing against the series or what they’re trying to do to enhance racing in the U.S. It’s just not for me.”
“Part of it is obligation, too. I didn’t want to take a spot away from someone and get halfway through the season and say ‘hey, I don’t want to finish this series.’ People are hungry for this.”
While Boswell still plans to race gravel in 2022, he hasn’t released a full calendar yet. That’s just it — he wants the freedom and flexibility to attend races that appeal to him. He did confirm that he’ll be back in Emporia in June and he lamented having to miss next year’s Migration Gravel Race; he’ll be at a dear friend’s wedding. Plus, there is a baby Boz coming any day.
Needless to say, Boswell will be happily following the Grand Prix in between gravel races, family time, and work obligations.
“I’m still a fan of the sport,” he said. “I still love following, hearing the stories about how the race played out. It’s so cool that now you have these different arenas and courses where different riders will excel. If you look at gravel last year, there wasn’t one best rider. We’re seeing the evolution of multi-dimensional athletes which I think is awesome. In my generation, you needed to specify. Time trialist, mountain specialist, crit racer. Put yourself in a box and stay there. Now the way forward is cool — let’s see how many different things you can do.”
Even better if you can do it all having fun, no pressure.