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Ian Boswell’s racing line has moved off the smooth pavement and onto gravel tracks.
Boswell confirmed that he will be stepping away from his 11-year road career to pursue a full-time gravel program in partnership with technology brand Wahoo Fitness. The 28-year-old will race a full season of gravel in 2020 as a one-man ‘Wahoo Frontiers’ team.
“I’ve had those awesome opportunities over my career and there was little that I needed to prove to myself on the road,” Boswell told VeloNews. “I just felt like it was the right time to close the curtain on the stage, bow out, and say I’m ready for something new.”
“I will be partnering with Wahoo to both work as a rider liaison and race as team Wahoo Frontiers,” he said. “The team name spins off the pioneers heading west in the U.S. and exploring new frontiers and expanding their horizon, which is very much where I’m at. This is a whole new challenge and chapter for me.”
Boswell’s step away from life on the road comes on the back of a 2019 road season that never got started. Boswell crashed heavily in March while racing Tirreno-Adriatico with Team Katusha-Alpecin, suffering the sixth concussion of his racing career. As the WorldTour raced on, Boswell sat on the sidelines for the next six months, during a long and difficult recovery process that saw him re-evaluate his future.
When Boswell’s Katusha-Alpecin shuttered at the end of 2019, he wasn’t brought into the newly-formed Israel Start-Up Nation team like some of his old Katusha teammates. Instead, he was offered a contract with Rally-UHC.
By that point, however, Boswell had already started to forge a new identity during his time away from the all-or-nothing life of racing at the top. The moment he hit the deck on the wet roads of Italy, a new chapter in his life was already beginning.
Boswell walked away from the Rally offer in August without a future plan in place. Little did he know it at the time, but he stepped in the same direction recently taken by the likes of Peter Stetina and TJ Eisenhart into the new, dynamic world of gravel racing. By September, he had agreed a deal with Wahoo Fitness that would see him both sponsored to race gravel and employed to work as a brand-athlete liaison.
Atlanta-based Wahoo Fitness has built its success around pioneering the ‘smart trainer’ indoor training revolution and posing a considerable challenge to Garmin as the go-to bike computer brand.
Along with its pioneering technology, Wahoo has long had relationships with both professional teams and individual athletes – including the likes of roadie-turned-gravel grinder Peter Stetina and Dirty Kanza champions Colin Strickland and Amity Rockwell. Eager to increase their stake in the burgeoning off-road scene, the technology giant has put its resources into Boswell’s off-road outfit, and plan to build customer engagement by documenting Boswell’s gravel transition.
Wahoo’s move follows in the footpath of technology rival Garmin, who staked its claim in the gravel scene in 2018 by partnering with Dirty Kanza.
“I’ve had a good relationship with Wahoo since my time with Team Sky,” said Boswell. “They wanted to connect more closely with their teams and athletes, both professionally and personally. My role as a liaison and sponsored gravel racer allows them to do this.”
Wahoo and Boswell’s move furthers the growing gravel boom – American cycling’s new frontier.
Realizing a new identity
Boswell’s crash and long recovery from concussion jettisoned him out of the monastic lifestyle of the WorldTour. With the lingering headaches and dizziness from a 60kph crash that saw him land on his head, Boswell’s time on the bike was limited. Without the structure and suffocating presence of counting every calorie and monitoring every pedal-stroke, the ‘old Boswell’ was lost.
“I did lose my identity a bit,” he said. “I’ve been so driven by different goals for so long, and all my professional targets disappeared. Initially, I felt lost. I felt like I ‘should’ be training. It was difficult to adapt to after so long as a full-time racer.”
With time, Boswell was able to distance himself from the all-consuming life of a professional cyclist. With that, he was able to step back and realize the magnitude of what he had achieved in a career that saw him spend seven years in the WorldTour, five of those being with world-recognized Team Sky.
“Up until the incident I’d never really stepped back and reflected on what I’d accomplished,” he said. “I realized a boyhood dream that a lot of people think is ludicrous – to ride the Tour de France. To get to that level and reach it is something almost unfathomable to look back on, and something I’m so fortunate to have experienced.”
Spending a winter in his home town of Peacham, Vermont starkly revealed to Boswell the sacrifice required to race at the top. Rather than feeling obliged to return to the warmer climate of Nice to carry out his winter training on the road, Boswell stayed home with his wife through late 2019, and rode his fat bike through the snow.
“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself and stressed myself out getting ready for races and preparing for big events,” Boswell said. “But I’ve now seen the joy of riding my bike again. I love riding on the road, and I enjoyed being a professional rider, but I also want to be able to explore on my bike and try different things.”
“Although racing professionally is a great lifestyle, you have to be 100% in it. Life has to fully revolve around your sport,” he said. “You get put in the box of being a ‘road rider’ and feel judgment from people if you’re chopping wood, or going for a ski, or sledding.”
When Rally-UHC manager Jonas Carney called Boswell and offered him a contract in late August, Boswell faced the choice of re-submersing himself in the boiler of professional road riding, or stepping into the unknown.
Without any other plans in progress, Boswell turned Carney down, instead closing out his turn on the pavement while the going was good – off the back of a 2018 season that included Tour and Vuelta appearances, and saw him racing across the world, from Oman to California.
“I loved my time on the road, and to a degree I feel like I’ve ended my road career on a very positive note – I had the opportunity to go back and it was my choice to not,” he said. “I didn’t want to get to next March and think ‘oh man, I shouldn’t have done this’ and not go into it with the 100 percent focus that you need to be successful. I didn’t want to go back and just go through the motions.”
“The road has been my huge passion since I was a little boy. The crash ended my season and ultimately has ended my career on the road. Without that incident, I would never have thought about walking away from road racing. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished but I’m ready to try something new’.”
Refusing Rally, going ‘neo-pro’ with Wahoo Frontiers
Boswell only faced one month of wondering ‘what if’ after he turned down Rally’s offer. He entered discussions with Wahoo late September.
Wahoo offered Boswell a role acting as product ambassador and a liaison between the brand and the teams and athletes they sponsor. They also wanted to enter the burgeoning gravel scene on a bigger scale, and proposed backing him in racing a full gravel calendar.
It ticked all Boswell’s boxes. Team ‘Wahoo Frontiers’ was born, and at the same time, Boswell landed a role that would allow him to learn skills that would set him up for a career in the sport that would outlive his life-span as a competitive athlete.
Boswell is far from the seasoned gravel rider. In fact, his experience on the dirt roads extends only as far as a handful of fondos in his local region, and more recently, some rides with gravel veteran Ted King. But that lack of experience is not going to stop him – it’s part of the appeal.
“What I love about this situation is like I’m a neo-pro again, I know how to ride my bike and train but there’s a whole element to gravel that I’m blinded to,” he said. “Tire pressure, gearing, tactics, I’m very new to it, so it’s fresh for myself to be entering this world that I don’t really know.”
Boswell will be relying on skills learned from riding with King and guidance from fellow Wahoo athletes and off-road aficionados such as Rockwell and Stetina as he launches into a steep learning curve before the start of the gravel season.
“I’m relaunching a new identity, and with it a new perspective on who I am as a person,” he said. “Something like Dirty Kanza is totally foreign to me, it’s a totally new challenge, a 10-hour bike race is altogether different to the Tour de France and equally intimidating and exciting to me.”
Gravel to keep growing as new frontiers keep opening
The news of Boswell’s transition comes just a week after T.J. Eisenhart confirmed his full-time move to gravel and the formation of his Imaginary Collective off-road program. Last year, former WorldTour riders Peter Stetina and Laurens Ten Dam also wrapped up their road career and took a gravel path, and EF Education First put their thoroughbred racers into the pens with the weekend warriors to grind gravel as part of an ‘alternate calendar’.
The gravel scene is exploding across the U.S., and what makes it appealing to the weekend warriors fuelling the movement is equally appealing to the pros – a lower-stress, lower-risk, more creative way of riding and racing bicycles. After years of riding the same roads, joining the same group rides, and racing the same schedules, American cycling simply wants new frontiers to explore.
More roadies are opting for the gravel tracks and more gravel-specific bikes and accessories are being produced by the month. The growing involvement of brands such as Wahoo will further fan the flames of gravel’s growth as participation in off-road fondos grows year-on-year.
“I had by no means mastered road racing, but it’s a very familiar environment for me,” said Boswell. “Stepping into gravel is definitely a new frontier for me.”
Boswell and Wahoo’s partnership is another step in American cycling’s push into a fertile new territory.