INTERVIEW: IAN BOSWELL
After five years with Team Sky, Ian Boswell signed for Katusha for 2018, and he' s found himself learning new tricks andre-learning some old ones
How moving to Katusha-Alpecin forced the American to learn how to race for himself
When Ian Boswell was 16, he helped his dad win a bike race. This might not be as surprising as it sounds – Grant Boswell was a retired triathlete, who’d been good enough to come third in the 1984 Hawaii Ironman. He’d got back into bike racing when Ian showed interest, and they raced together in category three for a while. In this case, Ian had attacked on a climb and Grant had followed with a few other riders. Grant was the fastest sprinter in the group, so Ian led him out. It was a good win for the father, but the result was as interesting for what it tells us about the son and the first few years of his professional career. “I was in training to be a domestique,” Boswell joked to Procycling a couple of years ago, when he was with Team Sky.
Two years on, Boswell has been busy unlearning. He left Sky at the end of 2017 to join Katusha. Things are different there.
“I spent five years never trying to go in the break,” Boswell says. “I became an expert rider in the way that Sky rides. By changing teams I’m learning a whole new skill set. I’m learning a whole new way of racing that I hadn’t done for five years.”
It was hard to work out if Boswell ever quite fitted in to Team Sky. He shared the Anglophone roots of the team, but he was not part of Sky’s British backbone. And since he signed for them as a neo-pro in 2013, neither was he an established international star. A bad first year of his initial three-year contract could have made things even more challenging than they were, but he rallied enough to sign for another two years until the end of last season, so the team must have seen enough in him to justify his presence. Yet he could never break into the Tour de France squad. Placing fifth overall in a race like the Tour of California would usually be enough to get into most teams’ Tour lineups, but this was Team Sky, where grand tour top-10 riders are used as third or fourth-string climbing domestiques.
“I really enjoyed my time at Sky and I could have stayed there and raced in that environment but I felt it was time to try something different and see what I was capable of individually. I really wanted to do the Tour and the longer I was at Sky the more I thought it was going to be really hard to crack their Tour team,” he says.
The move to Katusha was helped by Boswell’s connection with the team’s general manager, José Azevedo, who’d been a directeur sportif on the RadioShack team when Boswell rode for the Livestrong U23 squad in 2011 and 2012. They spoke at the 2017 Critérium du Dauphiné and Azevedo felt that Boswell’s potential wasn’t being maximised at Sky. Katusha needed climbers; Boswell needed a change.
“Sky was an international team, but it had a very British core of staff and key riders. The cool guys were the British
guys, and everybody is trying to fit into that group so they can be part of that team. Proving to G [Geraint Thomas], Chris Froome and to Ian [Stannard] and Luke [Rowe] that you are good and cool and can be part of their group,” he says.
And with Katusha, who have a Swiss licence, a Russian history, a Portugese general manager and 28 riders from 16 different countries, this itinerant American fits in just fine. But learning to ride for himself? That’s a work in progress.
Procycling caught up with Boswell on the second rest day of the Tour de France, in Carcassonne. The day before, the survivors of a large break had contested the finish. There were a few important things about that. First, the break had been smashed to pieces by the first-category Pic de Nore climb, 40km from the finish. It was the kind of climb which would suit a rider like Boswell. Second, there had been an absolute sh*t-fight to get into the break in the early part of the stage, added to climbs and crosswinds which had split the bunch into two groups. It took 40 kilometres and the best part of an hour for the group to get away. Third, and most pertinently, Boswell had missed the break.
“I tried to make the break the last two days,” he says. “I sold my soul to the devil yesterday to make the break. There was only Zakarin and me in the front group when it split on the climbs and crosswinds. I jumped in quite a few good moves and I was always following the key breakaway specialists. I was there, in a move. And then the move I was in came back, and the next move went. You just sit there, biting your tongue.
“You only have so many bullets to make the move. If you go in a move, it may be a good move, but if it is brought back you’re tired so you can’t make the next move. Then it’s gone. Konyshev [Katusha DS] told me, ‘Good effort, but I can teach you some things about how to get into the break.’” Boswell adds: “That’s the Tour. A daily struggle. But also, a daily opportunity.”
"I really wanted to do the Tour and the longer I was at Sky the more I thought it was going to be really hard to crack their Tour team"
TOUR HIGHS AND LOWS
Boswell’s first Tour was unspectacular, but that’s not to say that it was unsuccessful. He floated through the first nine days and avoided the crashes and bad luck which affected many other riders. Katusha relieved him of too much domestique work, preferring to save him for the mountains, which made Boswell feel bad, but also valued – that he had a job to do to support Ilnur Zakarin in the mountain stages and that he had the opportunity to maximise his own chances on terrain which suited him better.
In the mountains he supported Zakarin, feeling good on the first two Alpine stages and less good at Alpe d’Huez. His best stage placing was 39th, at La Rosière, and he was 79th on general classification but his results weren’t the point.
“The first 11 days I really enjoyed just being at the Tour,” he says. “I had good energy. I was like a kid, embracing my dream of being on the race. I noticed the amount of fans in the first couple of days in Brittany. You get to a random town and you see how many people there are.
“Another memory is the crashes and seeing the massive pile-ups and the scrum and stress of general classification guys who have to get back on their bikes and chase.
“The cobblestones – I was really fearing that day. It was almost like a blur – there were so many fans that you can’t look around and see what is happening. Your head is bobbing and your hands hurt. I enjoyed getting through the cobbles - I never want to do Roubaix, but that stage was the perfect amount of cobblestones. I know what it’s like now, but I wouldn’t want to do any more and I wouldn’t want to do that with specialists.”
In the Alps, Boswell worked for Zakarin, though it was hard for the American to shake off the style of his Sky days. “I had a good day on stage 11 over the Cormet de Roselend and to La Rosière. Bahrain were riding over the top of the Roselend and the group was down to
15. Being there in the group, of the best 15 climbers in the Tour, was pretty cool.
“But I try to help Zakarin sometimes and he questions what I’m doing because I do it in a Team Sky way. Coming into La Rosière, before the steep section with 10 kilometres to go, I was trying to move him up. He was like, ‘What are you doing, man, wasting your energy?’ That’s what I’ve been taught: I will waste my energy for you; I will move you up at this very inopportune time, but you will be in a better position and I blow. But his mentality is, hey, sit back and you can be with me longer on the climb. It’s a mental shift from Sky.
“Zakarin is a very easy leader to ride for and he doesn’t expect much. I think he’s a very unstereotypical Russian. He loves cycling and is a normal guy who enjoys hunting and fishing like I do. He doesn’t really talk much about cycling. We don’t sit around gossiping about the peloton.” Things unravelled a bit for Boswell, when the Tour got to its halfway point.
“The 12th stage, Alpe d’Huez, I’d been looking forward to, because it’s such an iconic day,” he says. “It was actually a hard day. It was challenging and hot. Being a kid, watching the guys race up the Alpe… I grew up watching the Lance era, and then saw Tejay [van Garderen] come second there in 2015. I had no expectations but I wanted a good ride and to be there at the pointy end of the race, and I was not. It was almost anticlimactic. When something is happening and it’s exciting, you can thrive and absorb the energy and that carries you through the day. It’s almost a euphoric feeling and for me, making it safely through those first nine days was like that. Then it hits you like a sack of bricks on stage 12.”
Katusha had a poor Tour. Four riders dropped out in the first half of the race, including sprint leader Marcel Kittel, leaving just four to finish the Tour. They didn’t win a stage, and it never got as good again as Kittel’s third place on stage 1. Zakarin had been an outside favourite for a podium or at least a top-five finish, but was comparatively mediocre, coming ninth but not looking at his best, though he industriously infiltrated some dangerous-looking mountain breaks.
“We came to the race with higher expectations,” says Boswell. “If Marcel had won a stage, it would have set the
tone for the whole race. Zakarin has ridden consistently but maybe not as well as we would have expected.”
Yet Boswell was one of the most visible riders on the entire Tour, thanks to his willingness to engage with the media. He recorded an audio diary for the Cycling Podcast. He wrote blogs for Cyclingtips. He was one of two central characters in the Breakfast with Bos podcast (which appeared under the branding of Lance Armstrong’s The Move podcast but which wasn’t funded by it) along with his old racing buddy and broadcaster Marshall Opel. He was interviewed regularly by Anglophone media through the race. “I also did some stuff for NBC,” he adds. “It’s all short, easy stuff. I guess it’s a way of sharing my experience of the Tour. This is something that is cool and unique – I’m here to race my bike but it’s a chance to share what
I am doing.”
The Breakfast with Bos series took listeners through Boswell’s Tour through a daily unscripted conversation with Opel. The random nature of the conversations, the lo-fi recording, the ad-hoc locations, the feeling of familiarity between the pair and the sense that both were living each other’s Tours vicariously made it stand out from a lot of the Tour coverage, adding context to what we saw on television and picked up from other media.
“Speaking with him it’s much more comfortable,” says Boswell. “Riders tend to change their tone of voice when they are speaking with a journalist, but we grew up racing together in the same region of the US and did our national team training camps and first trip to Europe together. I’m at the Tour but it’s nice to have someone here who, regardless of how
I do, can say, ‘Dude, this is pretty cool,’ to remind me of that daily. You can get sucked into being famous with the fans and autographs. And in return, he does stuff that I love but can’t do at this point in my life, like have a big plate of pasta then a beer and a tiramisu. We feed off each other’s energy.” Boswell was conscious of the greater narrative of his journey around France. Unlike many riders, who find it mentally relaxing to sink into the routine of hotelbus-race-bus-hotel, the American travelled around the country with his eyes wide open.
“I love maps,” he says. “I always look at where we are and what’s near us, because France is such a beautiful country. On stage 14 in the Ardèche gorges, I was next to Sam Bewley, who is a Kiwi and appreciates this kind of thing, and I said to him, ‘Man, I wish we were down on those kayaks.’ The Annecy area was beautiful, in Brittany I noticed all these cute little villages with beautiful flowers out front… I keep little notes on my phone of places I would like to go back to.”
It took Ian Boswell six years as a professional cyclist to finally make it to the Tour de France, but you get the impression that the race is one he will also go back to.
"France is such a beautiful country. In the Ardèche gorges I was next to Sam Bewley and said, ' Man I wish we were down on those kayaks'"
Boswell was busy with multiple media engagements through the Tour de France
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