In Our Own Words Ian Boswell Cover Image
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In Our Own Words

"I think my career would best be defined as 'adaptable'"

By: Ian Boswell  February 11, 2020

Ian Boswell discusses his struggle with concussions and how he is looking to redefine his racing life by tackling gravel events.

I was actually pretty late learning how to ride a bike – seven years old. When I was a child we didn’t have strider bikes so I learned how to ride a bike kind of cocked to the side with some bent training wheels. From the moment I learned though, I pretty quickly got into cycling mainly for the freedom that it allowed me. Both of my parents were endurance athletes; my mom did marathon running and some mountain bike racing and my dad is a former road cyclist turned triathlete. So they understood cycling at a competitive level and provided the knowledge and resources necessary for me to get into the sport.

The biggest influence that I had when I was young was the Cascade Cycling Classic which, at the time, was one of the longest running stage races in the US. When I was ten years old, the Cascade Classic Race had a kid’s race on the Sunday, so I signed up for it because I had been riding with my friends around the block. The first year I didn’t do very well – I was maybe Top 10 or something, but I remember finishing and thinking, ‘alright, next year I’m going to come back and try and win this race’. When I was 11, I was finally big enough to sit on my mom’s road bike with the seat all the way slammed down. So from when I won that first race – 11 years old – I was pretty hooked on cycling.

Through continual progression, I eventually worked my way up to going to Nationals and I remember it was a pretty eye-opening experience. I did decently but the level of competition nationally is much higher than the level just within the state of Oregon. I went back when I was fourteen and actually won my National Championships with the Time Trial and Criterium – I got a flat tire in the road race because my dad didn’t want to put new tubes in my tire, he just wanted to patch them. I was disappointed that I could not sweep the field but it was a good learning experience – come race day, it’s nice to have the proper equipment. From there I kind of continued to just progress through the sport. I was picked up to go to a USA Cycling Camp in Colorado Springs actually at the Olympic Training Center when I was fifteen and that was kind of when I first entered the support system of USA Cycling.

From there I pretty much went through the whole development program that was in place at the time. When I was 15 or 16 I went over to Europe for my first time with USA Cycling and I remember that pretty fondly because it was a time when the U23 program and junior program were basically getting their teeth kicked in over in Europe. They weren’t getting very many results and it was a real struggle. We went over as 15-and-16-year-olds and I think we did maybe ten races and as a team we won like nine of them. So we were coming back to the house every day like, “yeah, racing over here is not that bad! We are winning everything!” and I remember the older riders being like, “well, just wait till you get a bit older because it’s going to get a lot harder!” Sure enough, it did get harder. The competition just kept going up. I went back over to Europe with the National Team every year from aged 17 to 21, so I’ve done an extensive amount of racing under USA Cycling.

I think what drew me to cycling most was the fact that I was to a large degree solely responsible for my success and my failures. For example, not putting a new tube in? At the end of the day, that is my fault. Even looking more so at the training, the preparation that goes into a career – you have much more influence on your results in a sport likely cycling compared to other sports. There is a team aspect to cycling, but if you come prepared you can make a much bigger difference than if you’re on a basketball team for example. In basketball, you put in the work but you still have four other people on the court who maybe haven’t put in the same level of focus and dedication. I just felt like I was able to focus my energy towards my success and my progress and I think that’s one thing with cycling that I’ve always enjoyed maybe more than the racing – the process by which you see yourself improve. That’s physical but it’s also mental, technical – you can always get better at something, which is an awesome attribute to cycling. There is always room for progress. And then there was the fact that I could participate in cycling on my own time. With the bike, I could ride my trainer before school and I could get home after school and ride until the sun went down and ride all weekend, which brought me that freedom of being able to burn off all of this young energy.

The last year that I raced U23s was my third year U23 – you have four years of eligibility – and I had a really good season, so I was splitting time between the Bontrager-Livestrong Team and USA Cycling. I got some good results and that kind of put me on the map and the radar of a lot of the Pro Teams who were looking to sign young riders. I really kind of came through that pathway at the right time because a lot of teams were looking for young American riders and both Joe Dombrowski and I got offers to race at Team Sky so we obviously didn’t turn down that opportunity. That was a dream come true. Signing with the biggest team at age 21 felt like an accomplishment in itself – just making that step from racing locally in Oregon to joining the most prestigious team in the world.

Being on Team Sky was different to be honest. I was still 21 at the time and still very immature in a lot of ways. I was going to team camps with riders who had multiple children and wives and had somewhat lavish lifestyles and here I was, a young rider coming in, just waiting for my first paycheck so that I could pay rent on my new apartment in Nice. It was a transition and I think the culture of being a British team was a lot different than hanging out with a bunch of young Americans, but I pretty quickly adapted into that world. It was also a transition into a different kind of cycling federation because, at the time, British Cycling had pretty close ties with Team Sky; so, entering a new style of program as far as their training method went and how things were organized and operated – it was a steep learning curve but I stayed there for five years so I definitely adapted to that system.

When I think about what got me to where I am at now in my career, a lot of it just came down to perseverance and sometimes going out on a limb and making a big sacrifice or choosing to go to a race or sometimes upset my family by leaving summer vacation in order to go to an event. I feel like a lot of cyclists’ careers are ultimately defined by almost impulsive decisions to do something – either good or bad. For whatever reason, I feel like I always made the right decisions at the right time in order to give myself the best opportunity. I wasn’t scared to fail. I was willing to put all of my eggs in the cycling basket and in the end that paid off.

I think my career would best be defined as ‘adaptable’. I think you have to be adaptable as a cyclist, especially in the modern world. Being adaptable to the situation you’re in. Oftentimes riders get so fixated on their little quirks and you really have to be adaptable because you’re going to be thrown into different environments, with different teams, teammates, people speaking different languages, and different food. You really have to be adaptable to the situations that present themselves. And that includes inevitable challenges and injuries.

I have faced a lot of challenges throughout my career. One thing I struggled with a lot after I actually turned professional was the fact that I wasn’t very confident. I had a relatively successful U23 career. I had some good results and went to a big team and I all of a sudden entered the World Tour and everyone was a lot better than me. The level of competition was much higher, and there were times in my first few years at Sky that I felt like I wasn’t really worthy of being there. I felt scared, intimidated and I saw everyone else who was trying to take my position on the team. There were always young riders coming up and working really hard and I was working hard as well but I would wonder, why was I fortunate enough to be in this situation? At times, that was probably a hindrance in my early professional years. Just not really fully embracing where I was and that I earned that position. It really wasn’t until my third year at Sky that I turned that mindset around and believed in myself a little bit more – believed that I was capable of achieving what I wanted to achieve.

Another area where I’ve had to be adaptable is in relation to injuries. Cycling is inherently dangerous as are many things we do in life. I was in crash in March 2019 and was concussed. I think with professional athletes and concussions, a lot of times it’s the athlete that wants to speed things up and that was definitely the case for me. I didn’t want to take time off the bike. I didn’t want to go to doctor’s appointments because that was all an interference for my racing and training and getting back to my routine and way of life. But I was experiencing a lot of concussion symptoms and as a result, the recovery took a lot longer than I had anticipated and ultimately it changed my future. It took me awhile to come to terms with that time away from racing and even just not being able to ride my bike in general – not being able to ride is as hard as not racing. The process and the time away from road racing really made me realize how much I just love riding my bike and how important it is to me regardless of the level or the type of bike I am riding. It opened my eyes to all sorts or cycling that I’ve ignored to a degree over the years. I’ve been so focused on riding road bikes – always with a specific goal in mind and specific training and objectives. Then to be reminded that there are so many people in so many different facets of cycling that are riding their bikes that I haven’t even explored and haven’t experienced? To a degree, I feel like that’s really opened my eyes to how broad cycling is and how large of a community it really is outside of all these little pockets. Whether it’s mountain bike, cyclocross – it doesn’t matter the discipline. Cycling is a beautiful sport and it can be experienced and enjoyed in so many different ways.

Going back to the concussion itself, in the immediate aftermath of the crash, once I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to ride ten days after the incident, I felt pretty isolated. I didn’t feel like there was a strong support network in place or even just guidance as far as available avenues to recovery. I ultimately came back to the US three weeks after my crash, with the team’s approval, to try and dive into my recovery and get the support I needed. Being in France, I speak French, but it’s a different system and oftentimes I felt like explaining my situation to doctors would just be easier in the US. Being in the US would also mean being in an environment where I had family and friends around me to help and support me – take me to appointments and whatnot. So, I came back but it took six months before I finally got connected with the UNC Medical Center down in North Carolina Chapel Hill. Once there, I got reevaluated and finally started to get some relief from my symptoms. Like I said, I had a lot of them. For me, immediately after – and even to this day – I have had some anxiety and stress. The symptoms that I was able to address and relieve through UNC included – I was experiencing a lot of headaches, I was sleeping a lot, I just wasn’t really feeling like myself. Collectively, that is kind of what prevented me from returning to races over the summer – every time that I started to ride more and harder, these headaches would return and that was frustrating. In turn, that led to a lot of internal anxiety and depression, just because I was so frustrated and then your brain chemistry is thrown off from the impact. So it was a vicious circle and I think ultimately it was a bit of identity loss and questioning, why can’t I ride my bike? I had a friend who crashed the same day that I did and broke his femur and he was back racing six months later; yet, I was still sidelined. There were a lot of symptoms, but I would say that the worst symptoms were more psychological than physical. The emotional rollercoaster that went alongside it was rough.

One of the things that I think was particularly hard psychologically and has added to some of the stress and difficulties I was experiencing was just the fact that I still appeared fine. Pictures would be posted on social media and people would see me and athletes would be like, “oh! You’re returning to racing! You look fine! You’re smiling!” But inside there was a lot more going on than what was seen through a single picture. I’m not going to post a picture of me taking a nap because I have a headache, you know? I think it is important for any athlete or any person who has had head trauma to have a certain level of understanding and awareness of your symptoms because of the severity of potential long-term damage and the stress from the changes that you see in your body. Thankfully for me, my wife was really supportive and I got linked up with the Love Your Brain Foundation. It was started by Kevin Pierce, a former snowboarder in Vermont who had a career ending crash. I started going to some of their six week retreat courses, which involve a lot of yoga and meditation with other brain injury victims. Some people had injuries far more severe than me, some peoples’ were less so – there is a wide spectrum of people at these retreats and I think having that network and community of people to talk to about what we were going through in a very safe and comfortable place, that network of people to share ideas with, and different recovery techniques, and to be open and honest, made a huge difference in just feeling supported.

What is funny is that I never thought I would get a concussion. I went through my whole road racing career – 17 years – and never broke a bone. But, I have landed on my head a lot and been concussed at least six times. And to be honest, I was a little bit naïve to the consequences and the symptoms that I was experiencing alongside the earlier ones in my career. Concussion symptoms were something I just kind of ignored because my drive and desire to ride my bike was so great that I didn’t think a concussion was something that should hold me back. And it goes back to the idea of concussions being an ‘invisible’ – almost superficial – injury. Nothing was broken. I was able to pedal a bike. And physically, from the outside, I never looked any different than I had the day before a concussion. Based on what I’ve experienced throughout my career, concussion awareness is something that I would definitely love to try and advocate for in cycling. I would love to try and be a part of a collective movement that brings awareness and a support network to people who hit their heads. I am not opposed to people not riding their bike because of the potential danger, but I do think there are ways in which you can ride your bike and take adequate precaution to do it as safely as possible. Simple example, I never ride my bike without a helmet now. I have always trained with a helmet, but sometimes I would ride down to the grocery store without a helmet on. Now, whenever I jump on a bike I throw a helmet on because it’s so simple to do and it really can save your life.

People often ask me what the highlight of my career is and, to be honest, my whole cycling experience is a highlight. I have a different perspective on my career now, and what stands out when I look back is all the connections I’ve made with so many different people, all the places I’ve been able to travel and places I’ve been able to ride my bike, the equipment I’ve been able to use…it has really been a phenomenal journey. As far as specific highlights, racing the Tour de France in 2018 was a personal career highlight. Being there and finishing that race as an American rider with a dream of racing it was definitely a dream come true. Then looking back on other points of my career, there were races where I had important people out – for example, when I won that National Championship at 14, both my parents were there and my brother – it was a family road trip down there. The feeling of accomplishing something I’d worked for at a young age, that I’d made a lot of sacrifices for, seeing those sacrifices pay off throughout my career felt really rewarding.

If I were to give advice to my younger self it would be to believe in myself more. Have more confidence and also tell myself to once in a while just slow down and really appreciate where you are, what you’re doing, and who is with you. You can get so focused on these metrics and the task at hand that sometimes you forget, ‘oh wow, we’re in Tuscany riding bikes and we’re being paid to do that!’ So I would encourage myself to really appreciate all that we are given as cyclists and remind myself of how fortunate I am to ride my bike in beautiful places.

Over the course of the time away from racing recently, I realized that I didn’t want to go back into road racing. I’ve done that for a long time. I love it, I appreciate everyone who has helped me and supported me and I’ve had a great time – a really incredible time in the world of road racing. But I felt like an opportunity was there to take a step out of road racing and pivot my career in a different direction very much on my terms and without any sort of resentment towards the sport or any regrets of things I didn’t accomplish or didn’t do. There is this amazing community of growing gravel events in the US and alternative events that, while competitive, in a way make me feel like I’m going back to that younger me and just getting out and riding my bike and exploring and challenging myself in new ways. I’m looking forward to putting down my ego and going back to a place in cycling where I’m uninformed. I am excited to let down my guard and just be involved a little more and ask questions and to be a novice again in a sport that I’m familiar with but that is completely new and different in a way. I’m ready to tackle the gravel scene.

About the Contributor

Ian Boswell grew up in Bend Oregon, has raced in the World Tour for 7 years, and now lives in Peacham Vermont with his wife Gretchen. He is employed by Wahoo Fitness, spearheading the Wahoo Frontiers Campaign, and will be racing gravel in the 2020 season.