November marks Men’s Health Awareness Month with International Men’s Day falling on the 19th. To mark the occasion, we wanted to hear from male professional riders for our ongoing mental health series.
Ian Boswell has experienced a lengthy racing career both on and off the road, now competing in gravel races for Wahoo.
Reflecting on his professional road racing days over a phone call from Vermont, he recalls moments of doubt that surfaced towards the beginning of his career, intertwined with Team Sky’s most successful seasons.
Joining the team in 2013, the then-21-year-old found himself thrust into a spotlight containing Tour de France winners and strong domestiques.
‘Sometimes I would feel not worthy or necessarily mentally confident in my ability. Especially when I first joined Team Sky [now Ineos Grenadiers] in 2013, I was instantly in this environment with superstars like Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Geraint Thomas.’
Boswell describes feeling very lost in life, attempting to juggle moving away from family and friends to Europe while racing for ‘the biggest and most prestigious team’ in the peloton.
‘I felt unworthy of being at that team at that point in time because I didn’t feel like I was performing to the level that I was capable of, but also that maybe the team had initially expected – even though I had some good performances as an U23.’
Mental health has become a more openly discussed subject – both in cycling and wider society – in the last decade. Even though Team Sky prided themselves on marginal gains, no support structures were in place at the time to aid riders or staff according to Boswell.
‘Now it’s become more common in professional racing. I think it’s valuable. Cycling is just such a tough sport. In many ways, you’re left on your own. There’s so much focus on the physical element of being a good athlete over the mental aspect of being a good athlete.’
He notes times in which he felt low, frustrated or down on it all. ‘But,’ he says, ‘what I’ve come to learn is that the beauty of life is in the contrast. Those moments when you’re climbing a mountain in the Alps and you feel good, you don’t necessarily appreciate as much if you haven’t had those rough days.’
Moving from road to gravel
Justin Setterfield via Getty Images
Boswell’s road career ended abruptly during Stage 4 of the 2019 Tirreno Adriatico. On a crash-marred day in which Tony Martin slid under a guardrail and eventual stage winner Alexey Lutsenko hit the deck twice, the American also fell to the ground while riding for Katusha-Alpecin.
He was forced to abandon. The diagnosis was concussion and the recovery wasn’t smooth – especially given this was not his first traumatic brain injury. To say ‘when one door shuts, another opens’ would be to minimise such a major transition in life, one that professional riders can fear taking. What is next after their road career?
‘I had an entire season where I wasn’t racing. Rather than pushing me away from the bike, it made me realise how much I love riding my bike. My conclusion was that I wasn’t going to go back to professional road racing.’
The door that opened led to gravel.
‘If you look at road cycling, there’s a team around you and everything is taken care of. If you don’t succeed, you feel as if you’re letting the team and staff down.
‘One thing that I’ve found very rewarding with gravel is that I’m self-dependent. I’m pumping up my own tires, deciding what food I’m going to bring, making my own strategy, booking my own flights.’
‘In long gravel events, there’s a point where the race just breaks and all of a sudden, you’re in the front group. You find your pace within the event and you just feel so free. That’s always my favourite moment.’
The break before diving into gravel, despite not being of his own accord, gave Boswell more mental clarity. He cites others in professional cycling like Tom Dumoulin – who stepped back from cycling for mental reasons – and Lennard K?mna who took a break for both his physical and mental health to recover from an infection.
‘That’s what I’d like to see more of. Whether it’s the UCI or governing federations, that support for riders. There were times when I would have really benefited from a break. I didn’t come home for 10 months straight. I wasn’t home for Christmas.
‘That’s a sacrifice that I was willing to make but there comes a point in the season when you’re burned out and maybe not happy. A break would be beneficial and advantageous for both teams and riders.
‘But an actual break, not just an offseason. It would help tremendously for mental health. It can allow athletes to realise what a strange world professional cycling is when you’re constantly surrounded by it, and when you’re also constantly surrounded by excellence.
‘I had the opportunity to be at Team Sky where every rider was one of the best in the world. You can sometimes fail to realise what you have accomplished and the level you’ve made it to, whether you win races or don’t, whether you’re a domestique or a team mechanic.’
Disconnecting for mental health
For a lot of people, riding a bike can be one activity that aids their mental health. Yet, as Boswell says, it can develop into a source of stress.
‘I think a lot of people get into cycling, whether recreational or professional, because it provides the freedom to explore in fresh air and get a dopamine hit from exercise. As it becomes your job, it can also become the cause of your stress.
‘Maybe navigating the stress would be by finding another activity that grounds people and gives them an opportunity to think and reflect. I did something similar after my crash in 2019, whether it was gardening or mowing the lawn.
‘Having an opportunity to disconnect once in a while is incredibly important. For everyone – not just professional athletes.
‘However it feels, as a professional athlete, that the expectation is you’re never done. For me, finding activities with a distinct start and end brings mental satisfaction.
‘Take Geraint Thomas for example, he won the Tour de France in 2018. But there’s always an expectation of what is next. Can you win it again? Can you win the Giro d’Italia? Like, this guy just won the Tour de France! There’s always another race or another season. Over time, that becomes very stressful.’
Boswell says that for the first time since leaving professional road racing, he experienced this after winning Unbound Gravel in 2021. He won wearing a transgender pride armband, in support of the community and trans family member, to ‘hope that people of all different walks, feel welcome to ride a bike and show up at bike events.’
When returning to Unbound the next year, he found himself faced with expectations and questions about repeating his previous success. He asked himself, why?
‘I was curious and my question was – what in an athlete wants me to go back? What’s the point? I knew that it couldn’t be better than it was in 2021 because I didn’t have expectations then. There was no pressure. It was purely for fun.’
He didn’t retain his title in 2022 but he did achieve a podium finish after 200 miles.
Even though his road career might not have ended how he expected, it feels like Boswell has refound himself, both on the bike and mentally, through gravel. Relinquishing the road has allowed self-dependency and freedom to flourish.
In his own words, he ‘loves it.’
Mental health helplines
UK and Ireland
Samaritans: 24/7 on 116 123
Mind: 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday on 0300 123 3393
Mental Health America: 24/7 on 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566
BeyondBlue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline 24/7 Helpline: 0800 543 345
Sneha India: 10am to 10pm on 91 44 24640050
Lifeline National Counselling: 0861-322-322
Main image credit: Chris Graythen via Getty Images