With 85% of the route off-road, Badlands is an unsupported, ultracycling gravel challenge that rewards self-sufficiency. So what happens if things take an unexpected turn under the searing sun of Andalusia?
Cristina Sanser had taken a whole year to prepare before rolling up to the September startline. But finding herself riding through a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, she needed to find the inner strength to stop and say enough.
Why Badlands? I suppose I should start by explaining that I’ve only been riding a bike for four years—and only consistently for a year and a half. With the whole Covid situation, I had to work from home and everything was so boring with no travelling allowed. My friends and I saw the Badlands documentary from last year and when the bars once again opened, we went for a drink and decided why not?
The year I spent training for it, in the back of mind I was doubting whether I would ever be ready. I’m pretty fit but everyone taking part in the challenge is super strong and I’m still working my way up the ladder in terms of technical ability. So in the end, I decided to just treat it as a holiday. I would sign up and whether I finished the race or not, this would be an excuse to visit another part of Spain and have some fun.
I was riding – unofficially – as a team. We entered two as a pair and one more as an individual but the plan was to ride together. Freya had recently moved to Girona from the UK and is super strong with a racing background—very much a mentor to me and really helpful advising on things like bike gearing and clothing. My other friend, Laura, is a sports scientist and cycling coach and my pre-race level of fitness was all due to her help and encouragement.
I was fully aware that we were facing certain metrics—the distance, the terrain, the allowed time window of six days. But we’d prepared well with a first training block that built up an endurance base, a second block with a higher intensity and then a third which combined elements of both. Quite a commitment when working office hours in a demanding role.
In terms of a bike and equipment, budget played a part in the decisions we made. Everything is so expensive but fortunately I managed to upgrade to a BMC URS gravel bike—the geometry works better for me and it gives me more confidence if the surface is poor. And all of these different strands of preparation came together on a test ride in the Pyrenees—lots of climbing, super technical sections and sleeping outside. Mentally, we’d been planning this for so long that it felt settled in my brain. So I suppose, in a sense, I was prepared to suffer. To suffer a lot.
Perhaps inevitably, the closer we got to the start date the more our nerves began to build. I’d never raced before – ever – so the thoughts going through my head involved what would happen if I crashed in the first ten kilometres. Or maybe I wouldn’t be able to unclip and everyone would see me and laugh. And in hindsight it was a mistake to book a hotel outside of Granada’s city centre. We walked a lot before Badlands got underway but then we walked a lot during the race too.
Attending a rider briefing a couple of days before the start, we got to talk to people who had already raced Trans-Pyrenees and the previous year’s Badlands. Very simply, this proved to be super motivating and I left the briefing feeling that, yes, I could do this.
Race day arrived with Laura waking to a painful wisdom tooth. Typically, she cast aside any thoughts of not riding in the time it took to take some paracetamol and we rolled up at a park area to set off as a bunch. Riding amongst all the other competitors during the first 20 km, I was close to tears. What was I doing with all these super strong and experienced riders? But we’d spent 12 months preparing for this moment and that thought carried me through those initial nerves.
Climbing upwards and upwards, the gravel trails gradually became more technical and on some sections we were jumping on and off the bike. But even though the heat was intense and the riding hard, the first day was fun. I even have a picture of me smiling.
With the sun setting in the sky, we rolled into the village of Gorafe. My friends and l felt tired but seeing all the other competitors who’d also chosen this location to snatch a few hours rest gave us an emotional lift. We grabbed some food and then laid out our mats and sleeping bags on the roadside to sleep. Three hours later we woke up – not to say that I actually slept with all the night time noises – and got underway again to hit the desert before sunrise.
This proved to be truly an amazing experience. Very technical – especially descending with bike lights – but it felt like an epic adventure. Approaching another small village, we stopped briefly for a couple of quick coffees before continuing. But even though we’d refilled all our bidons and hydration packs, we eventually began to run short of water and needed to ration how much we drank despite the intense heat.
Freya had pushed on ahead – she’s such a strong rider – as the landscape gradually changed from gravel to sand. Really technical to ride but we’d managed to maintain a good race position and our spirits were up. And then, without warning, I crashed. Maybe because I was dehydrated – my Wahoo was reading 49°C – but my front wheel hit a soft patch of sand and I lost control. A silly mistake rather than a tragic accident but I hit my head when the bike went over. Taking a moment to gather my senses, all the good feelings that had buoyed our progress so far seemed to evaporate into the cloudless sky. Climbing back on my bike, for the next couple of hours I was dizzy and disorientated—cresting every rise with the expectation of a village and water but finding only barren nothingness.
Catching up with Laura at the end of a long and draining climb, I discovered her crying. And Laura never cries. A true lover of nature and always happiest in the mountains, seeing her upset made me realise that our race was starting to fall apart. Then Laura’s mum called to ask if Freya was still with us—she’d been dot watching and could see she was off route. I immediately called Freya and thankfully she answered. She’d taken a wrong turn and then had to backtrack – uphill – to regain the route. We’d already booked a hotel earlier that morning so we agreed to meet there and decide what to do. What she didn’t tell us over the call was that she’d been continually vomiting due to dehydration.
We now had a strong headwind and 25 km of super technical riding between us and the hotel. More walking than riding, it felt an impossible task and by then we’d run out of water. But somehow we managed to keep moving until we finally reached the hotel to be greeted by Freya. She’d cooked food for us – such an angel – and when we began to feel more comfortable we talked about our options.
The next day was 140 km with no stops for food or water. Food had never really been an issue but the availability of water in this scorching heat was a real concern. And what Freya and I hadn’t realised – because she didn’t want to burden us – was that Laura now had an infection in her tooth and had exhausted her supply of paracetamol. Weighing up these different factors, we all felt the same and decided to stop.
Will I return to race Badlands again? Looking back from the comfort of home, there’s a part of me that still questions whether we should have continued. I feel tears begin to well-up when I think of all that preparation and how we’d pictured ourselves finishing. But we made the decision together and we cried together.
Sometimes things are just out of your control and it would have been foolhardy to continue with Laura suffering and in pain. And I do recognise that mentally I’m very strong. Who knew – even if we didn’t finish – that I would find myself rolling up to the start line of Badlands? That I’d be happy to sleep in the street? And being able to say enough and accepting that it was the right decision—that proved far harder and took more strength than continuing to ride.
My result at Unbound surprised me for so many reasons. One of the first big races that I’d done in several years and a return to racing with a completely different mindset. The distance was an unknown quantity but I approached the event with this sense of pure enjoyment. I’d spent so much of my professional career never getting that solo win and then – just when I’d stopped caring about that – I crossed the line in first place. Kind of ironic but in a very good sense.
Growing up in Bend, Oregon, with dreams of one day riding the Tour de France, Ian Boswell rode La Grande Boucle with Team Katusha–Alpecin before suffering a heavy crash in the 2019 Tirreno-Adriatico that forced an untimely end to his World Tour career. Announcing his retirement from road racing at the age of 28, a role in athlete liaison with Wahoo complemented his ‘Breakfast with Boz’ podcast before racing once again came calling in the shape of the North American gravel scene. Here, Ian talks about his transition from the professional peloton, putting down roots in Vermont with his wife Gretchen, his win at Unbound and how some life-defining events can even surpass riding 200 miles of dirt roads in Kansas.
cyclespeak You raced at the pinnacle of the sport with four years at Team Sky and then latterly riding for Team Katusha–Alpecin. For the majority of that time you were based in Nice on the French Riviera. Does living so far from home bring with it certain challenges?
Ian Regardless of how long you live in France or Spain, you’re only there because of the cycling so it can feel like you’re always working. Someone like Alejandro Valverde, the majority of his races are a two hour or less flight from his house. He’s at a race on a Sunday and he’s back home with his wife and kids the next day—maybe even the same evening.
cyclespeak With all the support his family and friends offer?
Ian I often used to think just how different an experience it is for riders having loved ones on a different continent. And it does force you to live in a cocoon because you’re there for a very specific reason and there’s a sense you should put all your focus into that one thing. Which is interesting now that I’ve returned to racing but on the gravel scene. I’m still training, resting and eating well – just like in my World Tour days – but I’m also doing all these other things that bring me joy and enhance my riding.
cyclespeak It always intrigues me when road racers describe how deep they have to go in a stage. Just how hard does it get when the peloton is going full gas?
Ian There’s this very unique sense of risk / reward that’s tied to suffering in professional cycling. Whether that’s winning a race, getting a new contract or just the fame and glory—very different from most peoples’ perspectives on how to achieve success. Usually, our natural instinct is to stop if something hurts. But with cycling you have this sense that if you hurt yourself, then you’ll achieve something. And sometimes you’ll see examples of this when the outcome is a win but there are other times when it can result in a terrible crash and a rider finishing a race bloodied and battered. Almost an accepted aspect of the sport and the nature of how you move up the ladder and achieve success. Everyone hurts whether it’s Peter Sagan, Julian Alaphilippe or your everyday weekend warrior. What sets the riders apart is how much pain they’re willing to handle.
cyclespeak You were 28 when you announced your retirement. Was there a feeling of shifting your own sense of identity?
Ian The circumstances of how I came to announce my retirement were dictated by the crash I had and then spending a season away from racing. If things had been different, then I imagine I would still be racing professionally on the road today. I did have the opportunity to carry on…
cyclespeak I believe Israel Start-up Nation were interested in you riding on their team and you had a contract offer from Rally.
Ian I looked at my career to date and still felt it would be great to return to racing and maybe try and win a stage at the Tour. But the path of continually trying to succeed and impress never really ends. And that’s regardless of who you are. So I came to the realisation that, hey, I’ve pretty much done everything I wanted to do and it was time to be happy with that. Very much a mind shift that I was still young enough to pursue other things in my life that would bring me happiness.
cyclespeak Would you have felt differently if you hadn’t ridden the Tour in 2018?
Ian Probably so [smiles]. For whatever reason, it’s still the standout moment of my road racing career. I guess because I grew up in this very prominent era in American cycling with Lance Armstrong. So getting to ride the Tour, it was the icing on the cake even though I knew and accepted I would never get to wear the yellow jersey into Paris [laughs].
cyclespeak But you still got to ride down the Champs-Élysées after three weeks racing through France.
Ian That was a pretty special moment. And, in a sense, I had a perfect Tour—no crashes, no flat tyres and without getting sick. Such a good race that it would be almost impossible to go back and have a better experience. Especially as there’s a tendency in professional cycling to finish one race – and that might be on a high – before immediately starting to think about what’s next and how you can go one step better. So that period in 2019 when I was recovering from my crash gave me the opportunity to reflect on a lot of things.
cyclespeak Your retirement was kind of forced on you through injury but is the question of ‘what next’ generally discussed between teammates?
Ian It’s seldom mentioned. Riders will talk about other things that they’re interested in but there’s so much focus on performance and results that the minute you start to have other thoughts or ideas, there might be a perception that you’re spending energy elsewhere. And for me, I was 28 when I announced my retirement and my friends Larry Warbasse and Joe Dombrowski – fellow Americans that were also living in Nice at the time – we didn’t talk about it because, in our minds, we were going to race our bikes until we were 35 or beyond.
cyclespeak What’s the one thing you miss most from your years in the World Tour?
Ian What I miss is also what I enjoy so much now. The preparation for events was so well-organised that you almost didn’t have to think about it. You just had to focus on yourself because the mechanics sorted your bike, your laundry was done, the team chef prepared all your food. But interestingly, what I really enjoy now is being solely responsible and looking after my own equipment and mixing up my own bottles.
cyclespeak When did the idea of moving to gravel racing first surface? Was this a way of riding you were familiar with?
Ian In a sense, it was totally random. I’d seen this explosion in gravel racing from over in Europe. And after moving back to the States and making Vermont our home, probably over 70% of the roads are dirt so I was riding them anyways without necessarily thinking I was riding gravel [smiles]. And then I took a full-time position with Wahoo in January 2020 and as a brand they were going to many of these events as either a sponsor or they had an expo space. They told me it would be great to have me along because I was a recognisable face and oftentimes my colleagues would ride the event—they’re there, so why not get to ride.
cyclespeak So you decided to join in the fun?
Ian And then 2020 happened and I didn’t get to go to any events and that changed my perspective even more. Looking back, my mindset was still a little leftover from road racing and I was training through the winter – doing intervals – to stay fit. But, as it turned out, to stay fit for what?
cyclespeak So, once again, another period of reflection.
Ian That year without racing – road or gravel – allowed me to move another step away from my past life. And because we weren’t travelling to events with Wahoo, I took on more responsibility in my day-to-day job with less opportunity and time for riding. I’m still very much learning how to balance everything and that might mean sneaking out to go for a quick hour’s ride and rather than worrying that I’m not maintaining my training block, just being happy with that.
cyclespeak A very different mindset from your professional years?
Ian When I was racing and living in Europe, a few hours of riding was all I had to do in a whole day. Maybe I’d go to the grocery store or spend some time on the beach—but now I’m getting my kit on as I’m finishing up a call so I can get out of the door before the next one.
cyclespeak Watching the Wahoo Frontiers content – which I really enjoy – it references the sense of friendship that exists between rival racers.
Ian In the gravel world, I’m very close to certain individuals like Pete Stetina. Part of my job in athlete liaison with Wahoo is to manage these relationships—negotiating their contracts or sorting out the gear they need. Which is kind of funny because I also race against them. And there’s still this sense of communal support like the day before the Belgium Waffle Ride when I had a spare tyre and offered it to Colin Strickland—giving him a resource that could potentially help him beat me in the race. If you look at that front group on this year’s Unbound – Pete, Colin, Ted [King] and Laurens [ten Dam] – we were racing so that the strongest rider would cross the finish line in first place on merit alone. Maybe that isn’t always the case in road racing and I think that’s where a lot of people in gravel are scared and a little bit sceptical about the future. Whether it will become more cagey or if team tactics will help decide the outcome. But right now, it still feels very pure. Everyone is happy that the strongest rider gets to win on any given day. At the 2021 Belgium Waffle Ride that was Pete and I was super happy for him.
cyclespeak Looking back at this year’s Unbound Gravel, the field was packed with talent. And I’ve enjoyed listening to you quiz past winners on your podcast. Did you line up at the start with a win in mind?
Ian No, not at all. I’d never done this race before so there were so many subtle aspects to the event that I wasn’t aware of like tyre pressures and equipment choices. But even though I wasn’t holding out any hopes for a win, I did feel that if I got a clean run, then I could at least do well. And there’s so many things that can go wrong. Flat tyres, bonking, mechanicals—little things like the tyre plugs that people use if they’re riding tubeless.
cyclespeak I guess there’s always an element of luck if you’re racing 200 miles on dirt roads.
Ian My main focus – regardless of my placing – was to ride hard and have fun. As things turned out, I didn’t have any issues with the bike, I didn’t crash and I managed to make all the selections that put me in with a chance to sprint for the win.
cyclespeak I watched Colin’s video where he talked through his Unbound bike setup. So dialled in and I wondered whether you also naturally embrace this level of detail?
Ian The technical stuff, no. I probably was carrying too much stuff and in the wrong places. There was one point where the five of us were off the front and Colin punctured. He put a plug in the tyre as we slowed up for a couple of minutes and then caught up with us. It would’ve taken me 10 minutes to figure that out [smiles]. Whereas he’s so meticulous on having his equipment to hand, if it was me with a flat then my CO₂ was underneath my hydration pack and I would’ve needed to unzip three pockets to get to it. The gas wasn’t even screwed into the valve because I didn’t want to waste it. In hindsight, really stupid because it’s less than a dollar to buy a new one.
cyclespeak I guess we’re all learning and this was your first time riding Unbound.
Ian With the nutritional side I think I’m more tuned in. Having spent those years at Team Sky – working with their sport scientists – I’ve got a fairly good grasp of how to fuel a ride and I was pretty much dialled in when it came to feeding and hydration. But mechanically is where I’m still at a huge disadvantage.
cyclespeak You mentioned having a clean run. Did you set out to ride your race in a particular way?
Ian I rode to my ability—never overextending myself trying to close a gap and riding more cautiously through the technical sections compared to others in the front group. And you’ve got to bear in mind that it’s a long race so there’s plenty of opportunity to make up time.
cyclespeak Were you riding to power?
Ian I was on a Wahoo Roam for Unbound and I did have power visible but, to be honest, I never really looked at it. I think I’ve spent enough time riding with a power meter and know my body well enough to manage my output. More recently I’ve been riding off speed and it’s funny that most of the races I’ve done this year have all averaged between 20 and 21 mph. So this is far more an indication of effort than my power reading and I can use this in my training—going out on a 100 mile loop with the goal of averaging 20 mph. Power is still useful but if you’re in the Little Egypt section of Unbound and Pete’s attacking, are you going to sit back because he’s riding above your planned pace? It’s a do or die moment and power doesn’t really matter. You either make it or you don’t.
cyclespeak Crossing the line in a sprint against Laurens ten Dam, what emotions entered your mind?
Ian What’s interesting is that, apart from a team time-trial at the Vuelta, I didn’t win any races in my professional road career. So I threw my hands up in the air because I was super happy to win a sprint. To be honest, I didn’t fully realise the size of the event and just how much attention that it had until later. At the Tour you have fans lining the roadside, cars and motorcycles in front and behind, helicopters above, race radio in your ear—you’re always aware of what’s going on and the pressures and expectations of the race. At Unbound, for the vast majority of the route we didn’t see anyone. No fans, no cars, no noise—just us. In my mind I was out on a group ride with Ted, Pete, Colin and Laurens—a bunch of incredibly strong riders that I have so much respect for.
cyclespeak I was talking to Gus Morton a while back and he mentioned that when his brother Lachlan raced the 2019 Dirty Kanza [as Unbound was previously known], his team Education First got more views on social media for this one-day race than the whole of the Giro d’Italia.
Ian I finished Unbound and I had over 2000 messages on Instagram. And I was like, what the heck is going on? Richie Porte was riding the Critérium du Dauphiné at the same time – which he went on to win – and he messaged. And that just didn’t make sense because, in my mind, the Dauphiné is one of the biggest races in the world and I’m riding dirt roads in Kansas.
cyclespeak I say this semi-seriously but maybe all your World Tour friends are a little jealous? Because everyone who rides Unbound seems to have so much fun? They’re competing, giving it everything and still having a good time.
Ian I do sometimes wonder whether professional teams look at Unbound and consider all the attention it gets. And I was speaking to my good friend Larry Warbasse who rides for AG2R Citroën – one of the best teams in the world – and he’s going to altitude camp, riding intervals and watching what he eats—all this commitment and sacrifice but nowhere near the same level of recognition. In my opinion, the World Tour is still the pinnacle of cycle racing but maybe we’ll see more road riders lining up at the start of these gravel races.
cyclespeak You’ve touched on the future of gravel racing in your podcast. With pro teams looking to get involved – I’m thinking EF and their alternative calendar – is this a good thing or are there concerns?
Ian I’m not sure I’m the right person to answer that as it’s my first year but the gravel scene is very unique as the people participating are determining what gravel racing is—the unwritten rules in much the same way the etiquette of the Tour was set out in the first half of the 20th century. Time will tell whether that changes if gravel racing attracts more money, prestige or media attention. At present it’s still very grassroots in terms of culture.
cyclespeak Alongside your gravel racing – and I need to mention that you won a stage at the Migration Gravel Race two weeks after Unbound – you work for Wahoo in athlete liaison and also have your podcast—of which I’m a huge fan. Professionally speaking, what’s the best thing about being Ian Boswell at the moment?
Ian Goodness. Where do I start? I’ve been really busy since Unbound and that’s after 12 months of finding a nice balance in my life. I joined the volunteer fire department in town, my wife Gretchen and I got a dog and keep chickens. And then all of a sudden everything changed.
cyclespeak I imagine life must feel like it’s ramped up a gear?
Ian I suppose I’m really trying to figure out how to make all these different aspects meet in the middle. You take the Amani project that Wahoo supports and how that led to me going to Africa for the Migration Race. Hopefully, we get to have the East African athletes travelling over to the US so they can race some events.
cyclespeak And it feels good to be involved in projects like these?
Ian Cycling has brought so much positivity into my life and I feel that maybe I’m now in a position to give back as much as possible. So I just want to put my heart and soul into things that I’m passionate about and things that I love and that bring me joy and inspiration.
cyclespeak Talking of inspiration, you have a very engaging style of delivery with your podcast.
Ian Initially, back in 2020, it was meant to be 12 episodes over the course of the year. But then the pandemic happened and we decided to make it a weekly thing. I had the time because I was at home and not racing and the more episodes I did, the more relaxed I began to feel with the medium. When I first started – recording an intro – sometimes I would have 50 versions of the same 20 second segment [laughs].
cyclespeak I love that.
Ian But as you go on, you begin to realise that a lot of these things – mistakes you might call them – aren’t even picked up in conversation. We kind of edit them out and that’s how I now approach the podcast.
cyclespeak And often it can be quite endearing because it sounds like you’re actually having a conversation and everything isn’t scripted.
Ian Other than piecing it together, I’ve probably made less than ten cuts out of the entire series. Very little gets left out.
cyclespeak Considering the name of your podcast, I feel it would be remiss of me not to ask if you have a favourite breakfast?
Ian I have been known to enjoy an extravagant breakfast but that can change day to day and seasonally. Gretchen and I made this French toast sandwich which I particularly enjoyed. And sometimes it’s good to start the day with a simple bowl of oatmeal.
cyclespeak Your barn occasionally features on your social media feed. It must be useful to have so much storage?
Ian Gretchen and I got married there so we spent a lot of time prior to our wedding cleaning it out and making it look nice. We do harbour a desire to host events in the future but at the moment our chickens live there in the winter and we have a small tractor, tools and whatnot. And living in Vermont, there’s always free stuff on the roadside and it can be hard to say no when you have a big barn to put it in.
cyclespeak And plenty of room for bikes. What’s the first one you reach for?
Ian I do have an e-bike that I’ve been riding a lot recently—a Specialized Creo which is very similar to the Diverge. It’s pretty hilly where we live and Gretchen and I will often jump on our e-bikes after work and go on a 15 or 20 mile spin which always brings a smile to my face. With the e-bike, I can just wear my basketball shorts and some tennis shoes and not think about getting all kitted out.
cyclespeak I do wonder whether that choice will surprise some folk?
Ian I really think that e-bikes have a lot to offer to a lot of people. My Mum visited a couple of weeks ago and we got to ride together and she was dropping me on the climbs [laughs].
cyclespeak These post-work rides wouldn’t happen to involve ice cream?
Ian I do love ice cream – probably too much – and whenever I go with Gretchen, I try to convince her to get a bigger size so I can eat the rest. It can be a little awkward going to the counter twice within 20 minutes to ask for another two ice creams, knowing that I’m going to eat them both [laughs].
cyclespeak How else do you unwind if you’re not visiting your local ice cream store?
Ian Since it’s summertime, my most relaxing thing is jumping on my tractor and mowing our fields. It’s very therapeutic—a distinct start and end and aesthetically it just looks so good when you’ve finished. Sitting on the tractor is so peaceful and offers a lot of mental release.
cyclespeak I think sometimes the simplest things can be the most rewarding so I guess we all need a tractor. And I kind of wanted to finish up our conversation on a high and mention the very end of your Unbound Gravel film for Wahoo when you shared the super exciting news that Gretchen is expecting a baby? As I watched you fighting back the tears, it made me think of the frontiers tag but one that will be totally life-changing.
Ian The people behind the camera on the Wahoo shoot are my close friends and they hadn’t a clue what I was about to say. And when they asked me about my frontiers – about what was next – it just came out. Part of me was thinking that I’d better run this past Gretchen [smiles].
cyclespeak Well, I’m glad it was left in.
Ian Even during the race – and it’s a long race – I was thinking about how having a baby will change our lives—that this might be the last time for a while I race Unbound with the same level of focus and preparation. But if that’s what it takes to try and be the best father I can be – to be present and available – then it will far exceed any desires I might have to be a pro racer and defend my title at Unbound.