Ansel Dickey / Vermont Social

“It’s a massive refinement of small moments that the viewer ends up seeing.”

After eschewing college for a career racing bikes, Ansel Dickey [pictured far right] combined his love of photography and film in Vermont Social—the creative agency he founded that delivers beautifully realised visual media with a focus on storytelling.

Referencing his latest film for Wahoo Frontiers, Ansel discusses in detail the logistical demands and production processes that such a project entails—a freewheeling conversation that takes in barn envy, motorbike chases through Austin, Texas and telling secrets to the camera.

cyclespeak
So how are things in Vermont?

Ansel
We’re in the middle of a long mud season.

cyclespeak
I’ve heard about that. When I spoke to Ian Boswell* he was saying that winter is sort of prolonged but it’s proper snow so you can go fat biking or cross-country skiing.

[*Wahoo Frontiers athlete and winner of Unbound 2021]

Ansel
Yeah, I mean winter is actually quite enjoyable but when all the snow is gone it’s still really cold and the dirt roads – which are like 80% of all our roads –  are just gnarly and rutted.

cyclespeak
And you end up coming back with a filthy bike that needs cleaning.

Ansel
If I have to wash my bike after a ride, then I’m not going out. There’s no requirement for me to train on the bike anymore and I’ve been converted to running. It’s super time efficient so if I’m busy I can just do 20 minutes and feel like I’ve accomplished something. But lately I’ve been really missing the bike so I went out on this nice long ride yesterday. The first in five months. It’s finally dry enough and warm enough to go out.

cyclespeak
I’m right in thinking you bought a house a couple of years back?

Ansel
Yeah. My fiancée Gertrude and I found a place in West Windsor. We’d been looking for a while but couldn’t find anything and then this house popped up. So we jumped on it.

cyclespeak
Are people still working from home and wanting more space?

Ansel
The remote work environment has been picked up by a lot of companies and people are realising that compared to metropolitan areas, Vermont is still relatively cheap. People understand that their money can go a lot farther. But then they get to mud season and it’s like, fuck, I wanna go back to the city [laughs].

cyclespeak
The question is – and this is an important question – have you got a big barn like Ian?

Ansel
I wish. His barn is next level. We do have a two car garage but, unlike Gertrude, I don’t use it for my car because my side is full of bikes and crap.

cyclespeak
Speaking of possessions, I can see the neck of a cello poking out from behind the couch. Who’s the musician? 

Ansel
That’s mine but I haven’t played in a while. My Dad is a musician so I grew up playing a lot of instruments. I play more guitar now.

cyclespeak
I’ve seen pictures of you with a banjo.

Ansel
Yeah. And my dog’s name is Banjo. Unfortunately he just tore his ACL playing fetch.

cyclespeak
Is that fixable?

Ansel
It is but we still don’t know if it’s fully or partially torn. And it’s a real shame because mud season is his favourite. Especially if it’s been raining. He’s that kind of dog [laughs]. 

cyclespeak
When Banjo was a puppy you were still racing bikes professionally. Can you talk me through your transition to content creator?

Ansel
Bikes were always a big part of my life. I started racing when I was 15 or 16, slowly improved and got on the national team. And then right out of high school I signed my first professional contract. So that helped me decide that I didn’t really want to go to college and I’d rather go off racing. I travelled loads and met a lot of great people. But even though I did the Tour of China and raced in Azerbaijan, I never really made it to Ian’s level—never made it to where it was totally justifiable with me making a huge living.

cyclespeak
So what changed?

Ansel
I had a teammate called Sam Rosenholtz who was also a portrait photographer. We went to a training camp in Spain and I remember watching him carry around his camera and take photographs. I was, okay, cameras are cool and I want to play with them too. So I started just doing it for fun—taking my camera to races when I was travelling.

cyclespeak
And from there?

Ansel
At the same time I had already started Vermont Social but as a social media marketing company. I was basically helping small business clients like a bike shop in New Hampshire or a beer store in Vermont—running their social media for them while I was abroad racing.

cyclespeak
And the photography?

Ansel
It was the realisation that a lot of these same social media clients also needed photographic services and that eventually evolved into video. And because I was becoming more invested in getting better at film and photography than getting better at racing my bike, I knew it was time to quit.

cyclespeak
Was that a head or a heart shift?

Ansel
I think the heart took a lot longer than the head. Analytically, I knew how hard I’d worked at my racing but did I want to waste another five or ten years doing the same races and getting the same results? Or did I want to pivot?

cyclespeak
How long did it take for riding your bike to not feel like training?

Ansel
Oh man, I think it’s still an issue. Being an athlete at that level, you’re tortured because of this desire to do well. But I also think that anything in my life, when I enjoy it, I enjoy the feeling of getting better. I think that’s why I got into running because I’m not that good at it yet and I can see the progression. When I get on my bike, I’m just reminded of how good I used to be. So it’s tough [laughs].

cyclespeak
Why the name Vermont Social?

Ansel
I like the way it sounded. Like, pretty cool.

cyclespeak
And the brand logo comes from your love of fishing? 

Ansel
Yeah. I grew up on Cape Cod in Massachusetts where I fell in love with fly fishing. I’ve always liked companies that had a mascot, so I was like, why not just make it a fish? And because I like an organic approach to things, the only native fish to Vermont is the Brook Trout.

cyclespeak
And that all came together and just felt right?

Ansel
I always thought that with branding and design, things need to look good as a base but beyond that, your brand is really created by the interactions you have with your customers. And like the layers on an onion, it takes years and years to build.

cyclespeak
Your latest film for Wahoo Frontiers – 24 Hours in Old Pueblo – is 11 minutes and some seconds of brilliance. Beautifully filmed and depicting these four young women, out racing in the desert and having fun. Can you describe the processes you follow in a project such as this? From conception through to delivery, and how do you use the event to tell a story?

Ansel
As you probably know, Wahoo Fitness is a big client of ours and a lot of the original ideas come from them. Once the idea is on the table, then it’s my job to do the research and come up with what the story is. With this film, the idea centres around community and camaraderie.

cyclespeak
So you have your story. What’s next?

Ansel
Pre-production involves researching the athletes—who they are, their past results and a little of their character. And then there’s the event. How long has it been running? What’s the format?

cyclespeak
So for this film?

Ansel
The women are four individuals – really good in their own right – so it’s cool to see them come together to form this team in a fun and funky event.

cyclespeak
And the logistics?

Ansel
We knew the event was way out in the desert. Everyone calls it the Burning Man of bike festivals which I would say is super accurate [laughs].

cyclespeak
Which means you were camping?

Ansel
We set to work making a list of everything we’d need to take with us and decided to rent a sprinter van so we could camp out with the girls and charge our equipment. It was myself and Josh Bernales—another DP who’s just moved to Colorado but used to live in Vermont.

cyclespeak
What about the actual filming?

Ansel
The pre-production plan has all the story ideas and interview questions. The production plan is, okay, we’ll do sunset shooting here, interviews over there and we’ll film the race in this way. Beyond that, you’re on the fly. Documenting things as they unfold and constantly looking for opportunities to tell the story that’s always in the back of your mind. 

cyclespeak
Is that story influenced by what’s happening on the ground?

Ansel
It totally evolves and you just have to be okay with that because we don’t want to put words in their mouths. So you have to be ready to change direction, ask another question or reshoot something in a way that helps explain where it’s going. And it’s also important to have fun. We were camping in the desert so you’re hanging out with the girls and cooking with them. You’ve got to build a rapport before you expect to get good stuff on film.

cyclespeak
I can see how it would be fun but it also sounds a little intense?

Ansel
You shoot all day, dump cards at night. Then go to sleep – or not in this film’s case – and begin all over again the next day. And then you go home and start the editing process and, honestly, that’s where the story really comes alive. You have an idea of what you shot but you really don’t know what it’s going to turn into until you get it onto the timeline.

cyclespeak
As I already mentioned, the film runs to just over 11 minutes. But how much footage did you have available to edit down?

Ansel
I don’t know the exact length but it was 4 to 5 terabytes. And that’s pretty typical for a project such as this. Basically, if you’re there, shoot it. Because you’ll get into the edit and wish you had it. It’s a massive refinement of small moments that the viewer ends up seeing.

cyclespeak
A semi-serious question but who had the tidier camp?

Ansel
We managed to keep the inside of our van pretty organised but outside was just trashed. There’s so much going on and we didn’t have a producer on set organising our stuff. We’re helping the girls cook, bringing them a jacket when they’re cold, helping fix their bikes—and all the time trying to film. So cleaning was the last thing on anyone’s mind and it showed at the end. If you wanted to eat something, you would just pick up a dirty bowl, brush it out and find some food to put in it [laughs].

cyclespeak
Moving on to other projects, when Ian shared his secret to the camera in your film documenting the 2021 Unbound, I welled up myself*. How do you balance the need to film what’s happening without being too intrusive? But also building these relationships that allow the subjects to share their thoughts and feelings so freely?

[*In the final scene of the film, Ian let slip that his wife Gretchen was expecting their first child]

Ansel
Unbound was super cool because Ian won. And he’s a really good friend so it’s really easy to work with him. Beyond that, we try to approach these stories and the humans behind them with respect and humility. You can’t just barge in—you need to wait for them to be comfortable opening up. And it’s also about getting the best out of them as opposed to putting words in their mouths.

cyclespeak
I do feel that your films go beyond purely documenting. And I’m guessing the athletes that you feature trust that you’ll take what they do and say and treat this with respect. And I was wondering, now that you’ve been working with Education First, whether there are any challenges particular to the World Tour?

Ansel
There sure are [laughs]. The fact that everything is orchestrated and organised around the athletes means you’re a fly on the wall watching things unfold. You’re basically like paparazzi following them around—spraying and praying and documenting that way. But it’s also really cool because I always wanted to go to the World Tour as a bike racer and now I’ve finally made it as a filmmaker which is kind of cool. 

cyclespeak
You posted a really nice photograph of you and the team taken by Jered Gruber. Do you enjoy collaborating with other professionals?

Ansel
Having two cameras, another person flying the drone and someone doing audio—it all adds up to make a much better experience for the viewer. Everyone’s devotion to the craft really comes into play and most of these projects simply aren’t possible without teamwork.

cyclespeak
What are your thoughts on social media? Because that’s where Vermont Social started.

Ansel
I’m personally and professionally thrilled that I don’t have to manage other people’s social media anymore. That was a 2-3 year period when we did it as a service and it made money but was just absolutely brutal. Anything you did wasn’t good enough and there was always a problem with an angry commenter or the client not being happy with what you were doing. With the film and photography stuff, you’re delivering this product and if you’ve done your job well, when they get delivery they’re like, holy crap, this is amazing [laughs].

cyclespeak
Any social media positives?

Ansel
On the flip side, it’s relatively easy to build a big audience and you can get your work out to the world really, really quickly and that accelerates everything else. So maybe it’s a two-sided coin and like I always tell people, use it as a tool because that’s what it is.

cyclespeak
Any past projects that proved particularly challenging?

Ansel
We had fun with both the Colin Strickland and Sarah Sturm Frontiers episodes. It was at the height of COVID during the early fall of 2020. No one was flying at that point but Wahoo Fitness really wanted us to do the projects. So we figured out that if we rented a commercial sprinter van, it would take our air mattresses, camera gear and mountain bikes. And then we drove from Vermont to Texas.

cyclespeak
That’s a long way.

Ansel
It was a three day drive with us sleeping in the van because we didn’t trust hotels. When we got to Austin ready to start filming with Colin, he just opened up his garage and there were all these motorcycles in a row. Both Nick [Keating] and I ride so, calm as you like, Colin throws us two sets of keys and hands over some helmets. Follow me, he says, we’re going out to dinner. So we’re bombing through downtown Austin, trying to keep up with Colin and it’s like ten minutes since we first met him. Absolutely insane [laughs].

cyclespeak
That sounds pretty cool to me.

Ansel
And then once the project was done, we drove straight to Colorado to film with Sarah Sturm—still sleeping in the van and still not showering. After spending four days camping up in the mountains with Sarah and her boyfriend, we drove all the way back home to Vermont.

cyclespeak
How long were you away from home?

Ansel
That was a month-long process of living in a commercial sprinter van that wasn’t built for camping. Just to shoot these two projects during COVID.

cyclespeak
Speaking of projects, you’ve got a big day coming up in June? I’ve been sneaking a peek at your wedding webpage and then I saw a super nice portrait of Gertrude on your Instagram feed. In the post’s comment, you describe her as strong, thoughtful, fierce, loving, caring, compassionate, sometimes impatient and always, always beautiful. And I wondered what words Gertrude would use to describe you?

Ansel
Ohh man.

[pause]

Disorganised. Impulsive probably. Serious at times. Maybe overly serious. Motivated. And throw in disorganised again [laughs].

cyclespeak
Disorganised twice [laughs]?

Ansel
Yeah. But we’re a good match. Gertrude is definitely the organised one and I’m more go-with-the-flow. Or thinking about something totally different – head in the clouds – and not interacting with what’s going on in the moment [laughs].

cyclespeak
Does your mind wander to hopes and dreams for the future?

Ansel
That’s an interesting question. Because I’ve never really been that good at setting long term goals. I’m very good at setting short term goals and working really hard to achieve them. But long term? I do know that I don’t want to grow Vermont Social into this big media conglomerate. At the moment I get to work with amazing people and tell stories that really interest me.

cyclespeak
And on a personal level?

Ansel
Long term is obviously to have a family and hopefully build our own house somewhere with a bit more land.

cyclespeak
A house with a barn?

Ansel
Yeah [laughs]. A barn is key and maybe a couple of border collies and some other animals. I think that would make for a really happy life.

Ansel Dickey / Vermont Social / Vermont Overland / Wahoo Frontiers

Feature image: Jered Gruber / All other images with kind permission of Ansel Dickey and Vermont Social

Pete Stetina / Gravel privateer

I’m a racer for hire. Kind of a lone wolf mentality.

Sandwiched between racing Liège–Bastogne–Liège and the Tour of California, Pete Stetina lined up at the 2019 Belgian Waffle Ride in the colours of his World Tour team Trek-Segafredo. A 133-mile gravel race out of San Marcos, California, his first place finish set in motion a seismic shift in the way he now rides a race bike; Pete swapping team buses for van life as he balances the demands of training with negotiating sponsor deals and maintaining his social media presence.

Engagingly honest and self-aware, Pete sat down to take a deep dive into the reasons he races and the reality of life as a gravel privateer—a candid conversation that freewheels from flights of beer to family time on the couch.


cyclespeak
It’s eight in the morning for you. Have you already got a ride in?

Pete
God, no! My wife works a normal 8 – 5 so we’re up at 6:30am getting the coffee going and walking the dogs. The usual morning routine. And then come 10:00am, if the weather is good I might head out. Old pro habits die hard [laughs].

cyclespeak
You’re out on the West Coast?

Pete
That’s right. Northern California; about one hour north of San Francisco.

cyclespeak
Quite a kind climate?

Pete
It’s Mediterranean. Where all the Napa Valley wine comes from. So it’s vineyard riding and steep coastal hills. You get a lot of rain in the winter and a big temperature swing but you can ride 350 days a year.

cyclespeak
On your Instagram bio you describe yourself as a bike privateer—a term I really enjoy as it sounds kind of outside the law, almost swashbuckling. What does it mean to you?

Pete
It can be a little bit of that. I suppose it denotes a way of riding outside the traditional format. A little bit mercenary, I guess. I’m a racer for hire that contracts out to different companies. I’m not beholden to a set template so I can do what I want and make ends meet that way. Kind of a lone wolf mentality.

cyclespeak
A new concept when applied to bike racing?

Pete
It’s always existed – especially in mountain biking – although no one particularly used the term privateer. But then I did this film project during the 2020 lockdown called ‘Let’s Privateer’ that talked about following your heart. And it’s funny, once I started to promote this attitude, how it kinda grew to be an industry-wide term [laughs].

cyclespeak
And how does the term apply to you?

Pete
I’m a team of one. I’m doing my own contracts, my own deals, my own logistics.

cyclespeak
That’s an interesting point you make – you being a team of one – especially considering you enjoyed a 10-year career as a World Tour professional with eight Grand Tours along the way. Is there anything you miss from that time?

Pete
The camaraderie you get with your teammates in a Grand Tour—you feel like you’re going into battle together and long-standing friendships can be built on those shared experiences. And I do miss the simplicity of World Tour life. And when I say simple, I don’t mean that in a negative way. But your job is your body and you just have to be fit and pedal—everything else is taken care of. So whilst it’s very hard physically – the suffering, the diet, the monk lifestyle – it is simple.

cyclespeak
I get the impression that what you do now is anything but?

Pete
It’s so vast [laughs]. I was recently having to do some documents that involved entering my weekly hours and it’s not unusual for me to do a 70-hour week. So I’m doing pro hours training for these ultra-distance events but then everything else on the back end. Emails, social media and all my sponsor obligations. But like they say—it doesn’t always feel like work if you love it.

cyclespeak
Did the World Tour feel like work?

Pete
Towards the end, I did begin to feel a little disillusioned with some of the politics. Constantly having to deal with team managers who act friendly but, come contract time, try and undercut you to get a better price with your agent. So the whole business side of things did begin to grate on me. I don’t mean anything negative about that system but I’m more effective doing it my own way and definitely feel in a better place.

Image: Jake Orness

cyclespeak
Does that translate into performance gains?

Pete
During my best climbing days I was doing top ten finishes on mountain stages but I was never going to win a Grand Tour. And just because someone has a bigger engine doesn’t at all mean they will succeed at gravel at the moment. There are so many other factors that influence whether you’re successful. With this whole privateer model and how it fits in with gravel and its anti-establishment roots, you have to be entrepreneurial.

cyclespeak
You made gravel racing headlines with your BWR [Belgian Waffle Ride] win in 2019. A pretty awesome achievement and I was wondering how it felt to cross the line in first place?

Pete
I honestly didn’t realise how big it would be. I was still racing professionally with Trek-Segafredo and had it in my contract to do three of these alternative races. BWR was the first one and, living as I do in California, it was this super big gravel race. The week before, I’d raced Liège–Bastogne–Liège and was flying back to the US for the Tour of California. My team director wasn’t at all happy that I was returning a week early for some gravel race. And I remember he dropped me off at the airport in Belgium, looked at me and said, ‘You better win’ before shutting the car door and driving off. And I was like, ‘What the hell?’ [laughs].

cyclespeak
But you did win.

Pete
Crossing the line in first place, I guess it was a feeling of relief in that regard.

cyclespeak
And, in a sense, life changing?

Pete
It was an amazing day on the bike and I loved every minute of it. But I never expected it to be this catalyst for changing my career. And then afterwards, the attention it got was like this lightbulb moment when I finally realised that something had shifted. A feeling confirmed a week later as I’m going up a climb in the Tour of California – swinging off after helping Richie Porte – and people are yelling, ‘There’s the Belgian Waffle winner!’

cyclespeak
That’s so cool.

Pete
It helped me to understand that people care and that got the gears turning. And then my second place at the 2019 Dirty Kanza – or Unbound as it’s now known – just acted as confirmation. But it was the BWR repeat in 2021 that was a much more emotional moment.

cyclespeak
Was there a lot more pressure lining up as the previous edition’s winner?

Pete
A lot. Mostly internal but there was public pressure too. I was the guy who’d jumped away from the World Tour and staked his career on gravel racing. But then 2020 didn’t happen with all the races being cancelled, so 2021 was my first, full gravel season. And the reality is that I’d sold all my sponsors on my ability to perform and win some of these races—that BWR 2019 wasn’t a fluke and just down to World Tour watts.

cyclespeak
A lot of mental baggage to carry?

Pete
I’d put all this debilitating pressure on myself to do well at BWR 2021 – especially seeing as Canyon was the headline sponsor – and then the race went so poorly with stupid issues that I thought I was out of it five times or more.

cyclespeak
Is that just the nature of gravel racing? The unpredictability?

Pete
I kind of view a race as a test. If I prepare and do everything just right, then I ace the test which translates to me winning. A very analytical approach that I get pleasure out of. So once again crossing the line in first place, I’m not a very emotional bike racer but it felt like this huge weight that I’d been carrying since 2019 had been suddenly lifted. A sense of brief euphoria that I’d made good on what I’d sold to my sponsors. A very emotional win and something that still gives me a lot of pleasure to look back on.

cyclespeak
Hypothetically, would you swap your BWR wins for a stage victory in the Tour?

Pete
I don’t know if I can answer that. Maybe but…

cyclespeak
I realise they’re very different.

Pete
A stage win in the Tour—the one bike race everyone follows [laughs].

cyclespeak
It’s what many professional cyclists spend a career seeking?

Pete
But those stages happen 21 times a year, every year. So it’s huge for a day but in terms of your job as a bike racer, I’m not absolutely certain it moves the needle that much. Whereas, being the early gravel adopter and then going on to win the BWR twice—that’s been more of a career defining moment.

Image: Linda Guerrette

cyclespeak
You come across in the Wahoo films as a chilled, relaxed kind of chap.

Pete
It’s all a charade [laughs].

cyclespeak
No. Really [laughs]?

Pete
I think the relaxed figure that you see is my natural persona when hanging out. And I think, right now, I’m able to be more comfortable in my own skin. The perception of me was very different as a World Tour roady—because that’s what was needed of me to get the most out of myself. I had close friends in my professional racing days and people that probably didn’t like me that much. I wasn’t mean but very, very focused.

cyclespeak
And now?

Pete
I sometimes wonder if people think it’s a big act but it’s not. I feel I can let my hair down and be my own, organic self. But saying that, it’s also hard to switch off too. You think about the demands of social media and the need to have an online presence with the positives but also the negatives. And that’s something myself and my colleagues living this hybrid lifestyle do struggle with.

cyclespeak
You recently posted a reference to another struggle. This year’s race calendar.

Pete
The gravel race calendar is a headache in itself [laughs]. It’s a good headache because I’m very much a supporter of an unsanctioned gravel world. It doesn’t need a heavy-handed UCI influence—it’s healthy enough on its own.

cyclespeak
I’m sensing a ‘but’…

Pete
But the flip side to that is race organisers just checking their permits and choosing their dates. I’ll get texts about a new event in Utah and they’ve decided on the same day as the biggest existing gravel race in Utah. And I’m like, go a week before or a week after. Don’t fight over the same race entry. Just think [laughs]!

cyclespeak
So how did you go about building your own race calendar?

Pete
It involved a whole bunch of research on small grassroots events that would be fun in a storytelling kind of way. But also the big ones that demand your attention. And then this massive jigsaw has to come together to make sure I can physically get to the races. Because, as a privateer, that’s on you. And if you do miss the registration? Then you have to beg, borrow and steal to get that spot.

cyclespeak
You mentioned the UCI. As an ex-World Tour racer, what’s your take on their interest in gravel racing?

Pete
I don’t see how they’re going to help. I’m pessimistic and see it as a money grab. On the one hand you have this rapidly growing segment of the sport that’s unregulated and free of handcuffs. And the UCI see how they’ve missed the boat and want to come in because it’s lucrative.

cyclespeak
Is it a question of the UCI imposing their own vision?

Pete
You take mountain bike racing as an example. There’s a healthy scene in Europe but gone are the days of big, long loops. It’s a spectator sport on a short circuit with grandstands and concessions. But at the same time, we need to welcome inclusivity and recognise that Europe is very gravel-curious from a racing perspective. And it’s all about community so who am I to say what anyone can or can’t do? I’m not the gatekeeper and if the UCI creates events that people want to race, then good for them. You vote with your registration.

cyclespeak
When you’re not travelling to events and racing, do you train or just ride your bike?

Pete
Both [laughs]. This might be a relatively new race discipline but people are training as hard as they can. And road racing in the US is not particularly healthy at the moment so a lot of riders from the road scene are coming over to gravel. Not so much the sprinters because they have crit racing but if you’re an endurance specialist, you’ve got to do gravel.

cyclespeak
So that means more competition?

Pete
Gravel is only getting faster and the racing is so hard—I’m hitting career-high numbers that eclipse my World Tour days. Which means I do have to train but that’s only half my job. I don’t have a coach and I have to fit in training around media commitments and sponsorship calls.

cyclespeak
So what does your training look like?

Pete
You see this relaxed guy riding the Lost Coast and at home he’s really doing trainer intervals everyday? You’ve got to live what you preach and this sport was founded on adventure so a lot of my training is off-road—feeling the dirt and just being happy riding my bike. 

cyclespeak
I was hoping you were out, doing long rides into the mountains.

Pete
These events, they’re all attrition based. Six, seven, ten hours. So, in a sense, going out on long rides is training.

cyclespeak
Looking at your race calendar, you’ll need to cover a lot of ground to attend these events. So can you talk me through the various stages of your van life?

Pete
Coming from the World Tour, it was always planes, hotels, team buses. And when I started gravel, my plan was to just keep on doing that—have a bike bag, fly in, rent a car from the airport. The van life never interested me. It just seemed like a lot of work, having another automobile.

cyclespeak
So what changed?

Pete
COVID happened, air fares were sketchy and I needed a way of providing value for my sponsors. So I looked at the van thing again and decided that if I was on the road, sleeping in the back, then I’d be free. I wouldn’t be locked down—I could go anywhere in the great wide, western US.

cyclespeak
Sounds exciting.

Pete
I did my research and bought a very used van from a friend. And it immediately opened up this door of possibility. I love the lifestyle of freedom—you’re not beholden to air travel transfer times, lost luggage. I can drive into the evening, carrying all my gear, before sleeping somewhere quiet on my own memory foam mattress. And secondly, it’s fun. Every square inch of space in that van is used with infinite possibilities to customise it to your individual needs. 

cyclespeak
So you were off, exploring wide open places.

Pete
And then my van broke down. Multiple times [laughs].

cyclespeak
You mentioned it was very used.

Pete
Being a privateer, that was a big headache. But one of the benefits of the gravel scene exploding is other industries beyond cycling seeing promotional opportunities. So I landed a van sponsor and now get to drive a very swanky rig [smiles].

cyclespeak
I saw your post that showed the integrated bike racks. Very cool.

Pete
It’s this custom tray that fits beneath my bed that holds three bikes. My road, mountain and gravel bikes neatly slotted together without needing to take the seats off.

cyclespeak
Do you ever suffer from trailer envy when you see Colin’s* Spartan?

[*Gravel racer Colin Strickland]

Pete
I’ve never hauled. That just seems like another headache [laughs]. I like that I can parallel park my van downtown at the market.

cyclespeak
Speaking of Colin, I watched a short video he made before last year’s Unbound when he talked – in some considerable detail – about every aspect of his bike build and race prep. Do you also delight in the details?

Pete
Certain details. And with gravel racing, it’s so detail orientated. From how many tyre plugs and where to carry them for fast access. A much more holistic view on bike racing than just pedalling. And Colin’s a good friend but he’s an engineer in a bike racer’s body. So he likes making his own stuff and doing his own mechanic work. I’m not that way inclined so I have Big Tall Wayne rolling with me. We’re best buddies, he’s an amazing mechanic and we travel the circuit together, drinking beers.

cyclespeak
One notable date on the circuit is for Paydirt, your own event?

Pete
You could say it was part of my move to gravel. It started life as Stetina’s Sierra Prospect out of Lake Tahoe. I live up there for half the year in a little cabin—it’s where I do all my altitude training. I thought it would be good to have my own event and I wanted a way to give back to the community after my shattered leg in 2015 and the consequences of my Dad’s traumatic brain injury after a car / bike collision. So I created this road Gran Fondo with a local charity that supports brain and spinal cord injuries as the beneficiary. But I was still riding the World Tour and the team managers weren’t that into me having other non-racing interests.

cyclespeak
So you switched things up?

Pete
As I was transitioning into gravel, I would go out exploring this range called the Pine Nut Mountains just down the way from Tahoe. It truly is the Wild West out there so I decided to swap the road Sierra Prospect to a gravel format and because mining is a feature of this region, Paydirt was a fitting name for the event.

cyclespeak
It’s a great name.

Pete
We support the High Fives Foundation and it’s my idea of what an amazing day on the bike looks like. Instead of sprinting for seconds on the road, we have a mechanical bull at the finish line and you ride it for a time bonus. We’ve had two years of postponements with COVID and the Californian fires so it’s third time a charm for this year’s event.

cyclespeak
On a more personal note, you’re recognisable for sporting a luxurious moustache. Whenever I go down that route my wife gives me hell. How do you navigate these important issues of individual style?

Pete
You could say the moustache was born out of public pressure. I came out of off-season in 2017 with a very robust, winter beard. Travelling to the Tour Down Under where it’s 40℃, I went to a local barber and asked him to clean it up but he left the moustache. I still had it in the spring at the Giro but then I got sick during the second week of the race and had to go on antibiotics. I was on this one particular hour long climb and my nose was running and dripping into my moustache and it was so gross. So I shaved it off and the next day when I signed on, everyone was booing me. So I brought it back and it’s kind of become my calling card. And in gravel, a sense of individualism is appreciated.

cyclespeak
I haven’t signed-on at the Giro so can’t use that as an excuse.

Pete
If you keep with it long enough, it might grow on her? Maybe then it will become weird if it wasn’t there [laughs].

cyclespeak
I know that you’re passionate about craft beer and have your own namesake brew. I believe this hobby raised a few eyebrows back in your World Tour days?

Pete
The beer – Pete’s Secret Stache – was created for the event I had in Tahoe. I teamed up with a local brewery and the proceeds were going to the charity. And to have my face on a beer can was a point of pride. It’s better than a Tour de France stage win [laughs].

cyclespeak
So why was your team upset?

Pete
Every time I saw it at the local store, I’d take a picture for social media. But the team didn’t like that—they considered it unprofessional. And then later that year, I got a top ten result in a Fall classic and the team was really surprised. They assumed I’d just been partying and drinking beer [laughs].

cyclespeak
But now you don’t have a team to answer to.

Pete
Craft beer and the IPA thing is definitely big in the US and I’ve always been a bit of a beer geek. It’s kind of like fine wine, in the different varieties and tasting notes. Maybe not the best passion to have second to bike racing in terms of performance but there’s always a time and place. And with all the gravel travelling I do, there’s always a brewery where you can sample the local beers.

cyclespeak
Are you by nature a rule breaker? Does challenging the norms come naturally?

Pete
I don’t know if I’m a rule breaker. I’m a practicalist if that’s even a word [laughs].

cyclespeak
Well, it is now.

Pete
If something makes sense to me then I’ll do it. If it doesn’t, then I probably won’t.

cyclespeak
So what are the basic elements of life that you seek to be happy?

Pete
In terms of my career, a happy racer is a fast racer.

cyclespeak
And in more general terms?

Pete
Beer makes me happy. Hanging out with family at home makes me happy. The little things in your relationship or job that, when you add them up, make a big difference. Whether that’s making sure you give your significant-other a kiss when you leave the house, it’s these little things that bring a lot of joy and satisfaction. And I’ve learned that I need to stay true to myself—I have to follow my heart. Sometimes that’s uncomfortable but, so far, it seems to have led me in the right direction.

cyclespeak
What would be a pretty perfect day for Pete Stetina?

Pete
A really nice coffee in the morning. Preferably black—I think if you have to add milk, then you’re trying to hide something. And then an adventurous gravel bike ride followed by a flight of beers at a well-respected craft brewery. Just a three or four ounce taste of every beer they make that you can enjoy with some friends. And the day ending with some family time with my wife and the dogs on the couch at home. I do that a lot and it’s always a good day.

Postscript / A few days after I sat down to chat with Pete, he flew out to Colombia ready to race the Transcordilleras—an eight stage, bike packing gravel rally that traverses the Andes. Over 1,000 km in length and ridden at high altitude, Pete came away with three stages and the overall win.

Pete Stetina / peterstetina.com

Let’s privateer

Feature image by Transcordilleras. Unless otherwise stated, all other photography with kind permission of Pete Stetina.

The Service Course / Off-piste in the Peaks

It’s 7:30am and the sky is brightening. The forecast rain has failed to arrive and the day promises to be dry. A fact not lost on the riders as they roll up outside The Service Course in Wilmslow ready for an epic day in the nearby Peak District. Signed on and with coffee in hand, talk soon turns to the route and tyre choice. With an entertaining mix of trails and moorland pathways all stitched together by quiet country lanes and a profile that suggests every gear ratio will be required, this will prove a challenging day in the saddle but one that offers stunning scenery, a sense of shared purpose and the reward – on finishing – of a pie and freshly pulled pint.


Vinny / The Service Course

Riding: A brand new Open U.P. in raw carbon. It was only built yesterday which might be a little bit of a no-no.

Gravel Bonanza is a big thing for me personally, and for The Service Course Wilmslow. To do events like this is such a privilege—to see people sign up because they want to ride with us. And this is just one event out of a number that we have planned. Kind of a nod to the future but inspired by rides that started in Girona. Yes, our version ends at a brewery—which might suggest it’s got a little of me on it.

Tom

Riding: A Specialized Diverge with some random bits and pieces that happened to be in the cellar.

I actually live over in Bradford so this is a new area for me to ride. A good excuse to check out some new trails. What I love about a gravel bike is diving down those little hidden pathways you notice out on a ride—not gravel with a capital G but it’s off-road and entertaining. What more do you need?

Ali / Wahoo

Riding: A borrowed bike from The Service Course. It’s a very beautiful Curve and quite possibly beyond my gravel ability.

We’re here representing Wahoo to help out with our bike computers. And for the good vibes [smiles].


Sarah / The Service Course

Riding: No bike for me today as I’m staying at the shop to look after our other customers.

I wasn’t a cyclist when I started working at The Service Course. But I soon saw first hand how cycling brings so many people together. They meet here over a coffee before heading out on a ride—a real sense of community. So now that I’m also riding a bike, I get to join in and I really love it.

Brett

Riding: A Bellé that I had built up at The Service Course in Girona. A custom frame with a road bias but this adventure mini-mullet set-up is really proving itself today.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I needed to get out of London so I came up to the Peak District. One, I never realised how easy it was to get here and, two, it has great roads, great people and great coffee. Today we’ve done gravel, tarmac, cobbles, some technical single-track—and that’s on one ride. We have nice riding down in Kent and Surrey but it’s not as challenging and the people are kind of mean [laughs].


Luke / Outdoor Provisions

Riding: There’s two of us – me and Christian – and we’re a Manchester-based energy snack company. We’re both big into bikes but, today, we’re providing the food at the feed stop.

We put the route together for this Gravel Bonanza. There’s a few gems on the west side of the Peak District like Macclesfield Forest and the Midshires Way which we’ve included. And there’s also some bumpy bits which people might be upset about later on [laughs].


Jorge

Riding: My all-in-one Specialized Roubaix. You can be cheeky and put on some 35s with just enough clearance.

I was looking forward to the camaraderie. A ride that’s a little bit more chilled without all the cars—in the Peak District when you’re not on trails the roads are pretty quiet. And if you want to get lost – in a good sense – then this is the place to come.


Nil / The Service Course

Riding: An Open. But it has reverse brakes – I’m from Girona – so maybe a little tricky on the descents [smiles].

It’s my first time riding in the Peak District but if the weather is okay, then everything will be fine. When I left Spain yesterday it was 20°C – sunshine, shorts – so I just don’t want it to rain.

Bruce

Riding: An Open Wi.DE Ultradynamico Limited Edition on 48s.

I’ve ridden gravel for quite a while and this looked like good fun. Not sure about the views on the route as I’ve been staring at my stem all day.

Marton

Riding: An Orbea Terra on WTB Riddler 700c 37s. Beautiful tyres on this terrain.

Back in 2019, I went to ride the Gravel Bonanza in Girona. I met Vinny down there so when I saw The Service Course in Wilmslow was organising their own version, I decided to return the favour. And to show them how to actually make a flat white [smiles].


Ricardo

Riding: A Specialized Diverge. The same one that I rode at Badlands but with fewer bags.

The Service Course is my local bike shop. I call in most days and they’ve become good friends so I wanted to support them with this event. There’s a mix of everything with this route – some fast flat, technical sections with a loose surface – which just makes it an epic ride.

Nick

Riding: An Allied Allroad. My first gravel ride with this bike and I still need to learn how the bike handles and when to hop off [smiles].

It’s an amazing route and I’ve always liked what The Service Course does. I live in Southport which is totally flat so this is an opportunity to ride with others and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Matt / The Service Course

Riding: I’m making the coffees at the feed stop.

There’s a far amount of logistical organisation in pulling together an event like this. Having a coffee set-up in the middle of nowhere is the main hurdle to get over. But it was great to see everyone meeting up earlier today—that buzz as they headed out for six hours or however long of riding.

The sense of community that I see through my role with The Service Course is very humbling and quite overwhelming. And a ride like today – seeing that many people at the shop, signing on for the ride, getting a coffee – even though I’m not riding myself, I can still take a lot of enjoyment out of that.


Photography by Matt Tomlinson

The Service Course / Outdoor Provisions / komoot / Wahoo / Track Brewery

Cristina Sanser / Badlands

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.


Cristina / Laura / Freya / Over&Out

Photography by Juanan Barros and Carlos Mazón

Badlands

Lael Wilcox / [smiles]

Take even the most cursory glance at Lael Wilcox’s social media feed and the one constancy is her smile. Wide enough to crease the cheeks and crinkle the eyes, this ultra-distance racer and bikepacker exudes a love of riding bikes that proves infectious. To such an extent that hearing Lael enthusiastically describe her incredible exploits crossing countries and continents and you just can’t help smiling back.

But not every ride or race ends as Lael originally determined it might. And this year’s Tour Divide proved the exception to the rule in leaving tears rolling down her face as raging wildfires forced Lael to abandon her record attempt.

A few days after scratching from the Tour Divide, Lael sat down to talk about managing adversity, finding a sense of joy in the outdoors and how, ultimately, love makes every day feel special.


cyclespeak
Can I start by asking how you are? I saw images of the smoke from the Tour Divide and it didn’t look good.

Lael
I knew beforehand about the wildfires but it didn’t hit me until I was riding just how serious it would be as far as the air quality. It looked and felt like the apocalypse—the end of the world. So, yes, it was sad that I had to stop my ride. But getting into the thick of it, I realised that I simply couldn’t carry on. It was the only choice I could make.

cyclespeak
I can only imagine how difficult it was to call it a day.

Lael
More than that, it was just so depressing seeing these places ravaged by fires and the effect this is having on the communities that live there and the wildlife too.

cyclespeak
Speaking of wildlife, I believe you bumped into a mountain lion?

Lael
It was incredible. I’d always thought it was super rare to see them because they’re so hyper aware of people and other animals. And then coming up a climb, my bike lights reflected off this pair of eyes and I stopped, thinking it was a raccoon or something. But then I made out the outline of the mountain lion’s body and its tail.

cyclespeak
So quite a surprise?

Lael
It was midnight, I was already sleep-deprived and really motivated to get to this small town where I knew I could sleep in the church. So I’m thinking, oh dear, now what am I supposed to do?

cyclespeak
And what did you decide?

Lael
Not knowing how they usually behave, I weighed up whether it might attack me if I tried to get past. So I just stood still and started talking to it—trying to convey the idea that I wasn’t menacing by telling it I just wanted to get by. I could hear some other sounds which I think were its cubs and as I slowly began to move along the path, the mountain lion came out from the trees and was walking in front of me along the trail for 10 minutes or so before disappearing off into the bushes and leaving me to ride down the hill. But it didn’t end there. A little further on there was another animal on the trail in front of me and my bike light picked out this white stripe along its back. And I’m like, that’s a skunk and I’m going to get sprayed! Fortunately it darted off to one side but there’s me thinking, what next [laughs]?

cyclespeak
All this excitement after a hard day’s riding.

Lael
I finally got to the town but I didn’t know where the church was. I turned on my phone to look it up but of course there wasn’t any cell reception. Then I passed an old covered wagon – kind of a tourist town display – and I’m thinking I can always sleep in that but then I saw the church. I pushed my bike inside, it’s warm and there’s power outlets and a bathroom. What else do you need [smiles]?

cyclespeak
I’m surprised you were able to unwind enough to sleep.

Lael
After riding 170 miles that day, it was quite a night. But that’s what makes it exciting. So many unknowns and everyday is packed full of these obstacles that you quickly forget about because you’re so focused on getting where you’re going.

cyclespeak
You already hold the women’s Tour Divide record* which you set in 2015. And on this attempt you were aiming to beat the overall record set by the late Mike Hall in 2016. For such a mammoth undertaking, is mental preparation just as important as the physical?

*Lael covered the 4,418 km in 15 days, 10 hours and 59 minutes.

Lael
For me, the main thing is wrapping your head around the need to maintain a level of urgency for two weeks. Because when you get tired, are you going to have that drive to keep pushing forward? If the weather’s bad or you’re in pain – maybe you see a mountain lion [smiles] – all these different things can crack at you and potentially slow your progress.

cyclespeak
So what’s the secret to maintaining your momentum?

Lael
You just need to ride the best that you can through these moments until they pass—that’s the most important thing. In a sense, more important than speed. Speed plays into it but if you only ride 15 hours a day, realistically it doesn’t matter how fast you travel because you’re not going to have the record. It’s just not possible.

cyclespeak
Your smile – on and off the bike – is so recognisably a part of your outward persona. And I was wondering whether the positivity that you radiate is a key to your success? Because I watched your film with Rapha that shows you racing this year’s Unbound Gravel XL – 358 self-supported miles that you covered in under 27 hours – and you never looked like you weren’t having fun.

Lael
I definitely ride better and stronger if I feel good. And I feel good most of the time because I’m actually doing something I enjoy. Of course there are moments of hardship but, looking at the overall picture, even if it’s hard, even if it hurts, I’d still rather be there, trying to achieve my best result.

cyclespeak
And it’s like you said, these issues rarely last forever?

Lael
We all have negative thoughts—I’m not fast enough, strong enough, this isn’t working. But it doesn’t help you ride better. So I’ve learnt over time to just not get into that downward spiral of negativity. To find the positives in those moments until it starts to get better again.

cyclespeak
I’m guessing it helps if you’re naturally positive. A glass half-full kind of person?

Lael
I do think that’s my natural state when I’m moving outside. And I just extended that feeling to a 24 hour race and then a 2 week race. Still connecting to the same joy that comes from riding my bike.

cyclespeak
That’s an interesting choice of word: joy.

Lael
I feel that’s the greatest gift we have as humans—getting to experience places and cultures, terrain and weather. And for the most part, it’s all free. Which is why I find these wildfires so devastating because it steals that away from us.

cyclespeak
As we’re speaking about positivity, can you talk me through your decision to scratch on the Tour Divide? How you manage these situations when circumstances are beyond your control?

Lael
Scratching from this year’s Tour Divide definitely hit me hard. I felt I was doing well and even though there was a lot of smoke, it was manageable. But then it got to a point where it wasn’t. Crossing this one city of Butte in Montana, I was riding towards a massive wildfire – smoke and flames – and in that half an hour I could hear myself start to wheeze and feel my lungs labouring. At that moment, I did feel incredibly sad and started crying as I was riding my bike. Because I knew I had to stop and I just hate giving up. But as we’ve already talked about, part of this racing is overcoming barriers or challenges and sometimes it’s out of your hands.

cyclespeak
Over the past year and a bit, we’ve witnessed a wave of individuals re-engaging with the outdoors—possibly prompted by a desire to stay local and enjoy the fresh air.

Lael
I feel that’s one of the best outcomes from the pandemic. People realising that this is something they can do, that makes them feel better and helps them process the other, potentially hard aspects of their lives. And it doesn’t have to be riding the Tour Divide. It can be engaging with the outdoors in any way that’s real to them. Going just that little bit further than they’ve been before and how empowering that can feel.

cyclespeak
For me, lockdown encouraged me to ride from my doorstep and rediscover my immediate environment.

Lael
I went back to Alaska where I’m from. I’d done a project in 2017 where I cycled all the major roads—something like seven or eight thousand kilometres. Some of these routes were pretty remote and I saw animals and mountains and not a lot of people out there. But I did that alone and I’ve since thought how nice it would be to revisit this trip but make a film with my now-wife Rue. I’d told her about these places and she shoots photographs and video so that’s what we did.

cyclespeak
Your relationship with riding started out as transport. You commuted to your job at a brewery when you were 20 and it went from there. So now, after all those years and thousands of kilometres, when you see a bike leaning up against a wall, how does it speak to you on an emotional level?

Lael
I’ve never learned to drive a car and the bike is a huge upgrade in transportation from walking. Easier to carry equipment and it’s such a simple machine that you probably won’t break down. And it’s also part of our culture—you’re a kid, you learn how to ride a bike and that offers your first real taste of freedom. You can now go further, easier, faster. And that immediateness of hopping on a bike offers such a sense of liberation. I still feel that way every time I ride my bike.

cyclespeak
I can see how it can extend your horizon—allowing you to journey through the landscape because you can go that little bit further than if you were walking. Something you do on a multiple-thousands-of-kilometres scale?

Lael
But that’s just me compressing more into less time. And people should ride the way they want to. I sometimes get criticised for not taking enough time to stop and appreciate the view [smiles].

cyclespeak
I think humankind is rather too fond of passing opinions when it really doesn’t materially matter to them. But advice can be useful so I wanted to ask what you’d say to someone contemplating taking up cycling?

Lael
To ride somewhere real.

cyclespeak
Real?

Lael
Ride your errands, commute around town, ride to your friend’s house. That way you’re actually riding for a reason. And if you want to build up your distance, take a bus or a train and ride home. Because that way, the closer you get, the more familiar it feels when you’re beginning to feel a little tired.

cyclespeak
The races you take part in, by their very nature, offer plenty of thinking time in the saddle. What kind of thoughts enter your head or are you too focused on the task at hand?

Lael
I just let my mind go free and think whatever I want. My first two times riding the Tour Divide, I also rode from Alaska to the start…

cyclespeak
I love that. Because the Tour Divide at 4,418 km just isn’t long enough [laughs].

Lael
At that time, I only had a flip-phone so no music or podcasts. So I was there, alone, riding for weeks at a time—making my own decisions, being whoever I wanted to be. Since then and after racing thousands and thousands of kilometres, I like to listen to audio books. Riding through the night, you can get really engaged in a story [smiles].

cyclespeak
In the Rapha film, you mentioned that night time can be tough. Do you thrive on these aspects of adversity or does discipline and the promise of dawn light see you through?

Lael
I always look forward to the sun coming up. In the dark, it’s just harder to be alert and ride fast. You can’t see as well and that’s when you feel tired. Especially when it’s cold, there’s an instinct to just stop and sleep.

cyclespeak
Which is what the vast majority of the human race does at night time.

Lael
The strategy I use on races like the Tour Divide is that, if I feel tired, I’ll just stop and sleep for four hours and then wake up and carry on—even if it’s the middle of the night. Because regardless of when you sleep, you have to ride in the dark at some point to cover the miles.

cyclespeak
A little bit of a segue but you mentioned your now-wife Rue. You recently got married…

Lael
Yeahhh!

cyclespeak
Your wedding sounded really wonderful—I love the idea of the scooters.

Lael
I’m just happier than I’ve ever been before. I’ve always loved spending time outdoors on my bike but now I have Rue with me for the rest of my life so every day is good.

cyclespeak
The pictures you share on Instagram of you with Rue are incredibly life affirming.

Lael
Rue rides but she also shoots so we can do projects together. What a gift—it’s just amazing.

cyclespeak
Whenever I talk to bike racers or industry creatives such as photographers and filmmakers, I sometimes get a sense that they’re never satisfied. They’re always looking to go faster, to take a better photograph or try another film edit. Where do you sit in saying to yourself, ‘Job well done?’

Lael
I think if I give it my best effort – and I’ll know if I have or not – then I do have a sense of satisfaction. And with ultra-distance racing, you have a lot of time. So maybe you don’t feel great but you’re still moving so that’s your best effort at that particular moment. And then a few hours later you feel great so you pick up the pace. At the end and regardless of my finish, if I tried my hardest then I’m happy.

cyclespeak
And when things are out of your control like this year’s Tour Divide?

Lael
If something goes wrong – a mechanical or I get sick or unforeseen circumstances like the fires – then I have a reason to go back and give it another go [smiles].

cyclespeak
I mentioned how riding a bike started out purely as transport to get to work…

Lael
I was commuting and then bike touring and then ultra-distance racing—frustrated because I was working two jobs to pay for these things.

cyclespeak
I do wonder how much of that drive and determination influences your current success?

Lael
I suppose it shows that I’m doing something I really, really want. Otherwise I would’ve just given it up because I spent years doing that. Working 12 hours a day and worrying when I’d get to ride my bike. Or when I’d get to sleep [laughs].

cyclespeak
The way you ride, the distances you cover, the results you enjoy—do you feel a sense of responsibility that you’re a public face flying the flag for female participation in bike racing?

Lael
It all adds to my level of motivation. That I can race against the men and go for the overall. In other disciplines of cycling, that just isn’t possible. Women and men are competing in completely different categories but in bike packing, we all get to line up together and whoever gets to the finish first, wins. I find that super exciting and motivating because I want to be the winner and I know it’s possible. And it’s not just about pure power or speed—there are so many other aspects like recovery and efficiency that come into play. How you feel on Day 10, how you react to seeing a mountain lion [laughs].

cyclespeak
I’m guessing you also need to minimise the chance of mechanicals during the race?

Lael
The thing with ultra-distance is that everything breaks or falls apart—your bike and your body. So I want to start out with both myself and my bike in great condition because I know that by the end of it, we’ll be trashed.

cyclespeak
I suppose over time you get to know what works and what doesn’t?

Lael
My gear choices are mostly for comfort. Going into a race, I’m very aware that at some point I’ll be experiencing a lot of pain so maybe I’ll pick a larger tyre, a fork with more travel or figure out a range of hand positions. Basically, what’s going to keep me happy on the bike for the longest. You want to pack light but what do you actually need?

cyclespeak
You’re constantly on the move with your racing schedule so I wanted to ask about your concept of home?

Lael
That’s definitely Rue. Just spending time with her wherever we go—being together. We’re currently living in Tucson, Arizona, and thinking of buying a house. I’m 35 and never thought it would be something that I’d want to do but it would be a nice place to spend time in the winter.

cyclespeak
Can I ask why Tucson?

Lael
It has great winter weather and beautiful mountains. It’s pretty inexpensive and you can ride up Mount Lemmon to over 9,000 ft—from saguaro cactus to pine forest in a 20 mile ride.

cyclespeak
And it would be good to have a base for storing bikes?

Lael
I love to change them because I spend so much intense time on one bike that I want to ride something completely different. If I’ve raced my mountain bike, I want to ride road. If I’m racing road, then I want to ride a full suspension mountain bike. Swapping between them puts my brain in a different place and keeps me motivated.

cyclespeak
Looking forward, do you have a five year, five month or five day plan?

Lael
Somewhere in between? Two months is pretty good [laughs].

cyclespeak
Is that your comfort zone?

Lael
It’s enough time to puzzle things together.

cyclespeak
And the best thing about being Lael Wilcox?

Lael
I’m very fortunate that I pretty much get to do exactly what I want, every single day. And I’m so grateful for that. I wake up and if I want to go for a bike ride, I go for a bike ride. I just get to follow my dreams and I can’t believe that’s my life.

[smiles]


Feature image chosen by Rue Kaladyte

All photography by Rue Kaladyte with kind permission of Lael Wilcox

Rapha Gone Racing – Unbound Gravel XL

Lael Rides Alaska

Ian Boswell / Unbound and beyond

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.

Images from training rides, Unbound and the Migration Gravel Race by Vermont Social and Wahoo Fitness

All other images with kind permission of Ian Boswell

Breakfast with Boz

Wahoo Frontiers

Crystal Haggard / All the sunrises

In conversation with Crystal Haggard, I’m tempted to wonder when (or if) she ever sleeps. With a year home schooling her son Forest and a senior position at Zwift that became seriously intense as the world took to riding indoors, Crystal’s ever lengthening to-do list is bookended with regular rides and wild camping trips to the national parks that ring the family’s California home.

‘To the End of the Universe’ sees all these connecting threads beautifully interwoven in a perceptive and heartwarming film that explores Crystal’s relationship with Forest through the window of their adventures together. A theme that continues here, as Crystal talks candidly about managing the pressures of parenting and how the family use their bikes to find balance and a sense of togetherness in a changing world.

cyclespeak
I was wondering whether you’re still working from home? 

Crystal
We probably won’t be returning until September. The schools are still not fully back in session so I think until childcare returns to normal, they won’t require people to go back into the office. 

cyclespeak
How do you feel about this new normal? Will you miss any aspects of the social restrictions? 

Crystal
Previously to COVID, depending on traffic it took me 45 minutes to two hours one way to drive to work. But even though it’s been nice to reclaim these hours, when life returns to normal I’m excited to get out of the house and work in a different environment a couple of days a week. There have been challenges with working remotely and there are things that I’m just way better at in person.

cyclespeak
Such as?

Crystal
I’m responsible for developing all of our soft goods and accessories at Zwift. So if I get a sample of a sweatshirt, then I have to mail it all around the country rather than simply walking it over to someone’s desk. A process that used to take 20 minutes can now take weeks [laughs].

cyclespeak
I saw from some of your posts that you were home schooling. 

Crystal
We spent about 14 months doing virtual school from home and I think we did a good job of turning it into a positive situation. With my son Forest remote learning over Zoom, we could just go somewhere for a week and do everything online.

cyclespeak
I do wonder whether there’s a capacity in human behaviour to adapt and make the most of a situation? 

Crystal
One of my colleagues hates change, loves consistency. So they’ve really struggled. But I’m like, where’s the weirdest place that I can work? 

cyclespeak
And where was that? 

Crystal
I did a lot of work in the car using a hotspot while we were travelling to places and there were a couple of campsites where I called in for stuff using a Zoom background. Not that anybody cared but I just didn’t want it to be a distraction that I wasn’t at my desk [laughs]. 

cyclespeak
There’s some scenes from these camping trips in your recent film ‘To the End of the Universe’. Was the project filmed and edited by your husband Jordan? 

Crystal
Yes. That’s right. 

cyclespeak
So a family affair? 

Crystal
It was a really hard project emotionally for both of us. For me, it’s a lot easier to tell other people’s stories than your own. 

cyclespeak
It’s beautifully filmed and you can’t watch it and not see the joy in yourself and Forest as you’re pictured cycling together through the landscape. And I was wondering whether the narrative came first or the imagery? 

Crystal
The filming came first but I was taking notes the whole time. Jotting down little moments or feelings. But I actually wrote the narrative two days before the film was due when I ended up in the Emergency Room with an allergic reaction. That was the first time I’d been by myself – properly alone – in a very long time. Over the course of the past year, there were many moments when I really struggled as a parent. Being together 100% of the time, keeping on top of a demanding work schedule, guiding Forest through remote learning—we never had a break. We lost all of our balance and both Jordan and I were emotionally and physically exhausted. So that moment in hospital – just by myself – allowed me the time and space to think about the way I actually feel as a parent.

cyclespeak
I’ll admit that I was relieved my own sons were too old for home schooling. 

Crystal
Oh my gosh, it was so hard! Forest is in 2nd Grade so luckily, unlike younger children, he can read. At least that gave him some form of autonomy. 

cyclespeak
Even so, it must’ve been difficult for him to stay focused? 

Crystal
Forest thinks he prefers remote learning because all his toys are within arm’s reach. And I’m glad he’ll look back at this time with good memories and without feeling traumatised. But now that he’s back in school, we’re all so much happier [laughs].

cyclespeak
In the film, you describe Forest as a bender of time. Can you talk me through what this means to you? 

Crystal
Before I had a kid, life felt very linear. And people always tell you that having a child gives you the longest days and the shortest years—which is so true. So I was kind of borrowing from that idea and looking back to the decade before he was born when it seemed to go on forever. And then we had Forest and you blink and almost another decade has passed. And I really don’t know where it’s gone [smiles]. 

cyclespeak
I was scrolling through your Instagram feed and ever since Forest was very small, he’s joined you on rides. In a bike seat, sitting behind Jordan on a cargo bike, riding with you on his tag-along. Was this always the plan to include him? Was it ever a question that he wouldn’t? 

Crystal
There’s a couple of answers to that question—one influenced by my own childhood. Before my parents had kids they were pretty adventurous. They were both big skiers, hikers and cyclists. My Mom went into labour with me – two months early – on a motorcycle ride in the middle of Death Valley and had to be medivaced out. But after they had kids, they stopped a lot of these activities. So I didn’t really know this side of them. Shortly after we moved out of the house, they started doing all that cool stuff again. And that’s when I found out just how much they both loved the outdoors. 

cyclespeak
Do you feel you kind of missed out? 

Crystal
I didn’t start exploring or camping until I was in high school and my photo teacher took a core group of students on some pretty amazing camping trips in some desolate corners of California. It unlocked something inside of me and made me fall in love with having new experiences and finding beauty in overlooked places. It made me wonder why my parents stopped doing the activities that brought them joy?

cyclespeak
And you feel this has informed your own view on raising Forest?

Crystal
I knew as a parent that I wanted to share the things that bring me joy. I also think my generation is having kids later so your identity is a lot further developed by the time you start a family. So I was always very nervous about losing that side of me. And we don’t have family that lives super close so there isn’t anyone around the corner that we can just drop the kid off for a day or two. Jordan also travels for work so much that if I don’t bring Forest with me, I’d be missing out on a lot of these experiences.

cyclespeak
Which makes you unhappy? 

Crystal
I’m not good at sitting down and doing nothing. Or just hanging out in the house. So there’s definitely a want and a need that Forest is included. 

cyclespeak
There’s another quote from the film that resonates: ‘Being a Mom is my greatest adventure but unlike others, this adventure came without a guide.’ And I wanted to ask whether you’d choose to have a guidebook if one was available? 

Crystal
I’ve read so many books on parenting and none of them totally resonate with me. But maybe that’s a good thing? That parenting shouldn’t be too prescriptive? For me, going on some of my crazier adventures before having Forest, prepared me for the fact that you can’t prepare for everything. And things going wrong often leads to things going right in a better way than planned. 

cyclespeak
Have you an example of this? 

Crystal
I once rode my bike across the States from New York to Los Angeles. This was before bar-mounted GPS units so we’d print out our itinerary each day. And there were often times when the roads you were expecting didn’t exist or you’d miss a turn and you’d end up relying on help from strangers to find your way. There’s a loss of control – a sense of vulnerability – that can feel very liberating. And rather than a sense of confrontation, it taught me to understand that strangers can care about you and that most people are inherently good and interested in what you’re doing. 

cyclespeak
Did these experiences impact on you as a parent? 

Crystal
It helped me to realise that you can’t be in control all the time and things don’t always go to plan. That it’s okay to rely on other people or go with the flow. And oftentimes these are the memories that I look back on most fondly.

cyclespeak
And that we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves? 

Crystal
From my own experience, Forest is a notoriously terrible sleeper and I literally saw every sunrise for the first two and a half years of his life because he always woke up before 4:30am. I remember reading through all these sleep books and trying everything to get him to sleep longer or through the night and nothing worked because we travelled too much and couldn’t keep to the strict routines suggested. I felt like I was failing until I read a piece by a doctor that ultimately said it’s okay to be flexible and do whatever works best for your family.  We’re all different with different needs and having someone in a position of authority say this – to give us the permission we needed to stop being so hard on ourselves and embrace our situation – that really opened up our world. 

cyclespeak
Maybe it’s a case of the expectations we place on ourselves? 

Crystal
I think, especially with young kids, we have all these milestones. How much your kid should weigh, what they’re eating, are they sleeping. And I remember someone telling me their kid was sleeping through at six months. And there’s me, thinking that at six months my kid slept two hours and I was thrilled [laughs]. So I can only offer empathy when it comes to sleep but I do believe there’s advice I could offer on camping with a family or how to start riding with your kid. Which trailer or bike seat and why. Little bits of my own experience that I would be happy to share. 

cyclespeak
There’s a societal compulsion to compare ourselves but I think you’re safe with camping advice. 

Crystal
With the story in the film, I really didn’t want to put anything out there that people would feel they had to live up to—or give families unrealistic expectations of what parenting is. We simply wanted to share a true look into something we often do as a family.

cyclespeak
I found the film to be a very honest portrayal of parenting. You don’t shy away from the fact that it can be incredibly hard work. And I also feel it’s good to see a parent and child sharing time outside together and having fun. At its simplest level, that for me is very inspirational. 

Crystal
I’m glad to hear that [laughing]. 

cyclespeak
Has your relationship with cycling changed in terms of all these pressures on your time? 

Crystal
Before having a kid I could go out on a ride and just empty my tank before coming home and crashing out on the couch. Now, I have to pace myself knowing that the moment I walk through the door I’ll have to start building Lego and it will be three hours before I get to shower. So I do miss that feeling of having no other responsibilities.

cyclespeak
Time’s behaving very strangely at the moment with people saying last year but actually referring to the year before. But I saw on Instagram that you moved house not too long ago… 

Crystal
It was nearly a year ago. 

cyclespeak
There you go. It feels a lot more recent. 

Crystal
And it was terrifying to buy our first home right as lockdown hit [laughs]. 

cyclespeak
Can I ask how you define your concept of home? 

Crystal
In my adult life – before we had Forest – I’d never lived anywhere for much more than a year. I loved moving, loved change and almost felt like I was my own home. I guess I’m not very attached to physical things. I think the necessity of a home has now changed with having a family, but, to me, it’s essentially a place to store the toys that we use when we’re out there [pointing to the window]. I suppose you could say home for us is a base camp and we do most of our best living outside of this physical space. Our house is small – which I like – but in a perfect world we’d still have the same small home but with twice the garage space [laughs].

cyclespeak
With your bikes all lined up. 

Crystal
All the things that unlock the world we love. 

cyclespeak
Being based in Los Angeles, how easy is it to ride? 

Crystal
Part of the reason I live so far from work is our house is situated in a corner of LA right on the edge of city limits. Probably not even 10km to the base of the Angeles National Forest. My thinking was that either I have to get in a car and commute to work or commute to ride. And work may change—that isn’t a constant. But riding and getting out in nature is always going to be a priority. 

cyclespeak
How do you balance all the different pulls on your time? 

Crystal
To some extent, the busier I get, the better I manage everything. If I have a lot on my plate, then I make time to schedule it all in. If things are a little more relaxed, I have a tendency to procrastinate. And I like experiencing as much as possible. That makes me feel like I’m actually living life. I don’t want a year to go by with me looking back and not knowing what I’ve done.

cyclespeak
It’s important to have those memories? 

Crystal
That’s one thing I love about Instagram. I can look back at what was this COVID year and think, wow, we actually did a lot of really cool stuff. We did good, we had fun. 

cyclespeak
Last year – that we kind of assume was a little lost – was my biggest on Strava for quite a while. 

Crystal
It was by far my lowest [laughs]. Between facilitating home schooling and my own work and never having a break from either, my days were really full and I was struggling to focus or find the time to do much else. Most nights I was working late into the evening after Forest went to bed. My job at Zwift got really busy because everyone wanted to ride virtually during the lockdowns and we were burning the candle at both ends securing enough inventory and solving supply chain issues. But Forest went back to school a couple of weeks ago and both Jordan and I have ridden every day so far [laughs]. It’s starting to feel like we’re finding balance again. 

cyclespeak
You describe Forest as your inspiration, your ultimate challenge and your biggest adventure. What are you looking forward to as your story together unfolds and what do you think you’ll miss as your relationship inevitably changes and evolves? 

Crystal
When he was an infant, he was really colicky and the only time he didn’t cry was when he was in a carrier and we were walking. I actually lost my job right after he was born so I was unemployed and had the time to really get into hiking as a solution for both of us. We’d disappear off into the Angeles National Forest and even though Forest wasn’t aware what was happening, he was comfortable and we were both happy. And maybe it kind of primed him for what was to come [laughs].

cyclespeak
They sound like special times. 

Crystal
When he grew out of that baby carrier, I felt so sad—the only physical thing that I mourned giving away to the next person. And I was left with the question of what next? But that was around the six month mark so we were able to start riding as he had enough head stability to go in the trailer. And then when he was too big for the trailer, we put the bike seat on the back and then we got the tag-along and we now do 40 mile rides at our pace and effort but with him right there with us. And what’s cool is that, over time, I’ve realised that there is always something to look forward to. That every single time Forest has grown out of something, there’s an opportunity to try something that’s even more fun. 

cyclespeak
An attitude which I think is beautifully portrayed in your film. And I was wondering if working on this project helped you to understand when you’re happiest? 

Crystal
One of the things that makes me happy is when my preconceptions turn out to be wrong. When it’s better than I imagined. I’m learning not to limit my expectations on what we’re going to experience. And that was one aspect of last year’s lockdown that was surprising – this sense of the unexpected – when we were forced to stay local and explore our neighbourhood and we found so many cool little dirt roads that we never knew existed. We’d switch the Wahoo to map mode on Forest’s tag-along and he’d just shout out the turns he wanted us to make. And it made me fall in love with the city in a way that I didn’t expect. Just one of the things that brought me a sense of joy.

Crystal Haggard

Photography and video by Jordan Clark Haggard

Wahoo / Zwift