Ian Boswell is about to start a new phase in his five year career, switching from Team Sky to Katusha-Alpecin for 2018.
His time at Sky saw both him and the team grow up (“Yeah, I was there for the glory years, before the scandals and controversy, it was the Golden Age!” chuckles Boswell) and the 26 year old Oregonian is well-placed to describe the cultural and psychological differences between the US and British cycling as well as the inner dynamic of the team.
“The first season at Sky was tough – physically of course and mentally, racing in the World Tour,” he recalls
“Now, I don’t get stressed much, you know what’s expected of you. Even if you’re not as fit, you can still get through races using your experience,” explains Boswell, sounding like a wise old pro.
“When I joined though, one thing I noticed was that there was a supportive atmosphere towards the riders, whereas from my perspective, the American approach was more self-focused – you used your own resources, finding your own coach, your own team and raise your own funds.
“The whole British approach – through British Cycling with Dave (Brailsford) and Rod (Ellingworth) that carried over into Sky – was different. There it was about being taken care of. To be honest it took me a while to accept that. I had that American attitude of ‘No, it’s OK, I’m just going to do it myself.”
That wasn’t the only area where the man they call ‘The Boz’ noted that elements of British Cycling culture influence Sky.
“The young British guys who join the team, like (Jon) Dibben and (Owain) Doull know how to race. I mean, they understood quickly what was required. They were there to race for a result for the team, not for themselves and I think that’s something that’s instilled when they raced with British Cycling.
“There’s a sense of connection between British riders – you really notice it before the Olympics – a real sense of being a team. There’s something about that British set-up that teaches that. Maybe because they race and train as a national squad more.”
Boswell develops the theme. “That means the transition to a pro team is much easier too. “Look at Tao (Geoghan Hart) this season, he had a fantastic year and that’s partly down to the fact he had a better understanding of racing and he had that even before he went to Axel’s team [Axeon].”
“I’d almost say that US cycling has taken a step back, in the sense that a lot of American racing leads to the strongest rider winning, but maybe not the smartest or the most tactically sound rider. I think the British riders understand that side better, but again part of that is down to funding and resources behind riders and squads.”
Boswell isn’t uncritical of the Sky approach though. “I think there’s a chance that British riders become too comfortable and end up unwilling to challenge things or change,” he says. “They grow up in British Cycling and it’s hard to leave it, they trust it so much, though Swifty (Ben Swift) and Pete (Kennaugh) have done it.
“It’s competitive too at Sky, your race programme changes a lot which keeps you on your toes and there’s always a sense that you’re being measured. So if you don’t ride well at Paris-Nice, you won’t go to Catalunya, then you miss out on Romandie. It’s good, in a way, but it can get wearing for some riders and it’s important to be able to target races too. If your programme changes, that’s hard to do,” he notes.
Sky, famously, has a ‘GC group’ of riders who are earmarked for support roles during the Tour, building a powerful team ethos that has clearly paid off. But it has its downsides too.
“It feels like riders get pigeonholed and put in a group, which makes it hard to progress or get out of that group,” notes Boswell. “Plus, the fact that there’s a big budget means there’s not so much pressure to develop riders from inside the team when you can buy it [talent] in.
“I feel kinda bad for some of the younger riders this year, because Sky has just bought in some of the best young talent in the sport – Bernal, Castroviejo, De La Cruz – so the current younger guys have sort of moved down the ranking.
“It’s hard, but it does force you to raise your own level, you can’t stagnate, you can’t cruise through your career at Sky. In the end I think you have to praise Sky and British Cycling for creating that sort of environment, where it’s positive and competitive.”
For Boswell – as for Swift and Kennaugh – it was time for a change and Katusha will certainly be different. Boswell’s already shown at the Vuelta and in the Tour of California something of what he’s capable of and Katusha are hoping to reveal still more in the next two seasons.