Golden, Colorado native and professional cyclist Alex Howes suffers when he works and he suffers when he can’t. But an event this August might provide him with a different kind of sensation.
On race days Howes’ job can mean turning himself inside-out pedaling over 160 miles in six hours with a handful of guys in a break-away who are both friends and enemies, for a nano-chance to win, over slippery springtime cobbles or in intense summer heat while the main field of 185 pro-cyclists chases him down like he’s the last fox ever to be hunted.
Howes’ workdays outside of racing include training on European roads or around his home in Boulder, Colorado. Last December when Boulder’s icy roads transformed skinny tire bikes into suicide machines, Howes found himself in what he described as “a dark place.”
“I’m like anybody else,” he said. “You have something that you have a passion for and that you really enjoy and you love. If anything takes that away you get pretty bummed out.” He high-tailed it to Santa Rosa, California to train.
Four months earlier in August 2011, Howes had also checked out of Boulder, this time to camp for ten days in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with his dog, Joesy, while the 2011 USA Pro Cycling Challenge (UPCC) crossed Colorado. He didn’t even glance at the last day of the race which started in Golden, Colorado, where he grew up.
At that time he rode on his current Garmin-Barracuda team’s development squad, then called Team Chipotle. Early in 2011 Howes and his Chipotle teammates thought they didn’t stand a chance of receiving a coveted invite to the UPCC. Then in May they heard, “‘Oh, you guys might be able to get in if you can prove your worth.’ So we ripped it up at [Tour of the] Gila, we ripped it up at [Tour de] Beauce, trying to get an invite,” Howes said. They got one.
Soon after the Team Chipotle men started to preview stages of the race, they learned they couldn’t start the UPCC after all in order to comply with a cycling association rule. “At first I was pretty pissed off and then I was just kind of bummed out,” Howes said. “At that point I kind of didn’t want to be a part of it. It’s one thing when you know you’re not going to able to do it and it’s another thing when you thought you were going to be able to do it and started basing your whole season around it and then you can’t race it.”
Speaking in December, he said, “Hopefully some of that anger from not being able to race Colorado this year gets transferred into the season next year. My biggest hope is that it gets transferred into next year’s Tour of Colorado.” [The Tour of Colorado is the UPCC – ed.]
August 25th could mark a day without suffering for Howes if he rolls his bike to the UPCC start line in Golden, where he has something to prove.
Growing up in Golden
Howes said he held a racing license beginning at age 10. “I didn’t do a full calendar and California wasn’t on the schedule that year,” he said, laughing. “I probably did 10 – 20 races that year.” [Howes is referring to the Amgen Tour of California – ed.]
His teenage years clicked by and Howes spent a good deal of time on his bike. But he said he enjoyed a pretty normal high school life. “I wasn’t living on the bike exclusively and out of town all the time; I made a good bit of friends in school, and maintained a good bit of those friendships.” He enjoyed hanging out with friends at a favorite lunch hour stop, Bonfire Burritos, which still operates out of a small trailer in an area called Pleasant View on South Golden Road.
He also frequented a popular climb in Golden. “I’ve probably been up Lookout Mountain 500 times, maybe three to four times a week when I was about 15 to 18, up and down that hill,” he said.
About the same time that he and Lookout were becoming best friends, he sat in a high school auditorium where a speaker channeled his desire into a fierce determination he must call upon every day as a professional cyclist.
What no one can take away
The speaker told the teens, as Howes recalled it, that it was fine to have fun with sports but not to give it too much thought, because none of them would ever be able to make a living playing sports. There’s some logic to this. In a given season, the number of active male American racers registered with the UCI, cycling’s governing body, falls under 200.
Howes said about that moment, “I remember thinking to myself right then, ‘No way. Maybe I won’t do it forever. Maybe I won’t retire on it. Maybe I won’t make millions of dollars, but I’m going to be a professional cyclist someday. I want this.’”
In 2004 at age 16 he joined as a junior racer with the Slipstream Sports program’s TIAA-CREF/5280 team, a group of promising young cyclists. Except for a season with a French team, Howes rode for the Slipstream program through the 2011 season, including an apprenticeship with the more senior professional team in 2007.
In his development career which included riding for the U.S. national team, Howes achieved an enviable list of results. He won road races as a junior racer in 2005 and 2006 and placed second in the junior U.S. national cyclocross championships. He raced hard through 2008 and it paid off in 2009 with two under-23 U.S. national
championships for the road race and criterium, plus a stage win at the Tour of Utah’s Snowbird finish together with the best young rider and mountain leader prizes in that Tour. He added more top 10 finishes in 2010 and 2011, including first place in criterium races in Golden and Boulder.
Outside of racing, Howes completed one semester of college and decided to quit. He’d like to return to school at some point, even if he pulls off a long cycling career, perhaps studying something like sports physiology. The body’s ability to adapt to stresses and emerge even better fascinates this 24 year-old.
Professional cyclist lifestyle
By all accounts Howes is a professional cyclist through and through. He even cuts his own hair. According to Howes, most guys in professional cycling cut their hair themselves; it’s too risky to trust barbers in foreign countries. “I don’t know if I’d really want to go into a Catalan hairdresser and ask for a little bit off the top just because he might end up with something crazy,” he said. He described the outcome when one rider asked a Spanish stylist to add some layers: “it looked like he had Peruvian stairs or something cut into the side of his head.”
Many athletes favor a gluten-free diet, and that’s how Howes cooks pancakes, his favorite breakfast food, using a mix called Pamela’s. “We make super pancakes. I probably sound like a total hippie. They have hemp in there and walnut oil. I put a little yogurt on them, berries, peanut butter, a little maple syrup, maybe some honey.”
And he’s settled into Boulder culture. At the time of this interview, Howes tweeted something like: “I’m pumped on composting.” Calling it a love / hate relationship, he described returning home to a squadron of fruit flies after he had forgotten to empty a bin of food scraps before going away for several weeks. “I’m into it though,” he said. “I’m all about trying to reduce my carbon footprint, especially with how much I fly.”
Howes began racing at the highest level of the sport for the 2012 season after signing a contract to work for the Garmin-Barracuda team. Having grown up with the Slipstream Sports program which evolved into Garmin-Barracuda, it was pretty clear where he belonged after talking to a couple of teams and realizing they wouldn’t be a good fit for him. Garmin-Barracuda, he said, “feels like home for me so I can’t think of any better way to move up and move on.”
Right now Howes is probably best categorized as an all-rounder, proficient in all of cycling’s disciplines, though he wouldn’t call time-trialing – riding individually against the clock – his greatest strength. He’ll continue to develop as a professional cyclist while he spends his first season with Garmin-Barracuda. It’s an opportunity to further refine his skills, as he helps more senior athletes on the team and gets tested in races he hasn’t experienced before. He’s already shown that he’s talented at getting into break-aways in races on narrow European roads, with stunning rides for a neo-pro in famous races like Amstel Gold in Holland.
When he reviewed his preliminary racing calendar with the Garmin-Barracuda team directors at the end of last year, unlike many pro-cyclists who present multiple demands, Howes mentioned only one request: “I really want to do the Tour of Colorado.”
A rider’s racing calendar can change, due to injuries on the team for example. According to Howes before the season begins Garmin-Barracuda only plans riders’ programs up to the Tour de France. Rosters for future events are decided after the Tour. Howes can’t be certain he will race in the UPCC, but feels pretty confident his name will appear on Garmin-Barracuda’s UPCC start list.
If he makes it, riding at home will mean more than knowing every pothole in the road. Racing the UPCC is, he said, “a big opportunity for me to show what I’ve done, prove who I am.” Races and weather will come and go, but no one can strip way the identity of that teenager who racked up scores of miles on the roads of Lookout Mountain.
“A lot of people from the States, the only race they ever see is the Tour de France, and half of them don’t see that, they hear about it,” he said. “If you bring a big event like this to town, everybody sees it, everybody knows about it.” So Howes expects to see all of his hometown friends on the streets of Golden at the UPCC on August 25th, where, “you have the Tour de France caliber riders, and hopefully you have me, standing next to them.”