From: Alex Howes *********@gmail.com
Subject: Boulder visit
You should have been here last week, I got all my lingering stuff done, I got ready without even realizing I was getting ready. I went to the dentist. I had surgery a couple of weeks ago (lymph node swollen since the Ardennes). I got my license sorted out. I got new contacts. I got some pedals on order that should be here before I leave. I got two pairs of shoes ready to go. Everything is set. I might even get a new iPhone tomorrow. Usually I’m the worst procrastinator ever.
Alex Howes is twenty-four years old, he wears nerd glasses, he has dapper hair, he is co-founder of the P.C.B.C. (Pro Cyclist’s Book Club), he lives in Boulder, Colorado. It’s mid-January. In 48 hours he leaves for Gerona, Spain and the start of his 2013 season. For two days now we have been following and observing Alex in his natural habitat.
Yesterday he patched a stack of tubes, rode with a UHC-friend for an hour-and-a-half, washed his bike at a car wash, made beets, some kale, three small green apples, a handful of carrots and a little chunk of ginger into juice, and he ate a peanut butter & banana11After surgically removing the brown bits, of course. sandwich along with a little box of wasabi flavored roasted seaweed snacks. Today he went to a skate park, a basketball court, a racquetball court, a dog walking park, a recreational center, a swimming pool, a sauna, a track, a city park and a Lark Burger22Over a faux artisanal cheeseburgers and fries we talk about the science behind the custom of fresh lemon juice in a glass of ice water with a meal, how it’s alkaline qualities help with the digestion of meat, ‘that’s why it’s good to eat burgers with pickles and vinegar based sauces, your body needs alkaline to combat the acidity of meat, and without added alkaline, your body draws the calcium out of your bones.’, all for a Trading Card photo shoot.
We are here because we want to know what it’s like to be a professional cyclist. What it’s really like. Not what it’s like to win a race or have good legs. But what it’s like to travel and live and race at the World Tour level day-in-and-day-out on a team the size and stature of Garmin. Because Alex is switched-on, observant and straight-up insightful, we asked him to share his 2013 season with us so that we may publish it. We told him that we would Skype, text and email on a regular basis, that we would visit him when possible, that we would photograph him, that we would watch him race, that we would shout at him from behind a barbed-wire fence on the Gulperberg, that we would light-stalk him. He was into it.
We asked Alex Howes to tell us about his beginnings as a cyclist. What follows is in his own words.
Golden was a pretty small town when I was growing up, now it’s kinda morphed into suburban sprawl. I had a good family, I mean I have a good family, good parents, all the love and support in the world. I have a younger brother (three years); we fought a lot when we were young but now we’re good friends. That’s why I live in Boulder—I’m pretty close to my family and Boulder is close to Golden.
When I was a kid we used to ride our bikes around town a lot, looking for change, loitering in front of the 7-11. We were motivated by high-fructose corn syrup and so most of our money would go into the buying of Slurpees. Every year I went deer hunting with my dad and grandpa and little brother, mostly it was just an excuse to get everyone together, get up early, shoot the bull about stuff you’re not supposed to talk about, and dig cars out of the snow. I don’t think we ever shot anything for the first five years.
Spandex, Before Spandex
I’ve been going to bike races since I can remember, bike races were our version of a family vacation: Telluride and Durango, all over Wyoming. My dad (a good Cat 2, a decent Cat 1) was on team sponsored by Burger King. This other team was sponsored by Subway and it was all, “Burger King vs. Subway,” but the Burger King team were the legends, their motto was “go from the gun.” I’ve been racing since I went to the races. I started out at the kid races, then when I was 10 I got a license to race real, actual races with like, multiple laps.
“I knew about spandex before I actually knew about spandex. I grew up with bikes hanging over and crowding my crib. The nursery was also the bike room.”Alex Howes
I played soccer, tee-ball and baseball. I wasn’t good at baseball though, I played left field which was okay but at bat I didn’t really have the passion I needed.
I didn’t know if I was talented then, but I wanted it more than pretty much anyone around me. When you’re 13 years old and racing guys that are 6’2″, 160 pounds, big dudes, adult dudes, guys who’ve been shaving their legs for years, you have to really want it. I remember being nervous about racing and a bit stressed, but I never really cared about who showed up, it wasn’t about who you were racing but the race itself. I knew that I wanted to be a professional cyclist but at 13 it didn’t seem like a reasonable outcome. I was pretty good student, not straight-As, but there were a lot of things in school that interested me quite a bit, things that I wanted to pursue. I wanted to get into journalism and writing; I like physics too but I hated math so I knew that wasn’t really feasible. I was interested in the sciences but then I hit Calculus 2 and I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
All through middle school and high school I was racing a lot, aside from school that was my biggest time drain. I’d train after school, sometimes before school, and on the weekends I was always racing. By seventeen I was pretty established on the local scene and I started to think I could become a professional.
Jonathan Vaughters and Colby Pierce started this local team, 5280-Subaru which became TIAA-CREF which became Slipstream Sports which became Garmin. Originally it was them just driving kids around in a van but it was obvious, straightaway, that their program was the program to be with. You could tell they had the drive to turn it into something, and it was also clear that those were the guys you wanted to be mentored by. I sent JV an email with my résumé asking if they would consider me for their team.
A year later at the 2006 National Championships in Seven Springs, PA, I got third.33There are a number of very familiar names scattered across this page: http://www.usacycling.org/results/?year=2006&id=1459&info_id=7660 I attacked and tried to do it solo with 20k to go, but I got brought back with 2k to go. It was heartbreaking for me. I screwed it up tactically but when I attacked, Vaughters just happened to be standing right there on the road. I got a contract on the spot.“Becoming a professional, it's one of those things that you want to believe, like going into it, you want to believe it can happen, but even if it’s realistic, it still seems unrealistic. It’s like telling people you want to be an astronaut.”Alex Howes
We asked Alex Howes to talk about the learning curve once he joined the professional ranks of cycling. What follows is in his own words.
Crashing Scooters, Sleeping Five Hours a Night, Doing Everything
That year I was the youngest Pro Continental rider in the world. I look back now and I think I was maybe a little too young—in terms of both maturity levels and actual physical talent—but circumstances make it tough to tell in hindsight. It was a tough year: I crashed a scooter in Bermuda shortly after I signed, and it took me until March the following year before I could train properly. By that time I was going to college and living in the dorms. I was as responsible as your average eighteen year-old; I lived like your average college freshman, except I had a job44‘I worked for Slipstream Sports; they needed someone in the office and I needed work. I did a lot of grunt work, delivered a lot of packages on my bike, booked hotel rooms, did expense reports, put together sponsorship proposals, I did everything.’ and I trained all the time. I slept maybe an average of five hours a night. And that knee didn’t come around for quite a while.
Good & Bad, Rage Against the Machine, Rosetta Stone
I went to a French amateur team in 2008 after Vaughters helped me set it up. That’s the year Slipstream signed Christian and Millar and Zabriskie—some real heavy hitters. He called me and asked, “I think it’ll be too much for you. What do you think?” I knew he was right and said, “I’m not ready for the Tour.” He told me, “Well, we’ve got to find you a team then.” I asked him who he knew in Europe. I think that was motivated by fear, from the fact that I didn’t want to get stuck in America. I saw a lot of guys, with a lot of potential, choose to stay in America at that pivotal point in their careers in order to develop physically. But then they found a girl, or bought a house, and next thing you know their dream of racing in Europe was gone. It was too late. Life comes at you fast. I figured if I went to Europe right away, life wouldn’t be able to find me.
Excerpt from an interview with La Pomme’s Director Sportif: “‘Alex comes to VC La Pomme – Marseille on the recommendations of Jonathan Vaughters, and he seems, from the first tests, to have great physical qualities and adaptability to a group,’ says Frédéric Rostaing, DS. ‘I had the opportunity discuss Alex with Johnny Weltz, who oversaw the trials in France, and he confirms that we will work with a lot of potential, a young American talent in cycling. Alex will be keen to progress, especially on the intensities of professional conduct and career structure needed as one develops.'”
La Pomme was a mess. The majority of it was not good for me, though I suppose in the long run it was a useful experience. Whatever it was, it was a Baptism of Fire. I used to fall asleep listening to Rage Against the Machine. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was depressed. I felt like was treading water. I was in survival mode until September, until the season was over and I could go home.
I didn’t speak the language at all, so on the way over I skimmed Rosetta Stone’s Level 1 French. I knew how to count to ten, say ‘hello,’ ‘yes’ and ‘thank you,’ and that was about that. My first experience with the team was Training Camp, when we did 36 hours in one week—the majority of it high-intensity. They gave you how much food they thought you needed for the ride, but it never seemed enough for me. I had no idea where we were going, or how far we were going. I’d get done with a four hour ride, totally shattered, and I’d take a shower, have as big a lunch as I thought I could keep down then lay down around one or two in the afternoon for a nap. I’d hope the whole time I’d wake up the next morning for breakfast. Instead, the director or my roommate would wake me up two hours later to train for team time trials. By then it’s three, and the sun goes down at five, so soon enough we were riding in the headlights. It’s one thing to do that when you plan for it, but if you have no idea when you’ll be home, and you don’t know if it’s going to be a 200km ride or a 45min easy spin, it sucks.
And it was totally my fault. I shouldn’t have gone to France without any understanding of the French language. When I didn’t know what was happening (which was basically always), I acted like I did, I had too much pride. It never occurred to me to ask for more food, or to ask for specifics of the workout for the day. I just assumed that if I want to be good, I needed to eat exactly what they ate, I needed to ride just as hard as they rode, and I needed to pretend to speak French just as well as they actually spoke French.
Now? First of all I would get to at least level two of Rosetta Stone. I wouldn’t just accept that I was going to die a thousand deaths every day. I would ask for more food. Our director’s motto was, “There is something we can always be doing more of.” It’s true. And that’s why they are as good as they are, and that’s why half of the guys on that team go pro. In fact three are on Slipstream with me: Martin, Nuyens, Navardauskas.
We asked Alex Howes to talk about his efforts to rebound from a difficult first year as a pro. What follows is in his words.
Yes, No, Fun, Bad
In 2007, while I was still racing on Slipstream, I went to do the last month of my season in Europe. I stayed in Girona and while there did a Meet-And-Greet with La Pomme. Dan Martin was there and while he principally served as my translator/handler, he also told me all of the things that were going to go wrong with my life in the following year. He warned me that when you don’t speak the language you can’t have a touchy-feely conversation, you can’t discuss ifs and buts or the nuances of situations. It’s more binary, more exact, more black and white. You’re limited to ‘Yes, No, Fun, Bad’. You don’t get to have conversations about your first world needs or problems.
It was the worst season of my life, I think I got second in one race. While with La Pomme, I went to the Tour just to see it—I was in France after all. I figured since the professional racing thing wasn’t working out, I might as well go see the Tour before I retire. At one of the after parties I caught up with JV. He told me he was starting a dev team, he told me he wanted me to be a part of it.
The Answer Was Yes
My first year back was amazing. I arrived home with no money, maybe $70.00 to my name, I sold some bikes, got some money, moved in with a couple of girls and a guy who sold soybeans. Eventually the soybean guy and one of the others moved out and a couple more moved in. Two of them worked at a doggy day care and were always bringing home packs of dogs and throwing parties every few nights. I learned to sleep with ear plugs. In theory this was the hardest time of my life, I was living with three party-throwing housemates and a pack of wild dogs, not to mention my European racing career was ostensibly over. It didn’t matter though. I was so happy to be home and speaking English and eating apples off of trees, and nobody was telling me what to do or when to do it. That’s when I started doing everything right. Everything started working, I had this crazy flow going, it was like heaven, it was wonderful, I trained super hard, I was happy, I was motivated. In my mind, I had screwed up the European thing so hard that 2009 was my last shot. I needed to make some serious assessments: is this what I want to do, do I want to be a professional cyclist, am I committed to this? The answer was, “Yes.”
That year I won the Queen Stage of The Tour of Utah—I was in the breakaway and it looked good, it looked like we were going to make it happen, and somewhere through Tanner Flats I saw this guy handing-up hot dogs. I rode pretty fast straight over to him, grabbed one, bit half of it off and attacked with a mouthful of hot dog. I won. Then I went to U23 Nationals, and won the Road Race and the Crit. It was like three big wins in a row. Boom boom boom.
I took 2010 too seriously. I tried to do everything right but I overcooked my system: emotionally, physically, spiritually.
In 2011 I finished fourth eight or so times. It was good, I was in the hunt all the time, and every time I was in the hunt I was absolutely convinced I was going to win it. I would throw these Hail Marys right from the gun, and we demolished some races throughout the year.
In 2012 I was in the break at Amstel Gold for something like 210 kilometers. The Ardennes as a whole were a highlight, it was a successful time. I had a good spring, which ramped into the season well, and I got progressively better—good form all the way through Nationals. I was even good at Tour de Suisse and had an outside-long-shot of riding the Tour. But I was young, I’d never done a Grand Tour before and I’d been racing since February. What I really wanted was the Olympics. I was a reserve and guys were crashing in the Tour all over the place, so I thought I was in, only then I wrecked and broke my collarbone. In my mind I already booked a ticket to London, I was going to the Olympics, I was going win, I was going to come home and put on a big show at Utah and Colorado, I was going to sign a four year deal, but that didn’t work out. Instead I went to Colorado and did okay.
We asked Alex Howes for any other thoughts he had going into the 2013 season. What follows is in his words.
U-23 Paris-Roubaix Times Three
I raced U23 Paris-Roubaix three times, though I’m not sure why I did it more than once to be honest. You do get something out of it. I’m a good bike handler with that kind of race; I think I wanted to race it at least once for the experience. The third time I just got in a van at some point. I was with a group not too far off the back of the field, and we had a chance at getting back on but I had no life in me. Right then I saw a guy I knew on the side of the road, a guy I had raced with on La Pomme, and I said, “Hey let me get in your van.” That was that.
Leading up to that Paris-Roubaix I’d gotten sick at Tour of the Gila and lost ten pounds. Right after that on the way back to Europe I had my passport rejected in Houston, leaving me to spend two days riding a stationary recumbent in jeans and a Garmin t-shirt (my bags were stuck in customs) in the hotel gym. I watched Oprah, wondering the whole time about how I was going to get a passport. International travel, jet lag, being ten pounds too light, passport stress and two days of recumbent gym-bike training all lead to me crashing four times in the first three days of Olympia’s Tour, a race in Holland legendary for being windy, dangerous and flat. I pulled the plug on the last day of that, then five days later I got in a van halfway through Paris-Roubaix.
I Get Paid to Do Both
It’s nice, I get paid to be as healthy as humanly possible. Off the bike I do everything possible to eat right, maximize nutrition, train my body and get as fit as possible—all these infinitesimal percentage gains. I waste the smallest amount of energy possible, I barely walk, I avoid stairs, etc. In some ways I get paid to do both though. When I’m on the bike, I get paid to destroy myself, to go as hard as I can, to wear myself out.
Little Stores Selling Little Things
When I go to Girona in a few weeks, I’ll have my apartment. There should still be clean sheets on my bed. First order of business will be to acquire food, that’s always key. I’ll hike around and trade money for it; that’s the problem living over there—for cyclists at least—you have to walk everywhere. You have to walk to the butcher, you have to walk to the grocer, you have to walk to the organic store to buy nuts, there’s all these little stores there that sell these little things. In order to find Almond Milk, I have to schmooze with some lady (in a language I don’t understand or speak) so I can find out where they sell the Almond Milk, so I can buy the Almond Milk, so can I feel (kinda) like I’m at home.