During pre-season training camp every year, the riders are asked a series of questions – one is always about ambitions for the upcoming season. Every year, Alex Howes has named the same goal: to win the US National Road Championships. On Sunday, in Knoxville, Tennessee, Howes achieved his decade-long ambition.
“It was absolutely surreal crossing the line,” Howes said. “I’ve dreamt of this for so long, and it was way better than I had ever imagined it could be. Having my wife, my father, my dog there, my mom on Skype, being surrounded by friends…it was amazing. I am so humbled and amazed at how many people seem genuinely happy I won.”
The collective happiness is a product of who Howes is and what he stands for. The 31-year-old grew up in argyle. He’s raced for every iteration of EF Education First Pro Cycling, beginning as a junior cyclist out of Golden, Colorado, and has spent the duration of his career, 13 seasons, with the team – save one year that team boss Jonathan Vaughters farmed him out to a French team to “toughen him up a bit.”
In his tenure with the team, Howes has become known as a thinker, a pragmatist, a do-it-yourself-er, a loyal friend and a generous teammate. He spends off-seasons exploring the Wild West in his pick-up truck, his canoe or (of course) on his bike. He’s embraced mountain living in Nederland, 3,000 feet above Boulder.
“I’ve shown over the years that I’m one of the best one-day racers in the States, and with Nationals being the top one-day race in the US, it has always been my goal,” said Howes. “To be close so many times, the pressure and disappointment grew exponentially with each loss. Waiting this long makes it all the sweeter.”
Howes and his EF Education First Pro Cycling teammates Sean Bennett, Nate Brown, and Logan Owen made their intentions known from kilometer zero of the 190-kilometer circuit race.
“We were aggressive straightaway as a team,” said Howes. “I got the sense that the larger squads out on the road were looking to ride a more traditional race, but with everyone on our team firing on all cylinders early, I thought, ‘You know what? Screw it. If the other teams want to win, they’re going to have to come get me,’ and I went full-send on lap four. That set the tone for the whole day.”
The move by Howes drew out defending champion Jonny Brown (Hagens Berman Axeon), Robin Carpenter (Rally UHC), Gage Hecht (Aevolo) and Oliver Flautt (Dauner Akkon). The quintet spent several laps out front before a reduced bunch bridged across to the leaders.
A flurry of activity followed, with the EF Education First pink always on the front foot of the action. It was a move by Howes with three laps left, an attack up the circuit’s steepest climb, that proved most decisive.
Howes was joined up the road by Stephen Bassett (First Internet Bank) and Nielson Powless (Jumbo-Visma). The trio worked well together, maintaining a 50-second advantage during the penultimate lap and across the start-finish line in downtown Knoxville as they heard the bell signaling a single lap left to race.
“I was cooked in the final,” said Howes. “I had been cramping for the last 70-kilometers, and I wasn’t able to follow the hard accelerations coming from Bassett and Powless. When I was dropped on the highway, I was almost sure it was over. I actually had a nightmare about that very moment last night – one where I was dropped and never came back. But, back to real life, I knew we were all toast, so I told myself to keep digging.”
He dug, countering an attack by Basset inside the final kilometer, gapping Basset with the line in sight.
“I didn’t really believe I was going to win until I was 50 meters from the line,” said Howes.
Last July, Howes was sidelined with illness, his career hanging in limbo.
“I was in a pretty dark place this time last year,” said Howes. “I was struggling with an undiagnosed thyroid, fighting my body, thinking of hanging it up. I was depressed and scared, wasting away. To come back and win the jersey a year later? This is bliss. Pure satisfaction.”
Howes expects to showcase the stars and stripes in early August.
“I think my next race is Tour of Utah,” he said. “It’s only right to debut the jersey on home soil.”