Thank you, Alex
As Alex Howes readies himself for his next adventure, he reflects on the time he has spent with our team
Alex Howes’ days in our colours are coming to an end.
Alex has been our teammate ever since he turned junior. He signed up with us in our second season. A little kid from Colorado with big dreams, he sent team boss Jonathan Vaughters a lot of emails, before JV gave in and gave the local boy a shot. Alex took his chance. He rode beyond himself in races around the state to help his teammates qualify for junior worlds. For nearly two decades, he has brought that same gritty, selfless spirit to our team, as we have grown.
Alex’s own stage wins at the Colorado Classic, Tour of Alberta, and USA Pro Challenge, don’t nearly sum up the contribution that he has made to our organisation. His 2019 national champion’s title was a just reward for the enormous effort he has put into the sport.
He was there in our early years, working in the office on our UCI application before we turned pro. He has been there at the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España, always racing with intelligence and courage, and been a key player in many of our most memorable victories.
Alex has earned his place on the honour roll of great American bike racers.
"Alex is a rare breed these days," Jonathan Vaughters says. "He is a rider who made it to the World Tour on grit, skill, and hard work. Most of all on pure heart. Not so much with big FTP numbers. You don’t see it as much anymore, which is an evolution, but sad for the sport. For these reasons, he’s one of the riders I respect the most from my 30+ years in this sport. He hung tough when almost all others would give up."
Now, Alex is looking forward to spending more time with his young family and going off to explore bike racing’s North American frontier.
Before thanking Alex with all of our hearts and wishing him the best of luck in his next adventure, we sat down with him to reflect on the good times we have had together.
How did you join the team, Alex?
I basically jumped on the team in the second year of its existence. The first year, it wasn’t anything big, but it definitely seemed pretty organised for a junior/ U23 team relative to other things around. Obviously having a guy like JV, a former pro, and Colby Pearce, who was not yet an Olympian, but one of the top guys, driving the whole ship, it was pretty obvious that it was the team to be on, so I did whatever I could to convince them to take me on board. That year, they had junior worlds qualifier races, and I was actually too young to qualify for worlds, so I signed up to help a couple of guys, Brady Kappius and Pete Stetina, try and qualify for worlds and then do stuff on the local scene as well. I just sent JV a bunch of emails, pretty much begging to be on the team, and after some annoying emails, they finally acquiesced and the rest is history.
What was the team like in those early years?
Those first few years were pretty fun. There was just a lot of driving around in a crappy van, getting to some regional races, things like Gila and nationals and stuff, and then trying to get rides with some of my teammates to race on the local scene. We had a ton of talent for the area, so we were relatively dominant, so we got to win a bunch of races and have a good atmosphere in the team. I was on the junior team, and JV and Colby’s main project was the U23 team, which was evolving relatively quickly, so I was looking with a lot of hopes and dreams of moving up to the U23 team, which was in theory going to be a big pro team some day. Those guys were over in Europe quite a bit, and they had some success, but for the most part they were just getting their butts kicked. JV did a great job of sending them to terrible races, like the Tour of Normandy or Tro Bro Leon. I remember being the junior on the team, the youngest kid and kind of the runt of the litter, and looking at those guys over there, just doing these crazy races, and thinking, I want to do that. That looks terrible. Sign me up. To grow with the program and evolve with it as I came up through the ranks and the team came through the ranks, was pretty cool. It was pretty special.
What made the team succeed?
In the States, on that junior team, and even as it progressed to the Pro Continental team, it always had a sort of a creative vibe to it. We weren’t afraid to try things in races. We were never afraid to just have things totally blow up in our faces. I remember Gila one year. We had some good riders on paper, like Danny Pate, and I think Will Frischkorn, Mike Creed, and they were riding well, but we just weren’t totally making it happen in the race. And the last day, I remember, we threw it in the gutter from kilometre zero and just went all in, and that one worked out great, but I can also think of three or four other times when we tried similar tactics and we ended up with five people in the van before the end of the race. That is the beauty of youth. You haven’t made all of the mistakes yet, so you are willing to try.
How did your own step up to the pros go?
I never was actually on the U23 team proper. When I was 18, I had a few good results around the local scene. I won a crit. I was punching some better results than I probably deserved to be getting, but I was racing well, and that year, when in theory I would have stepped up to the U23 team, there was an opportunity for the team to go Pro Continental, so they went for it, and I ended up moving onto the pro team. That year, 2007, I was the youngest Pro Continental rider in the world. Definitely, in hindsight, it was a little bit more of a jump than I was ready for. I tried my best, but physically I wasn’t totally ready for it, and also not mentally or emotionally.
I was going to school in the fall, trying to train, and had probably one of the hardest crashes of my life that fall, and messed up my knee really bad. I was also working in the office for the team, trying to put together the big booklet for the UCI. The team had never been pro before, so, in a lot of ways, we had no idea what the heck we were doing. I was a minion in the whole process, and we were just running around that whole fall trying to get all of the boxes checked and get all of the stamps and seals of approval and sending out hundreds of race requests to various race promoters, asking if they would want to take this little U23 team that wants to be a Pro Continental team and accept us for the race. To say that fall was a little bit frantic, and not exactly the best set up for a great kick off for my Pro Continental season would be a little bit of an understatement, but I got through that year and realised pretty quick that I was not ready to be pro.
What did you do next?
The next year, 2008, the opportunity for the team to race Tour de France was on the table, just the way licences and stuff work, and they saw that opportunity and they went for it, and started signing a bunch of big name riders like Van de Velde and Zabriskie and Dave Millar. When I saw that happening—I don’t remember if I had the opportunity to stay with the team or not—but I remember thinking very clearly that I wasn’t ready yet. I asked JV and was like, ‘Hey, I don’t know if this is going to work out. Do you have any other options? I want to race in Europe’. So, he helped set me up with a French team. I studied abroad for a year there, with VC La Pomme Marseille, which was also a learning process. I went over there, knowing like four words of French and pretty much just got my head kicked in if I am honest for most of the year, just physically, emotionally, and culturally, but I wouldn’t change it.
What are your favourite memories from those early days on the team?
I remember getting my first race bike from the team. It was just this aluminium one with Shimano Ultegra. It wasn’t anything crazy, but it was the first bike I had where everything on it was new, and it was right out of the box, and everything was new, and everything was compatible with everything else. I had raced for two years with a Shimano eight- or nine-speed rear end with Campy shifters for nine- or ten-speed, so literally the gears barely worked, and when I say barely worked, they didn’t work. So that first bike I got where every part on there said Ultegra, I remember that and just thinking how cool that was and thinking, ‘Yeah! I made it. I am in the big leagues now. All my parts are the same kind. This is sweet.’ But the biggest thing is just that we had a lot of fun. We were just a good group of friends. At the time, something like collegiate mountain biking or the high-school mountain-bike league didn’t exist, so to have an opportunity to be a member of a team where everyone was more or less the same age and we were all doing the same thing, for us at the time was super special, because it really didn’t exist anywhere else. We screwed around a lot. It was good. It was fun.
How has the team evolved?
It has definitely pro-d up a lot. It is pretty incredible to see how far the team has come from this ragtag crew of juniors and U23 riders lead by Colby and JV, two dudes who were basically having an existential crisis about what they were doing with their entire lives and just decided to start a team. There are a lot of reasons why it shouldn’t have worked out. From just this weird group of kids racing around with a van, to see it evolve into a Tour de France level team, and not just a team racing the Tour, but a team that has consistently gotten results for ten plus years is… I feel very fortunate to have been a small part of it.
What has the team meant to North American cycling?
I think the team, in a lot of ways, stands for that kid in some rural town in America who finds a cycling magazine and is like, ‘Oh yeah, I want to race the Tour de France’. The team is sort of, well, it is that story. And it is a story that is not supposed to work out. You are not supposed to dream about going to Europe and having these grand plans and racing the biggest races in the world against the best riders, but for whatever reason, however it happened, this team was like, ‘We are going to take this group of kids and turn them into professionals.’ And there is no reason why it should have worked out, but here we are twenty years later, and it is a major success. And it is still going as strong as ever, stronger than ever.
From the start, the team has had a different ethos to what was there before…
The anti-doping aspect is super unique and super special. When I came into cycling, I was a kid. Literally a kid. I was 13 years old. I think I signed up when I was maybe 14 or 15 with the team. I was pretty naive to the whole, dark side to the sport. I had no idea. To my mind, doing something bad was eating only Skittles for lunch. It wasn’t like we were going to take all of these drugs and win races. The first time I heard about that side of the sport, it was like, ‘Yeah, that is a place that 100%, it doesn’t matter what happens in life, we are not going.’ For that to be the starting message for me was pretty powerful. It is something I am pretty fortunate for.
We were the guinea pigs for the biological passport. The whole team got tested every Monday to build up this crazy robust blood profile for everybody. To be 18 years old and going down to the clinic every Monday to take way too much blood out was a pain in the butt, but I am happy for it in terms of where it has put the sport now. I think you would be hard pressed to find anyone who would say that the sport is in a worse spot now than it was in 2006, 2007, 2008 in terms of doping.
In what other ways has the sport evolved during your time as a racer?
The level of professionalism has gone through the roof. The level of technology involved is crazy. I remember my first pro year in 2012, nobody else had an aero bike. Full stop. Nobody wanted to ride one on our team, so the team was basically like, ‘We’ll get Alex to ride it. He’ll ride it’. I was like, ‘I don’t know’. And they were like, ‘Yeah, you’re a neo pro. This is your job. Ride what we tell you to ride’. In hindsight, it was the right move, because in that year I had an aero bike, a one-piece racing suit. You look at the photos and I was so dialled relative to everybody I was racing. It was awesome. Now, everybody has an aero suit on, everybody has got an aero-tubed bike. You look at the time trial in particular, and, oh gosh, it is crazy. The days of just slapping on some aero bars and giving it a good dig and punching in the top ten are gone. If you are not optimising every single bit of that bike–I don’t care how talented you are–you might as well stay home.
Also the course knowledge has changed a lot. Back in the day, directors would give you a little bit of tactical advice, but for the most part they were there to hand out water bottles and give everybody a bit of a pump up speech at the start of the day. Nowadays, those guys are on the computer every day of the year trying to figure out where the pinch points are on a given course, what the weather is going to be, where the wind is coming from at every moment at every point on the course. The knowledge and attention to detail in that regard has changed a ton.
How did you evolve yourself?
I was never the most talented rider, physically, but I had a bit of a knack for understanding what is what out on the road in a way that really, really worked to my advantage in the States, and once I got to Europe was really the only reason that I survived, but I also always had the willingness to just try and, I guess, hurt. It is tough, when you are making a career out of just being really good at hurting. Towards the end there, I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can go to that place as many times a year,’ so I had to get creative and try and bring other ways to bring value out on the road, whether that was helping teammates, or being creative with how and when I use my efforts throughout the day.
Which of your achievements make you the most proud?
Winning nationals was a huge one for me. It was the race that the team had earmarked for me to win, and it took a lot of times failing to do it, before it came together. It seemed like the time had passed and then to sort of circle back around and make it happen, it was a bit of a surprise in a lot of ways–a very sweet surprise.
Dan Martin winning Liege too—being a part of that was pretty fun. That was a special win, because that was a win that everybody on the team was a part of, and at that time he was still an underdog, so to come together as a team and pull it off, that was pretty special.
When Ramūnas Navardauskas won a stage of the Tour—it was stage 19, I think—and Talansky, our GC leader had crashed out midway through, and we were down and out and had nothing to show for that whole Tour, and we were just desperately trying to win a stage every day, and then Stage 19 the whole team was up and on it all day. We had this plan and tactic for Ramūnas to launch at the end, and it was kind of a far-fetched idea and a plan again that probably shouldn’t work out, but we executed it perfectly, and it worked out great, and we got the stage win, and then we all got super hammered the night before the last time trial. I had JV in the following car behind me, very hung over in the last time trial of my first Tour de France. I remember getting like half way through it, and he was like, “I think you’ve got to go faster,” on the radio. And I was like, “Dude. I’m going as hard as I can.” The whole team had thrown a party. It was staff and riders and everybody. It really didn’t matter. We had one objective: to win a stage, and we won a stage at the eleventh hour. It was really our last chance to do it, and we pulled it off. It was amazing, and it was beautiful, and we all got hammered and woke up the next morning and remembered we had to do a time trial. I am very bad at time trials when I am not hung over, but to do it hung over with my boss in the driver’s seat behind me was not fun, but I got through it. I think I lost like eight minutes or something, which is pretty sad, but it was worth it. It was totally worth it.
What were the biggest challenges?
2008 on the French team was super tough. I was away from friends and family, and trying to learn a foreign language, and not racing super well. That period when you are sort of leaving the nest, trying to figure out life on your own as a young adult, is hard for anybody, but then to try and race through it, while living in a foreign country was pretty tough. Other than that year, I think 2020 was probably the hardest year. In a lot of ways, I think 2020 was probably harder than 2008, just having the whole ups and downs of the pandemic, and a pregnant wife, and a father-in-law with terminal cancer, getting pulled around with, Are we going to race? Are we not going to race? It really took the fun out of it.
Which times were the most fun?
Those U23 years, when I came back from France, we just had a ton of fun. We had a crazy calendar. We raced all over the world. We raced in Langkawi, Uruguay, Brazil, all over the map and were that age when you are pretty carefree and nobody really had anything on the agenda except for racing bikes and having fun. We had a lot of laughs then. In 2009, I had a great year. I went out and won a couple of national titles and got to race on the national team at the Tour of L’Avenir. Those years were just a ton of fun.
The alternative stuff has been a real breath of fresh air too. It was something I always sort of dabbled in as a hobby I guess. I was always the guy who would go race the Tour de France and one or two weeks later be at the local short-track race to get my ass kicked by some junior. I always had fun with it and always enjoyed it and then for the team to be like, 'Yeah, this is going to be something that you are going to do in an EF jersey', that was pretty special. That was a lot of fun and a throwback to those U23 years when Lachlan and I were teammates, when we were just kids. It felt a lot like those years when we were just sort of rocking up to a race with a van and no pressure. We would just show up with half decent legs and give it hell and see what happened and at the end of the day have a couple of beers and tell a couple of stories about how we screwed up.
Obviously, a bit of a transition. On so many levels, I still love racing. I love the feeling of racing. I like the training. I still have a lot of fun around it. But the hardest thing for me is travelling and being away from home. Hopefully, I’ll be kicking around America next year with the wife and kiddo, and be cruising around with a truck and a trailer. The alternative calendar is no longer going to be alternative for me. It is going to be the calendar. I feel very fortunate in that I get to step away from the WorldTour with a smile on my face. I’m happy. I don’t think many people get to feel that way when they stop racing at the WorldTour level. It’s usually not their choice or if it is their choice they are choosing it for more difficult reasons. I feel very fortunate. I feel like I’m leaving on good terms with the team. I feel very grateful that I get to just keep grinning ear to ear like I have for the past twenty years.
Thank you for everything, Alex.