The return of Howes

Alex Howes on the medical uncertainty that clouded the end of last season, and looking forward to Colombia.

 

Alex HowesAlex Howes hadn’t dropped out of a race in over three years. It just wasn’t something he thought much about. When his colleagues pulled off at a feed zone and were handed cold cans of soda and their jackets and patted each other on the back for work well done, the friendly Coloradan just dropped his chain down a cog and kept going. He didn’t ever want to quit.

 

“To me, it’s an awful feeling to climb off,” he says. “I really do just hate it, so I try not to do it. Sometimes, I’m out on the road, and my job for the day is done, and the option is there, but you know, I don’t want to quit. Quitting sucks. Some guys definitely get used to it.”

 

But at the Tour of Utah last August, he cracked. He had been feeling a bit drained all year, but at Utah, he was an empty shell. Still, he fought on, managing to get through the prologue and the first four stages, almost on will power alone. Each day, he would haul himself to the finish line with groups of straggling semi-pros and sandbaggers. He could hardly call that racing.

 

The whole peloton knew that fifth stage at Utah would be decisive. The race would be won and lost there. On any normal day, Howes would have been raring to set up Mike Woods or Joe Dombrowski for the victory. But on the summit finish at Snowbird, he could barely turn the pedals over. It took everything he had in him to finish dead last, half an hour behind the winner. He was empty. He could not go on. The next morning, before the starting flag had even dropped, the commissaire scribbled those dreaded letters beside his name.

 

Alex Howes: DNS.

Did Not Start.

 

“It was a strange thing,” he says, “Utah’s a hard race, but I’ve done the Tour de France a couple of times and all the grand tours. I’ve done the hardest races there are, and Utah is not one of the hardest races in the world. I didn’t finish it. I pulled the plug on the last day.”

 

That’s when the fear set in.

 

Something was wrong with him, and he didn’t know what. Shortly before the race, he had lost ten pounds in two weeks for no apparent reason. He began to wonder if the bad legs he had had earlier in the year were not just bad legs, but a serious illness. His body was broken. He was afraid that his career might be over.

 

‘If you don’t know what the problem is, there is no way that you are going to fix it.’

 

“Not knowing is probably the worst thing that there is,” he says. “If you don’t know what the problem is, there is no way that you are going to fix it. You think that your body is your body and, especially as a professional athlete, it does what you want it to do. You put in the orders and the body responds, but that was totally not the case. I was putting in the work and telling my body what to do, and it was just giving me the big middle finger.”

 

All of a sudden, Howes had to fend off attacks of anxiety. When he looked in the mirror, he no longer recognized the face he saw.

 

“Usually, that’s kind of my superpower,” he says. “I just don’t worry about the future. As soon as I start to worry about the future, I just buckle up and focus on the present, and try and make the best of every situation and every minute that I have, and hope that that pays off.”

 

Now, he did have to worry about the future. Recently married, with a new house he had just bought with his wife, he had to face the prospect that his time as a professional cyclist might come to a premature end.

 

“I was kind of freaking out,’ he says. “I was studying math and going, well, career’s over. That’s done. Time to get a real job.”

 

It was a dark time. He is thankful that his family and EF Education First stood by him. For a few months, he was not able to ride at all, as the team’s medical staff sought help from specialists to discover what was going wrong with his body. Finally, they discovered the cause of his problems: hyperthyroidism, a hereditary condition from which members of both sides of his family have suffered.

 

 

The diagnosis came as a huge relief. It explained why he hadn’t gone well all year. And a thyroid condition was manageable.

 

He would not have to quit.

 

Howes has since set about becoming a good bike racer again. He enjoys the training. The medication his doctors prescribed him is working well. His power meter has been showing promising numbers.

 

Still, the fear remains.

 

‘Right now is, I think, for me personally, the biggest test’

 

“Right now is, I think, for me personally, the biggest test,” he says. “You know, we talk about overcoming, but I haven’t overcome just yet. I haven’t raced since Utah.”

 

He won’t know where he stands until he’s back in the thick of competition. Howes has been a WorldTour pro for seven seasons now. He began racing full time at 19 and has developed into an accomplished domestique.

 

“I really do like working for a good leader,” he says. “On our team, we are pretty fortunate in that our top dogs are really good guys to work for. Mike Woods and Rigoberto UránRigo—there’s nothing but appreciation from both of those guys and a lot of fun. They make it pretty easy to want to work for them. And definitely with Tejay coming on board next year—I’ve been friends with Tejay for going on 17 years now.”

 

Still, Howes is not one to be easily satisfied. He already has in mind a few races circled for himself.

 

“I think it’s really important to feel that pressure of trying to win. I think a lot of guys get stuck into the domestique (or protector) role, and it’s definitely hard, and it’s challenging, and there is pressure there, but it’s different when all of the weight is on your shoulders, and you carry that right to the last inches of the race. I think it’s important to pick that weight up every now and then,” he says.

 

Howes has had a very heavy weight on his shoulders these past few months. His first races of the season are fast approaching, and he will start in Colombia soon. Still, he thinks that this ordeal might prove to be an unwelcome blessing. He never got used to being off the bike, and he thrives under pressure. He is healthy again and getting fitter. He is excited to do his work for the team.

 

Just don’t expect him to punch out when his job is done.