After a year of racing as part of one of the best amateur teams in France, Alex Howes is returning to his roots, rejoining the Slipstream organization, as he will be racing with the U23 team VMG/Felt for the 2009 season. Through it all, Alex has chronicled his adventures through his blog sharing his ups and downs with the world.
The 20-year old (almost 21) Alex Howes was born in Golden, Colorado. He came up through the ranks of the Slipstream organization first as a junior with the 5280 team and then spent a year with the Slipstream squad in 2007. He capped that season with a foray to France racing at the Tour du Limousin and the GP Plouay where he launched the first attack of the ProTour race.
At the end of 2007, he joined one of the best amateur team in France, the VC La Pomme which is based in the Marseille area to continue his to learn to achieve his goal of racing professionally full-time in Europe.
I caught up with Alex right before the US Cyclocross Nationals where he finished fourth in the U23 race.
How did you get into cycling?
Alex: My father did it for quite some time. It just kind of happened, he put me on a bike, he put me on another bike.
And that was it?
Alex: And that was it. Now he doesn’t really do it much anymore and I spend 30 hours on my bike (chuckles). I was brought up through the ACA here, the American Cycling Association, the local club, they have a very good juniors program, so it was pretty easy as far as trying to find races and things like that.
How did you get with the Slipstream in 2007?
Alex: I was with the junior development team [5280 Magazine] and I don’t know, I guess I got a couple of results and Jonathan [Vaughters] was looking to bring a couple of the younger guys up, it was and to some extent still is a development team so he brought me and Peter Stetina up from the junior ranks …. and he handed me the contract at Nationals one year, it was right after I got third, a third place that I was really disappointed with, I cramped up just before the line, I probably should have won but it [the contract] was a huge surprise: ‘well you lost, here’s a contract’. ‘Whoa, all right’.
You were with the team with Slipstream in 2007, and then moved to France. Why?
Alex: I was with Slipstream the whole year that season. The reason I went over to Europe in 2007 is with Slipstream, I did a couple of races here and there, the road races we did were Chateauroux, Limousin and Plouay.
Why did you decide to stay in France in 2008?
Alex: The reason was because Slipstream had gone from a development into a more or less a ProTour team, it went from a team that was hoping to get into mildly fast French races to want to race the Tour next year. It was a huge jump, too fast for me and all parties decided that it was better if I found a team that was a little bit more geared towards a little lighter racing schedule. While I was over there, Vaughters made a couple phone calls and helped set me up with a really good French team.
Tell me about your year in France.
Alex: It was, you know, ups and downs. It wasn’t too successful of a year as far as results and anything like that. The biggest thing I think was the communication barrier, nobody spoke English and my French was pretty definitely less than super, it made a lot of small problems, big problems. Other than that, it was definitely a positive year, learned a lot, got to hang out in Southern France, learn a new language, just kind of figure out a new culture. I think it will definitely transfer in the future, in European races I’ll be a lot more comfortable over there than the majority of the guys from the States.
So what did you learn about racing over there? Was the approach to racing and the racing itself different?
Alex: Oh yeah, it was definitely different. It’s very aggressive over there. At least in the amateur races, the concept of tactics is a little bit different than it is over here. Over here, you get ‘we’ll control the race, drive it over this climb, see who’s left and then lead out our lead rider’ while over there it’s ‘well, you four guys are going good, so the other three guys in the team will go as hard as they possibly can for the first 20 km and then the rest of us will go as hard as we can for the rest of the race’. (chuckles) ‘Oh well, I don’t know those tactics, but it’s their races’. A lot of guys over there say they can’t sprint but if they would come over here, they’d probably be okay because all you do over there is sprint, you just sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint, sprint. The average speed is a lot lower but when you get done at the end of the day, you feel you had to workout, 20 times.
And aren’t the distances of the races longer?
Alex: They’re not necessarily longer than races over here but just the fact that it’s full gas, one hundred percent, constantly sprinting, constantly jumping, [on] really technical courses, racing on tiny little French roads through tiny little French towns, trying not to run over small dogs and children, you hope.
(laughs) A lot of dogs in France.
Alex: And they don’t put them on their leash.
What did you learn about yourself as a person?
Alex: It’s interesting. It was something I’d always wanted to do [I thought] I won’t have too much problems with it. It definitely slapped me in the face a lot harder than I thought it would but you get to hang out by yourself a lot. I don’t know how much I necessarily learned about myself as a person but I definitely learned how to live with myself as a person without any other persons around.
So do you like yourself?
Alex: (chuckles) I’m working on it, sometimes I can get a little annoying. I’m like ‘man shut up, ‘man leave me alone’ (laughs)
Is that why you blogged? Was it to help relieve the boredom?
Alex: Honestly, yes that was one of the reasons, at least blogging so frequently. One of the only people I could talk with over there was my buddy Evaldas [Siskevicius], one of my teammates from Lithuania and he spoke no French, his French was as good as mine and his English was as good as my French. So we couldn’t really talk about anything, we’d sit around and throw water balloons at people from the balcony, but that was about it.
I remember an adventure with an ipod on your blog. Didn’t you take something apart and rebuild?
Alex: I took a lot of things apart and rebuild. It was… there’s not a whole lot to do and you spend three hours on your bike every day, and three hours on a bike when it’s quiet feels like ten hours so as soon as my ipod broke I was ‘man, what am I going to do, what am I going to do?’ It was kind of do or die so I took the whole thing apart, looked around for what I could find, found a couple… if I moved the jack a little bit, it would come together a little bit better so I’ll do that, basically it ended up as this gigantic I called it surgery, it turned out that the thing still works, my girlfriend uses it.
During the year, you came back at the Tour of PA as a guest rider with Slipstream. At that time, did you notice a difference in your racing after all those months in France?
Alex: Yes, I definitely did. I came back and I wasn’t on good form, I had had bronchitis for the last month so I came back thinking that ‘oh man, I’m going to get to Tour of Pennsylvania and just get killed’. I ended up going into the race and I was actually doing pretty well, I did a lot of really good work for the team, we won best team. But the first day, I went out and I just raced like I would normally race in France, any average day and I got the most aggressive rider jersey. I thought ‘well I guess I should probably settle down’. (chuckles) I was out there going one hundred percent harder than most of the guys out there. Racing by myself just like in France.
Looking back at 2008, what was the best and worst of the year?
Alex: Best and worst of the year um I would say, the worst part of the year was the very end because I was a little bit sick, I had done too many races, too much training, I couldn’t pedal. I went out and did a kermesse in Belgium, it was my last race, I think I dropped out after 10 k[ilometers] or something, and the 10 k after I turned around were still hard, [I thought] ‘oh man, this is bad’, that was probably the worst. I think the best was probably … there was this little block in there, in early August, it was right after I did a training camp in the Alps, I was actually doing well in races and I got second in some race, I don’t even know what it’s called, but some race in France and right after, one of my best friends came out from the States and we all went to Paris, I had more fun that I thought it was possible that you can have in France. Paris was definitely better than Marseilles in my book.
What type of cyclist do you consider yourself now, a climber, a sprinter or an all arounder?
Alex: You know, it’s kind of interesting because everyone that seems me automatically assumes that I’m a climber because I’m a pretty skinny guy, relatively light I can climb all right whenever I train for it but the thing is, I don’t like to train for climbing (chuckles) it’s hard. I don’t know, I’m too skinny to be a pure sprinter. Tactically, mentally I think I have what it takes to be a decent sprinter but definitely I don’t have the physique for it, so I would say more of an all arounder.
You did some cobbled races like Paris-Roubaix Espoirs. Do you like those hard one-day races?
Alex: I really, really, really enjoyed Paris-Roubaix this year, they put me on the team as a last minute addition, they really didn’t think that I would be any good as I’ve just come out of a hard race and for some reason or another, it all just came together, I had good legs, it was a blast to race that race on those old French roads, tearing it up so that was a lot of fun. I kind of had some bad luck at the end with a flat tire, no support because our team leader was up front but it was a blast. Our team should be doing the U23 Roubaix next year, hopefully I’ll get put on the squad for that.
You’re coming back with the Slipstream organization in the U23 team. When did that happen, was it during Tour of PA?
Alex: It was actually more or less decided when I went to visit the team during the Tour [de France], I swung by Paris when they were finishing up there and all the staff was saying ‘hey we have this team for next year, it will be really good, talk to Vaughters’.
How happy are you to come back to race in the States?
Alex: I’m really happy to be racing with this team in particular, I have a lot of really good friends on there. I’m happy to be back in the States to race in the States but at the same time, I kind of have in the back of my head that my end goal is to be racing full-time in Europe. It’s not necessarily a step back but it’s kind of prolonging … dragging things out.
So when do you see yourself racing full-time in Europe again? Do you have a timeline?
Alex: Yes, I’m hoping to be there by the end of the U23s so in 2010 or 2011.
Well, Slipstream is doing mostly European races now.
Alex: It’s one of the best teams you could be on, not just as an American but as anybody. You should hear the Europeans talk about Slipstream, they talk pretty fondly of it.
What is it that they like about Slipstream?
Alex: It’s a clean team, it’s got a good image, it’s very charismatic. Good image.
Speaking of clean, with the doping infractions in the news, did it ever cross your mind to not continue in the sport?
Alex: There’s cheating in everything. The best you can do is as soon as you realize that, you don’t care anymore. I figure at a year in the University, I could study my ass off and there will still be kids out there that take alderol, stay up all night and learn twice as much as I can so … Honestly it doesn’t bother me, it sucks to be sitting in the crosswinds and have some Eastern Bloc guys sitting on the front, hasn’t been training at all but he’s still riding it at high watt threshold, that’s not very fun.
What do you want to do in 2009 with this Slipstream U23 team?
Alex: We’ve got a really good schedule, there are definitely some races that I’ve highlighted, look at trying to get good results, such as Olympia’s Tour U23 Roubaix, we’ll do some racing with the National team. The goal for next year, I’d like to get a couple of decent domestic results, more or less to prove to the people here at home that I didn’t go to waste my time over there, but obviously, the majority of my European campaign will be my focus, to build on what I learned this year and hopefully to pull it all together for next year.
Is there anyone in particular that you are looking forwards to race with on the team?
Alex: It’s hard to pick just one name on the team, we’ve got so many good guys. The whole Garmin-Chipotle team, we can learn from all those guys all the ProTour guys. On the U23 team, we have tons and tons of experience, we have Peter Stetina, Daniel Holloway, Caleb Fairly, Kirk Carlsen, Danny Sumerhill, so I think the whole year will be a learning experience. Hopefully, I can teach them something. (laughs) I’ll teach them some dirty phrases in French.
Good luck Alex and early birthday wishes.
Top photo courtesy of VC La Pomme. All other photos courtesy of Alex Howes.