Manual for Speed spoke with Alex Howes at Spruce Confections in Boulder, Colorado. It was early January, the day before the USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships. Alex wasn't in Boulder to race, he just lives here when he's not living in Girona, Spain. We asked him about last year. Then we asked him about this year. Taylor Swift was playing in the background. [Above photo from a 2013 photoshoot—also in Boulder, CO.]
Milan San Remo, "Man This is Stupid"
Milan San Remo last year sucked. We drove around for two hours in the morning before the start, then we started, then in snowed. It was awful. I saw Eastern Bloc guys crying. It's pretty rare that you see Ukrainian professional cyclists crying on their bicycles, tears freezing on their faces. It was terrible. Two inches of ice on the helmet, gears don't work, you can't see anything, Robbie Hunter thought he needed to have his eye removed because it was frozen, "My fouckin' eyeball is frozen!" You're standing in the shower during the race stoppage thinking, "Man, this is stupid." The showers ran out of hot water of course, so we boiled a bunch of water in the kettle and espresso machine and filled bottles to stuff in our clothes. Then we sat in the bus, in traffic, over the top of this mountain, hoping the race didn't start up again. Of course we got over the mountain and had to start the damn race again. Dumping cats and dogs, ice rain. We finished the race, and sure it was shortened, but it's Milan San Remo—it was still around 260km or something like that—and we finished in the dark under street lights. The media was talking about how the race was shortened, but the race is around 300km to start with. Abbreviated my ass. All of the staff and organizers are running around at the finish worried about taking care of the riders and they tell us, "Okay, the hotels are about a mile walk this way, the mechanics need your bike." So we walked to the hotel through a mile of standing water, it was like fording a river the whole way. We get back to two rooms with two showers for nine guys, shower up and get in the cars to drive 700km home. So in a day we drove about 1000km, raced 260km, got snowed on, took two showers, maybe got frostbite, went to three hotels and I got back to my house at 2:30 in the morning. I just sat there and ate an entire box of cereal. I was so shelled I couldn't even go to sleep. I watched a movie, I don't remember what it was.
More Suck, Switching Gears, Report Cards; the Ardennes, the Giro, the Vuelta
It also sucked that I crapped the bed in all of the Ardennes and then missed the Giro. I really want to do the Giro. But it all came around well, I did the Vuelta instead and that was fun. It was a good race but it was tough after Dan crashed-out. I went into the race full gas as a climbing domestique for Dan, but after his crash the whole team had to switch gears and ride for Tyler; I went from being a climbing domestique to being part of a leadout train. But I did it as well as I could and I think everyone was happy with the race. Tyler was fully capable of winning a number of those stages, so it wasn't like we could go off and do our own thing. There are only five or so sprints in the race, but if you win a stage you're pretty much set, and Tyler was our best shot so we had to focus on that. And we came close. But that's how it works: we lost Dan, our next best bet was Tyler.
We don't get a report card at the end of the year, but we do Director's Meetings in November, where they lay out the schedule and say, "We're happy with how you did here and here." I don't know if it's just Garmin's style, but it's generally a pretty positive meeting, we focus on the positives and look into the future. There isn't much, "We were happy with you at the Vuelta, but you really shit the bed in the Ardennes." It's not like they ignore things though, like say if the reason I was sick before the start of Amstel was because I'd stayed out all night drinking and passed out in the rain on a curb—they'd mention that and maybe have some problems with it. Leading up to the Giro selection, the Director called me up and he was like, "Look, we've been looking at your data and our physiologist thinks you'll be flying by the third week of the Giro, and we're happy about that. That's where we stand, you're in the running, and keep it up." A week later I was kaput, sidelined. I just got sick. I wasn't sleeping on a park bench or anything; it just happens. To be honest, it looked like a pretty rough race this year. I was really bummed I missed it but it looked like a hard go morale-wise. Ryder pulled the plug as the defending champion, that's hard on the team. And nobody on the team really had a great race, though Ramunas [Navardauskas] looked good. It just looked tough weather-wise, morale-wise. I was sick, at home, trying to recover. Based on where I was at, I don't think I missed much.
Poland Was A Surprise
Poland was a surprise. I liked it a lot, and I rode really well. It was a bit out of nowhere; I had that crappy spring and coming back I had those silly thoughts you get, "Uhhhohhh I'm retiring, this sucks!" I was tapped out, I would train hard for a week, then wouldn't ride for a week. I was having a moment, you know? Some head stuff. Then I came to Poland and I was flying. I thought, "Huh." Mentally, physically, spiritually, metaphysically, it's hard to get yourself back in it after a tough stretch. I was talking to Lachlan last summer, this was before Utah and Colorado, and he was in the same sort of mindset. You can't be quick to make any decisions though, you have to give yourself a chance. And then at Colorado you saw how good Lachlan is, he's incredible. With the depth there is in the peloton right now, unless you're really hitting it, your life probably sucks. I don't know how you deal with that. Sometimes it just sucks. It's a metaphor for life, which is cheesy but it's true. You just keep going, give it time. The hardest thing is that the change happens over months. You might be really bad for a few months before you're good for one. And a month is a long time. That's 30 days times 24 hours. If you're really bad for two or three months, that's a long time be down. It sucks. But you have your directors, you have your friends. I think most of us are lucky in that we have our own small communities in which we are little celebrities: "Hey, you're the guy from here that rides for Garmin!" All those people help.
Spanish Speaking, Dolphins
It's 2014 now, I made some New Year's Resolutions. I need to study Spanish at least once a week. I'm plugging away at it, I just need to keep going. There's another one (another resolution), but I can't remember it right now. I wrote it down though, I promise it does exist. Anyway like I was saying I need Spanish. You have to be able to communicate. That's what separates us from the lower animals. Well, dolphins can talk. But actually dolphins are higher animals, like orcas. But yeah, communication is important. It's the same for MFS right; that's what you do, you communicate through pictures and words. I can't rely solely on pictures in Girona, Spain. I have to use words. And if I'm going to live there half the year, I might as well live there.
Little Pieces Make You Realize
I'm where I want to be. I feel like both seasons I've been pro, despite not blowing the doors off anyone or winning anything major, I've had snapshots of what I'm after. If you just have a handful of good races—and obviously I want more than that—sometimes that's enough to keep going. "Okay, I had a big Amstel in 2012, I rode well in Poland, I was strong at the Vuelta, I had a great World Championships." Little pieces make you realize that you don't suck at racing bikes and that you do deserve to be where you are.
I feel like you need something outside of racing, something that is easier to own for yourself. I'm not sure I have that though. I do keep myself pretty well entertained wherever I am, little projects going on. Even little things like the Book Club, or the silly cards that we made; little things that might not even be related to bikes, that let me express myself a little bit. I'm writing a blog this year for Competitive Cyclist. I gotta figure out what to write about. Maybe I should just write about Manual for Speed the whole time.
Nationals and Both Sides of the Patriotic Spectrum
I'm trying to figure out how to fit it into my schedule, but I really want to win Nationals in May. I'm planning on hitting the Ardennes hard, and I'm hoping to be around in July. It'll be tough, but I think I can be good enough to win Nationals. The course in Chattanooga suits me well enough. California is right beforehand, so I'd head straight from that to Tennessee. It's always been on my list, and I've always ridden well at Nationals. I just don't think there is anyone in the Pro Peloton who is as much of a True Patriot as I am, nobody can do that jersey justice like I can. I'm talking Eagles, Flags, Liberty, Barbecue, Everything American—I'm talking using guns to fight for gay marriage. Both sides of the spectrum. I've spent so much time abroad that I really love America for everything that it is. I've seen how things work all over the world, and I've learned to see a lot of the flaws in America, but I think I can do that jersey justice.