What follows is an interview with Alex Howes the day before the day before Liège-Bastogne-Liège (La Doyenne or “the Oldest”). MFS was seated at a table in an apartment in Gent, Alex Howes was lying in bed in a hotel room in Genk. We talked about the Ardennes, his Giro Prospects and Traveling.
The Spring Classics
My notes going into the Ardennes were good:
- Look after Ryder and Dan.
- Be aggressive, move the race. Which means I get to attack and see what I’ve got, it’s always fun to make moves and get on TV.
But I’m sick and it’s effing up my Ardennes Mojo. I have a lingering cold or chest infection and the weather has been horrible, a lot of guys are having trouble. The two days leading up to Amstel Gold I thought I was getting better but the night before I didn’t sleep well and I started feeling sick all over again. That morning I didn’t feel good at all but during the race I felt good, my legs felt good, my form felt good, everything felt good; if I was healthy I would have been flying, which sucks to think about—to know.
Flèche was terrible, I pulled the pin, couldn’t get out of my own way.
Yesterday I had a bona fide nothing day. On nothing days I like to chill out, eat food, maybe get a coffee; I’m trying to stay away from coffee though—I’m trying to get my health in check. I’ve been talking to the doctors about weird dietary things: no bread, no sugar, trying to get the yeast out of my body, trying to deal with the Belgian mold situation.
Today I woke up, ate breakfast, got on the bus, drove to I don’t remember where for a recon (wherever the last 80k of Liège is), rode, got back on the bus, drove an hour and half back home, had a little lunch, took a nap, had a massage, did some chiro.
After Flèche my notes have changed. I’m taking more of a supportive role now.
Monday [after L-B-L] will be a total wash. I’ll be lucky to get a bowl of cereal down my throat and log onto Netflix with doctors coming in, chiros coming in, everybody checking in, tap-tapping my head, staff saying, “Hey, I couldn’t help but notice you rode like a bucket of assholes yesterday."
I’m on the long team. Once we get to Italy we’ll have to draw straws and/or arm wrestle to see who goes home—that and some actual racing and team time trial stuff. The big issue is the team time trial, we need a balance of climbers who can help Ryder in the hills and dudes who can throw down in the Team Time Trial. I suck at individual Time Trials but in Team Trials I’ve always come good, like in Utah last year, we had the dream team: Danielson, Zabriskie, etc., it was good. If I get selected to race the Giro, I’ll probably go to Utah and Colorado after that.
You don’t miss home if you neglect it. If you’re not living at home mentally, then you’re fine. But as soon as you start getting pictures of your dog, and you hear about all the snow, then you start missing home and you start thinking, "I wish was there, and you start thinking about your favorite coffee shop and talking to girls in English."1
I spend so much time in stretchy clothes. Like tomorrow, I’ll be in stretchy, relaxed clothes on the bus for the 2.5 hour round-trip commute to Liege—presentation is still kind of a novelty to me, that anybody wants my autograph is weird, standing on stage in kit and waving at people is weird—and I’ll be in kit (again, stretchy) for the 38 seconds I’m on stage during presentation, then when I’m training/riding/racing I’m in kit too, I’m always in stretchy clothes. I was in jeans for an hour the other day. I went to the store to buy chili sauce because in Belgium they actually have spicy shit, in Spain they don’t. Basically I spend a lot of time dressed like a depressed, recently laid-off gamer.
A lot of the people I’ve surrounded myself with don’t bother to give me advice they know I won't take.
Narration by Raoul Sturme
1. Place Saint Lambert, Liège (10:15am, 0km)
Scarred by a murder–suicide attack during the Christmas market in 2011. The attacker threw grenades and fired a rifle at civilians on this square. The attack killed six and left 125 others injured; seven of whom suffered serious injuries. The attacker then committed suicide.
2. Harzé (11:00 am, 27.5km)
Nothing special. Just a hop-off, hop-on spot on our way to the first climb of the day.
3. La Roche-en-Ardenne (12:00pm, 70km)
The first “climb” of the day “on paper,” The Ardennes is all hilly; this climb is 3km long with an average of 4%.
4. Côte de Saint-Roch (1:00pm, 116.5km)
Nice spot in Houffalize (also known as the Mountainbike Mecca of northern Europe). You can see the race coming downhill from the direction of Bastogne into Houffalize and a minute later you can see them behind you coming uphill. 1km with an average of 12%.
5. Côte de Stockeu (1:45pm, 166.5km)
Also known as Stéle Eddy Mercx. He won La Doyenne 5 times and the Stockeu was always his climb to attack. That’s why they named the climb after him and why they honored him with a statue on top of the climb. It’s also a nice spot because you can see them coming uphill first, then just behind you they come downhill after the peloton turns around at the top of the climb and descends a parallel street. The climb is 1k with an average of 10%.
6. La Redoute (3:00pm, 225km)
The opening of the finale, or the "pre-decision." The climb starts in the birthplace of Philippe Gilbert, Remouchamps/Aywaille. The climb is 2km long with an average of 9.5% and the steepest part is 22%.
Wallonia is reminiscent of West Virginia in many respects: the people, the mood, the obvious impact which now defunct, or antiquated, or just straight-up busted, large-scale industry has had on the economy and the environment. We asked Raoul who is Dutch (and not Belgian!) and who is by no means qualified to answer this question, "Why this is?" Here are is thoughts. Verbatim.
"How to explain the depressing look of Wallonia? It’s all about history, Walloons have always been in a minority—from the first Belgian census in 1846, when they were 42 per cent of the population and the Flemish 57 per cent. These relative numbers remained roughly the same a century later, leaving many Walloons afraid of being overruled by the Flemish. Bitter language battles, sometimes fought in the streets, led to a slow process of federalization from 1968 to 1993.
"Belgium was the first continental European country to industrialize, from 1800. Wallonia was the economic powerhouse of Belgium, and Belgium was a leading industrial country in Europe, despite its small size. The growing strength of separatist movements (Walloon and Flemish) was underpinned by changing economics. The new petroleum and chemicals industries that rapidly expanded from the 1950s were based around Antwerp and Ghent because of their ports. Other new industries grew there, producing goods such as cars, for delivery throughout the European Economic Community. On the other hand, coal and steel, Wallonia’s main source of employment were in decline. Wallonia now suffers from high unemployment and has a significantly lower GDP per capita than Flanders. The economic inequalities and linguistic divide between the two are still major sources of political conflict in Belgium.
"It explains the transition from smooth Dutch asphalt to Belgian concrete at the border of Maastricht/Liège, the transition from a nice maintained country with modern buildings to the poorly maintained Wallone with its red industry buildings and the Wallonians scarred faces."
Wallonia also reminds me of the steel town Clairton from the movie ‘Deer Hunter’.