Fresh starts are always a good thing, but after eight years plying his trade as a professional bike racer for Jonathan Vaughters’ Slipstream-run teams, it took a serious illness to slow Alex Howes down and force a protracted time off the bike, his first extended break since he took up racing as a junior in Colorado.
Now 31 and starting his eighth season in the WorldTour peloton, a hyperthyroid condition that was diagnosed last autumn meant Howes didn’t touch his bike for most of August, September and October. It was just the break he needed to recover his health and refresh his morale going into another professional season.
"It was the longest time off the bike, and I think that really helped, honestly," Howes told Cyclingnews this week in Colombia, where he was racing the Tour Colombia 2.1 in support of Dani Martinez and Rigoberto Uran.
"This is my eighth year in the WorldTour, and before that I wasn’t WorldTour, but it was pretty full on. I needed some time to step away from it and really not think about racing at all," he said. "It was pretty productive for me. Coming back I feel pretty hungry. Eight years in and this is my neo-pro season again. I’m pretty motivated."
Howes was diagnosed with the hereditary condition last fall after he abandoned the Tour of Utah before the start of the final stage. The rider known for rarely quitting a race had to drop out because he simply lacked energy to ride. The condition had robbed him of the power he had been building since adolescence.
"On the bike, in particular, I really couldn’t go,” he said. "I just couldn’t push. I was kind of anxious off the bike. I had a lot going on day to day. But I had anxiety, which I never really had before. On the bike, it was really noticeable. I could eat as much as I wanted, I could train as much as I wanted, but I just couldn’t go.
"I would train, and despite whatever I ate, nothing would go into my legs,” he said. "Any effort I put into the ride would just come straight out of my legs. I would wake up and they would literally look smaller the next day. And I couldn’t sleep. I would sleep four hours a night, and I would feel rested like I couldn’t really sleep more. It was weird.”
Howes said doctors put him on a governor, what he calls a “slow-down pill,” and the difference was like night and day.
"I wasn’t really going to be able to do treatment and then come back from it within the season, so it was just step back," he said. "With the mind and the body, there is definitely a connection there, so getting some time to sort of relax and not think about racing and focus on what I had to focus on really helped as well.”
Despite his time away from racing and off the bike completely, Howes had a pretty eventful autumn. He got married in October, bought a house and was being audited by the IRS. "I did a lot of living in those three months,” he said. "I really stacked it in there. Eight years worth of living in three months."
Howes understands the routine of a professional cyclist who spends the majority of his time on the road during the season and then only takes a brief time off the bike before ramping up training again for the next year. He said it’s easy to get stuck in the "rat race" of the cycling scene.
"You get your two weeks to a month off every year, and then it comes around again, and comes around again, and comes around again,” he said. “You find yourself in January thinking, ‘What the heck did I do with my off-season? Where did that go? What happened? Here we are again.’
"It was pretty refreshing to take a break. And honestly, physically I feel really good. Having that mental refresh really helped a lot. I don’t think the time off the bike really hurt me at all. It was pretty nice."
Making a return in Colombia
Howes started the 2019 season at Tour Colombia 2.1, where EF Education First put Rigoberto Uran in the leader’s jersey by winning the opening team time trial ahead of Deceuninck-QuickStep and Team Sky. Howes was on the front for the next stage, tapping out the pace to keep a breakaway in check before the sprinters’ teams took over to set up their fast men.
Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Alvaro Hodeg won the sprint at the end of the stage and took the race lead with a time bonus, but Uran was back in the jersey for stage 4, a difficult circuit race on a hot day in downtown Medellin.
Howes and teammate Taylor Phinney kept a six-rider breakaway at two minutes for most of the day, working again to protect Uran’s jersey. The chase was successful, but a last-kilometer attack from QuickStep’s Bob Jungels netted the Luxembourg champion the stage win and the overall lead. The difficult days in the saddle on the front of the peloton were exactly the type of test Howes was looking for in Colombia, and he appears to have passed.
"This is the first test," he said. "I wasn’t really supposed to be here. I originally was, and then with the team time trial they pulled me off and now I’m back on. So it was a little bit of a surprise. But I’m pretty excited to be here in particular. I can’t think of a better way to start the season."
With his legs now solidly underneath him, Howes is looking forward to starting a new season with a new outlook and refreshed motivation, although he said his calendar is still up in the air for the most part as he and the team discover how the illness will affect him long term.
"I’ll do Strade Bianche, but past that I can’t really say much. It’s all a work in progress," he said.
"This is kind of neo-pro year round two. I’ve told the team to throw me into anything and everything. Let me race, make me race, I want to race. I’m coming into everything with fresh eyes, and I’m just excited, honestly," he said. “I mean I’m doing Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne for the first time ever. They kind of threw it out there and I said, 'Yeah, sign me up.'"
Howes’ favourite WorldTour event has long been Amstel Gold Race, where he’s spent significant time in breakaways. He’d obviously like to return to the Dutch race, but nothing is guaranteed on a team that has a strong Ardennes roster that includes 2018 Liege-Bastogne-Liege runner-up Michael Woods. It all depends on how his early season goes and how his body responds to the workload.
"So far the body is responding really well," he said. "And personally I’m looking at it as business as usual, and business as usual for me means racing at Amstel. I’d like to do a good race there. It is hard because this team has a pretty stacked squad for the Ardennes. But that one in particular, I always have a star next to it."
But no matter which races he goes to or which teammates he’ll end up supporting, Howes is just happy to have a refreshed attitude and a body that will take him into yet another season.
"In a lot of ways, this is a second chance," he said. "So I’m pretty excited.”