Alex Howes is a 23-year-old rider from Golden, Colorado. Along with being one of the most promising riders of his generation, with an under 23 national title to his name, he was the youngest stagiaire in 2007. Having ridden as part of Sliptream's programme since a young age – with a year of racing in France thrown in – he is on course to turn professional, possibly in 2012.
And we're live in 3, 2, 1…
"Hello, and welcome to KGFO radio. We're here at the US professional road championships in Greenville, South Carolina. The riders, or the peloton as they're known, are gathering at the start line. To my left is defending champion George Hincapie, who rode with the legendary Lance Armstrong. Next to him we have HTC's hottest US talent Tejay Van Garderen and just yards away stands Danny Pate, also of HTC. The sun is out, the organisers are expecting fast, edge of your seat racing, and we'll be bringing you updates all day, so stay tuned to KGFO. Back to you in the studio."
The radio presenter, a young man no older than mid-20s, adjusts his earpiece as the link to the radio studio crackles through and as the station's producer calls for an ad break. The presenter's ill-fitting suit grips to his saturated back in the heat, and he scratches at the collar as he loosens his top button. He's a nervous wreck, and it's understandable. It's his first day in the job and he's been sent to cover an event he knows next to nothing about: a bike race.
The producer barks through: "What the hell is that noise behind you? It sounds like you're in a jazz bar, not a f*cking bike race. Pull it together."
The presenter's sweaty brow crimples in the heat, and small beads of perspiration trickle down from the sides as he squints in the direction of the unfamiliar noise that ruined his last broadcast. In front of him stands a lean, chiselled face, but stretched out in full racing gear. Something's different though.
While most of the riders present are either signing autographs, or staring ahead into the distance, this athlete looks more like a street entertainer than a man about to thrash out 400 watts for several hours.
"It's a kid, boss, with a harmonica, boss. He's in lycra though, he must be riding."
There's a long pause. The presenter checks his watch, and then waves in the direction of the rider, flagging his hand downwards in a frantic motion so that he'll stop with the musical weapon.
The radio producer barks into the presenter's ear: "Talk to him. If he's riding, talk to him. Make it interesting for once. Can you do that?"
Alex Howes, lips pressed to the harmonica, bumbling his way through a tune, is starting to draw a crowd. He notices the presenter waving at him through his Transitions-lensed Oakleys – first the flapping arms and then as he approaches with his microphone, tripping over its lead and almost falling into George Hincapie as he nervously moves through the sea of riders.
Howes, a 23-year-old with Team Chipotle, Slipstream's development team, is only 20 minutes away from the start of the national championships, arguably the biggest one-day race of the year, and while the majority of the field are flexing quads and knuckle crunching, the maverick American is foot tapping away as he blasts through the tension.
"Hey kid. I need you to stop, and I need you to be interviewed on local radio. Can you do that for me?" asks the presenter.
"Yes, now. Well be live in 20 seconds or so," he says, putting his hand on Howes' shoulder.
Howes has been with the Slipstream clan (feeder team to Garmin-Cervelo) since 2007, signing as a promising junior after a number of stellar performances. He spent a year in France, riding for VC la Pomme, before returning to the US and picking up a place with Slipstream's under 23 development team for the start of 2009.
A solid puncher with a decent enough turn of speed, he has progressed rapidly in the last two seasons, winning the US under 23 championships in 2009, finishing second a year later and picking up five top 10 finishes so far in 2011. Twice he has come close to turning professional but 2012 is set to be his year.
"I've been around with these guys for a long time. In 2008 I was with VC la Pomme, a French team but other than that I've been with these guys and working my way through the ranks," he says as the radio interviewer bumbles through his first question.
"I was riding well locally and Jonathan Vaughters, the Garmin boss, he saw something that he liked. He sent me an email, I think, it was all pretty low key. Back then it was just a local team, of course it had Vaughters's name behind it but other than that it wasn't anything too big. We were doing the standard road trips to races and living out of the back of vans. It wasn't the big time."
The radio presenter now is in full flow: "Wow, you raced in France. An American bike rider in France, ladies and gentlemen. Just like Lance Armstrong, huh?"
Howes courteously smiles: "Not quite," he says. "France was interesting. It was one of those things where you really don't know what to expect before you go. I really didn't have a good season there, whether or not it was mental or physical, I don't know. I really struggled that year. If I was serious about riding I was told that I needed to head to Europe and race, for at least one year. I did the minimum."
The presenter interrupts: "Listeners we have to go to another commercial break but join us in just a couple of moments. Who knows, maybe Alex, or should I say the next Lance Armstrong, will give us a tune on the harmonica of his."
Howes bashfully looks down, breathes in through his teeth but doesn't answer.
"Thanks kid, you really saved me there. Are you okay to chat a bit more? We shouldn't be too long but my producer wants to carry on."
"Sure, the race is starting in 15 minutes or so but that's cool," Howes says.
"France sounded tough," the presenter says as he adjusts his ear piece, the adverts playing in the background.
Howes reaches back, slipping the harmonica down into his jersey pocket.
"When I came home I had $35 in my bank account but I just had to make it happen. I had to give my career everything. I want to do something special in this sport," he explains.
"I don't think my parents understood just how poor I was at the time though. When I came back home I sold a load of my stuff and moved in with a house full of lesbians. It was the cheapest place in town. I trained really hard and decided that I wanted to do this, but that in order to take that step I really needed to commit."
"You know, I jumped to France thinking that I knew more of the language than I did and that I'd be able to pick it up, which was a mistake to say the least. I had issues, I was sick in March and it took me a long time to come back from that. I came back to the US in June and had a blood test. I was fully fried and totally anaemic. It's funny though, it was one of the hardest moments of my life but if you ask me ‘what do you remember from that entire period', the first thing that comes into my mind is a memory of sitting on my own and eating a lot of croissants. Go figure. It's not the racing, it's not the pain, it's not the disappointment or any of that. It's me, sitting in a French square, eating croissants."
The two men chuckle and the presenter offers Howes a reassuring smile as the two continue to wait for the adverts to end. Howes is given a quick tap on the shoulder by a Kelly Benefit Strategies rider as he saunters past and towards the sign-in, but before Howes can greet him properly, the presenter pulls him about face.
"So we're here at the start line of the US Pro Championships, in Greeeeeenville, South Carolina. With me, I have Chipotle's star man, Alex Howes. Alex, we've talked France, we've talked racing, now tell me about your team. Tell me about Chipotle."
Howes scratches the back of his head as the presenter looks up, eyes eager for punchy answer. Now live on radio, the candid nature has been fenced off and Howes has to think about his response before answering.
"Well, like said, they're the team I've always been with. But you know the development team is really special. You want to know about the harmonica? Well, we were down in El Paso and stuck between races. There was no way out and no flight for two whole days. So me and the guys went off and bought a load of crap."
The presenter winces.
"Sorry, I mean junk. The other guys bought a couple of radio controlled cars and I bought this harmonica from a pawn shop. The cars got run over by a bus but I'm getting the hang of the harmonica. You know you can go onto YouTube, type in harmonica and a load of lessons come up.
"But anyway, the team, they're great. And its important to have young kids like us racing in the US domestic scene to shake it up. Young guys need to keep coming into the sport to help it continue to develop."
The presenter's ear is burning again, his producer demanding a speedy end to the interview, in order to make room for another advertising slot.
"Well thanks for joining us Alex, and good luck in today's race."
"Back to you in the studio."
The presenter sighs with relief as he removes the earpiece. The interview done, Howes shakes hands and begins to clip into his pedals before making his way to the start.
"I have to ask, why the harmonica? I mean, I know where you got it but you didn't say why? And shouldn't you be focussed on the race like the rest of these guys?"
"It helps me relax I guess", replies Howes. "Everyone here is so stressed but I race better when I'm not a bundle of nerves. You just have to go into like there are no fears and no worries and just be spontaneous. That's the way I have to be."
Howes softly pedals towards the line, leaving the presenter.
“Harmonica, huh? Maybe I should try one of those.”
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