Alex Howes (EF Education-Nippo) describes the possibility of winning La Flèche Wallonne from the breakaway as ‘the longest of long shots’ but his odds went out even further when he was forced onto a neutral service bike on the first ascent of the Mur de Huy.
The American champion had to stop 100 metres shy of the summit of the achingly-steep climb to swap his trusty Cannondale – which had a problem on the rear wheel – for a mysterious machine decked in the blue of Shimano, provider of neutral mechanical support for the race.
"I think that’s the first time I’ve ridden a neutral bike in my decade as a professional rider, so I get to check that off the list I guess," Howes told Cyclingnews the day after the race.
It’s unclear what exactly Howes was riding. Shimano normally use Pinarello Dogma F12s for races in Belgium and the Netherlands but this wasn’t one. Elsewhere they have used the Pardus Robin SL, but this was a disc brake bike.
Whatever it was, "it certainly didn’t feel good," according to Howes.
"I felt like I was a kid riding my dad’s bike or something. The saddle was pretty high and the bars were pretty wide. Everything was pretty off but I was certainly thankful to have it when I did.
"In a funny way it was almost nice; when you get deep into a race, especially when you’ve been curled up in the same position in the breakaway the whole time, it’s almost like getting a whole new body – like what are these muscles I haven’t used for years?!”
There were to be even more mechanical problems while he was on it, however.
Thankfully, it had Speedplay pedals to match his cleats, although it’s unclear if they had a dedicated bike or attached the pedals when they saw he was having issues. By luck, the saddle height was roughly correct, but the seatpost turned out to be loose.
"There was a quick release bolt and initially I didn’t do anything because it was close enough but it did slip quite a lot, almost all the way to the top tube, so I had to open that up and raise the saddle back up. Then it dropped again, so I ended up doing that a couple of times."
Only one team car
If Howes had never needed to call on neutral support before, it begs the question: Why now?
The answer is linked to the pandemic. In normal circumstances each team has two cars in the race, each with directeurs in the seats, bikes on the roofs, and supplies in the back. If a team gets a rider in the breakaway, one car will be allowed to move up to follow them, while the other stays behind the peloton.
Due to logistical constraints, EF Education only have two directeurs in one vehicle at the Ardennes Classics.
"In my mind it’s best to have them in one car, rather than two. One guy can drive and the other can actually think about the race. It makes it safer for them and for the riders, and I think they get better tactical decisions out of it as well," Howes said.
"On the fly, you have to make that decision of whether to follow me in the breakaway – and you probably have to go back to pre-War days to find someone who won Flèche from a breakaway – or stay behind the peloton with our leaders. In the end we had the issue up front but in a pretty dangerous race like Flèche you’re almost guaranteed to need the car in the peloton."
There was another twist in the tale, and another layer of mystery, as Howes ditched his surrogate frame and suddenly appeared on a Cannondale once again with 45km to go.
The bike was delivered from the Shimano team, suggesting they may have gone back to EF's peloton car, but that was likely not the case.
"If I’m honest, I’m not entirely sure how they got it," Howes said. "I think it came from the bus. I think the mechanics at the bus saw what happened, bee-lined it and met the Shimano team somewhere out on course. That’s how I understood it. I’m still trying to work out myself how it all happened.
"I don’t think it was my direct spare that was on the roof of the team car. It was my bike but I think it was the first time I’ve ridden that one. The position wasn’t quite where I thought it should be, but it was fine."
All in all, it was an eventful day out for Howes, and certainly not how he’d envisaged it that morning, finishing a little more than eight minutes behind winner Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep).
“Honestly, it was not the plan to go in the break," he said. "I was trying to help Hideto [Nakane] get in there but he had a small crash and I was still up there near the front sniffing around, following wheels, and the next thing I know I’m in the break at Flèche Wallonne.
"I felt kind of an idiot, because I head a vest on, way too many clothes, a bunch of food in my pockets. I was sweating like a pig, trying to get rid of all my stuff.
"In the end we had a great group going, so I wanted to stick with it and see how far we could get, even with all the things going wrong. I was of the mind that it wasn’t going to change the end result, so it wasn’t worth throwing a hissy fit over it."
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