DENVER (VN) — The symmetry between close friends Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp) and Kiel Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) during this year’s USA Pro Challenge was profound.
Both men won took one stage victory, bookending the race — Reijnen on the opening stage, in Aspen, and Howes, on the closing stage, in Denver.
Both men wore the yellow race leader’s jersey for one day.
Both men beat the other to the line in taking their stage victories.
And after the stage finish in Denver, decided by a bike throw in a photo finish, both men were fighting back tears.
Howes, who hails from Golden, Colorado, could not contain his emotions after winning the stage, which began a block from his home, in downtown Boulder, traveled past his elementary school and high school in Golden, up and over Lookout Mountain, and then finished in front of the state capitol in Denver.
“The emotion that best describes it is pride,” Howes said. “A lot of the Europeans we race with, they don’t really understand what America is. They think it’s Las Vegas, or New York City, or Miami. To me, this is America — big open mountains, little towns… it’s home. It’s beautiful. And having the opportunity to show that off to the world, the opportunity to ride over my home mountain, on Lookout… I was very proud.”
Howes said his emotion wavered between pride and the feeling of satisfaction of delivering after his Garmin teammates invested fully in bringing him to the finish in prime position.
“For whatever reason, our directors decided to believe in me from day one, here in Colorado,” Howes said. “I came up just short on the first two days… they came onto the bus today, and there was no question on what we were going to do. They threw it down, and the team said, ‘okay, we’re going to try.’ The team lit it up for me over Lookout Mountain, had me totally pegged the whole way over, but it’s kind of hard to drop me on my home mountain. They kept it all the way until the line. I really can’t emphasize how much guys like Phil Gaimon, and Janier Acevedo, and Caleb Fairly, even Tom Danielson, those guys are just absolute weapons, and they fired today. This means everything to me.”
Howes, 26, and Reijnen, 28, train together in Boulder, and the Garmin rider referred to Reijnen as his best friend.
“We train together all the time,” Howes said. “You hear people say, ‘Oh yeah, we’re good friends, and we’re training partners,’ but we really are probably best friends. I hate losing to him. I hate beating him. I don’t know what to do with him. But it means a lot to me to be up on the podium with him.”
Reijnen crossed the finish line relieved to have secured the green points jersey, but bitterly disappointed to have missed out on the stage win — particularly after his UnitedHealthcare teammate Ben Day, in his final race as a professional, dug deep to put Reijnen in position to win.
Though he had been in perfect position, Reijnen was impeded in the sprint by race leader Tejay van Garderen, who was riding leadout for teammate Michal Schär; van Garderen swung off, to his left, causing Reijnen to stop pedaling and also swerve left, opening the door for Howes to come up the left barriers for the win.
“I’m brokenhearted for my guys,” Reijnen said moments after crossing the line. “You saw the way they rode out there. That was Ben’s last day as a bike racer, and he just left everything he had on the road for me. It feels a lot more emotional than winning on the first day. I really felt like I had it today. I got stuck behind Tejay there, when he swung off. I had to pick a side, and I knew I’d picked wrong, and had to hit the brakes. Losing it by a mile is one thing, but in a bike throw…
“Alex really wanted a stage win here, and he deserved it. I’m not taking anything away from him. He’s my best friend. It’s motivating. We’re both in front of our home crowds. I think that was a big factor for both of us. I’ve got my family here, visiting, and I wanted to put on a show for them, but mostly it was about my guys today. Ben put his whole heart on the road for me, and to do that on your last day as a bike racer, for somebody else, I just can’t describe what means for me.”
“The team had two goals coming into this race,” Reijnen said, “to win a stage, and to win the green jersey. Today was a close one. Anyone watching the race could see how hard my guys rode for me. It was a bit heartbreaking, to not pull off a win for them, but I am really satisfied. It’s been an honor for everyone who is from Colorado. It’s been really special. We got to start in Boulder, where Alex and I live, to Golden, to Denver, where my wife grew up. It’s been really special. It really is an honor.”