Techno music pumped and strobe lights flashed inside a packed stadium in Gent, Belgium this past Saturday. American Alex Howes rode across the presentation stage before the start of Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. He wasn’t even supposed to be here today.

As sometimes happens in pro cycling, Howes got a last-minute call to race the first cobblestone race of the season. Howes wasn’t about to let the unexpected schedule shift detract from that moment in Gent. He soaked in the excitement of Belgium’s cobblestone opener. In fact, he went on the attack and rode off the front for the majority of the 200-kilometer spring classic.

“It’s a different world. It’s a different universe that I’ve never seen,” he said. “I rode through that totally packed stadium … Alright, this is for real.”

The story of Howes’s unexpected start in Gent began the Wednesday before the race. Howes was slated to race Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne, and was out on a training ride in Girona, Spain, before his trip to Belgium. The phone rang, and it was his team director. Moreno Hofland had been slated to race Omloop, but due to illness he was out, and EF needed a replacement rider.

“I was getting ready to head out for a ride,” he said. “I had a long one planned. They called me and said, ‘Hey can you get on a taxi in 45 minutes?’ I was like, ‘How about we take the later flight?’ I had a couple of hours to get my stuff together and that was it.”

Howes’s 2019 schedule is less predictable than in years past because he is recovering from hyperthyroidism. The condition forced him to abandon the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah last August and put racing on hold. Unsure how soon he’d return to full strength, the EF team didn’t want to throw too much at the 31-year-old in the first half of the season.

“With thyroid thing, we really had no idea how I’d be going,” he said. “Particularly early on, the idea was I’d do a light spring, do a couple training camps, couple races here and there, but mostly just feel it out and find the legs and do a heavier summer and fall program.”

So he headed off to Belgium earlier than expected to race on cycling’s hallowed roads — many of which he’d only seen before on TV coverage of the races.

Howes
Howes rode into the team presentation at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Ninove. Photo: Luc Claessen/Getty Images

During his tenure with the Slipstream organization, going back to his days as an under-23 rider, Howes had always been tapped for races with lots of climbing. He knows races like Volta a Catalunya, Vuelta a Pais Vasco, and the Ardennes classics very well. But as soon as he rolled out onto the cobblestones for a recon ride, he could tell he had entered a new realm of pro cycling.

“I’m pretty happy I did the recon … Even with the recon, I was borderline clueless where all the corners are,” he said. “It is amazing how well those guys know the courses. They grow up racing on them.

“The best advice I got was to make sure I didn’t miss the break. The safest place to ride cobbles is way away from everybody else.”

Howes was partly joking. But there was a good reason for him to go up the road. His EF team wanted him as an insurance policy. As the action kicks off in the second half of the race, pinch points on the narrow Belgian roads, up and down the cobbled climbs, can cause crashes or splits. If his team leader Sebastian Langeveld lost all his lieutenants, hopefully, Howes would be just up the road to help out.

Since this was his first run at Omloop — his first start at any major cobbled classic — Howes found he could make that crucial daylong breakaway without aggravating the peloton.

“It took a little foxing around, but I don’t think it was too hard to convince the other teams to let the pink pseudo-climber go up the road,” he joked, referring to his team’s distinctive pink-and-purple kit.

As he had hoped to do, Howes made it to the final 50 kilometers of the race, with his four-man breakaway.

He faded back to finish 58th, a little more than six minutes behind the winner Zdenek Stybar. Though he did his job, EF’s Langeveld could only manage 15th in the peloton’s sprint for sixth place behind the chase group.

The experience itself was more memorable than the result for Howes.

“It was surreal to see the fans out there,” he said. “I was amazed at how many people knew my name. You have these stoic Belgian fans … They knew my name and I was like, ‘Wow that’s cool.'”

Plus, Howes is seeing some of his best power numbers in years when he looks at the data from his bike’s power meter. That indicates that his recovery from the thyroid disorder is mostly resolved. Now, he just needs to sharpen up for the demands of WorldTour racing. And what better place to do that than the cobbled climbs of Flanders?

“I have noticed there’s definitely an edge that I’m still looking for in races, but I think that’ll come when I get race miles in the legs,” he said. “These last two days were really straight into the deep end.”