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Alex Howes: ‘If you want to race in America you have to be capable on the dirt’

The American veteran isn’t thinking about retirement yet as he savors a program that combines the WorldTour and gravel.

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It’s unclear and undecided as to whether 2022 will be Alex Howes’s final season in the WorldTour, but the American veteran is keen to make the most of every opportunity as he combines European road racing with a number of high profile off-road ambitions.

The 34-year-old will make his road season debut Wednesday at Milan-Turin but within a matter of weeks he’ll be at Sea Otter racing mountain bikes, before flipping back to gravel. That’s his season in a nutshell as he combines a variety of disciplines with a calendar on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I’m going to bouncing around in Europe doing some road stuff but if I’m completely honest with you it’s going to be a month-to-month plan,” Howes told VeloNews just before traveling to Europe.

“We have a basic schedule with the Life Time Grand Prix, and the gravel stuff, but in a lot of ways, I’m going to be on the fire drill and waiting for the call to come. That’s the way that I wanted it though.”

Howes raced a handful of gravel races in 2021 and he came away with a major win at SBT Gravel. Travel issues during the first two years of the pandemic – combined with the birth of his first child – brought the American to a point in his career at which he began to reevaluate his situation. A dearth of road racing in North America, coupled with the explosion of gravel, created an opportunity for Howes to dovetail his passions and balance family life back in the U.S.

“It’s funny because in the U.S, if you want to race in America, you have to be capable on the dirt at this point. Whether that be gravel or mountain bike,” he said.

“There just isn’t any road racing at the moment. Maryland is coming in, which is cool, but the pandemic has made travel tough, and while 2022 will be better, it’s taken a real toll. In a lot of ways I just want to be home more in the U.S. I still enjoy road racing, which I guess is unfortunate in that I wish I could just say screw road racing and make the switch but there’s still something about going way too fast with a team of riders behind in you a field of 180 riders that still scratches an itch that I have.”

Alex Howes running to the win of Old Man Winter Rally 2022. (Photo: Eddie Clark)

Contract negotiations at EF-Education EasyPost weren’t difficult but they did take time over the winter. At one point Howes actually signed with the team’s newly formed Continental squad as he looked to predominantly focus on gravel during the season. However his experience on the road was highly valuable for the WorldTour team too. He is the longest-serving rider at Slipstream Sports, having signed with the team as a teenager before graduating to their professional setup in 2007.

Over the last 12 months a number of Howes’s peers have begun to step away from the WorldTour, with Tejay van Garderen, Kiel Reijnen and Brent Bookwalter all moving into new directions. Howes was at that crossroads at the end of 2021 with his contract up for renewal, and while he certainly considered other options there was little chance of him moving to another WorldTour team.

“A lot of my close friends and people that I share birth years with were dropping like flies. I think, again, that this goes back to the logistics of the pandemic. It put a time stamp on a lot of riders a lot quicker than they expected. I wanted to keep racing but I wanted to be more based in the States. I was looking for ways to make that happen. I had a couple of options, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be more on my own but we talked quite a bit, EF and I, to be on the Continental team and doing some back and forth with more focus on the gravel. I actually signed with that program at one point but then we talked and we decided to just simplify things and keep me on the WorldTour team because of the schedule we’d made. It gave the team an experienced rider, as and when they needed it,” Howes added.

“I’ve definitely been around for a while but EF was where I wanted to stay. I wasn’t going to go off and sign for a different WorldTour team. There was always a potential that I would need to sort my own thing out and put my own personal program together but this was where I wanted to stay.”

If Howes has one more individual ambition on the road for the coming few months, it’s to race and finish Il Lombardia. The Italian monument has beaten the Americans in their previous two encounters, and while the season is long and there will no doubt be plenty of alterations in plans and schedules, Howes has his eyes on the iconic race. Who knows, maybe it will be his swansong on the road but for now the EF rider is simply focused on making the most of each race he lines up at.

“As far as overall, it’s funny because it’s hard to make a list of things I need to do before I’ done because when I show up to a WorldTour race I end getting an experience out of it that I never saw coming in the first place. I definitely enjoy getting those experiences at this point in my career. It’s rewarding.”

“I’m not thinking about that retirement just yet. The second that you start to think about retirement you end up on the floor, basically. I’m focused on having a good start to the year and more than anything I just want to enjoy the season. I want to hit it as hard as I can and savor every moment. I don’t know when the clock is going to be up for me so I’m going to soak it up while it’s still ticking.”