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Olympics 2021: Alex Howes isn’t holding out hope — but he’s still hopeful

Howes hopes to finally make the U.S. Olympic team after several close calls.

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It’s early May when Alex Howes and I link up on a call, and Howes has already been home in Colorado for about a week when a late-spring snowstorm delivers a dump to his mountain backyard. After two months away racing in Europe he’s just happy to be home with his wife, dog, and newborn daughter, riding his mountain bike, and eating something other than avocados, eggs, and rice.

If Howes doesn’t seem like someone who’s stressed about whether or not he’s going to the Olympics in 2021 that’s because he’s not.

“I really wanna go but at the same time I’ve grown up a bit and realized that not going to the Olympics isn’t gonna end my life,” Howes says. “Of course, I’m pushing for it, but I’m also just trying to see how it goes.”

Howes during one of his ‘alternative’ efforts: riding from Boulder, Colorado to the Kansas border. Photo Joey Schusler / EF Pro Cycling

There are a few reasons why Howes is choosing to stay calm about the undecided Olympic selection. One — at this point, he can’t change anything.

Results after May 1 don’t factor into the selection. Furthermore, Howes says, he still believes that the ongoing pandemic makes predicting who will be put on the team even less certain.

“There are a lot of balls up in the air and a lot of opportunities for things to be shaken up even at the last minute,” he says. 

But the most salient reason that Howes isn’t putting all of his eggs in the Olympics basket is that he knows how easily the dream can disappear.

In 2012, Howes felt like he was a shoo-in for Team USA, but he crashed and broke his collarbone in a training ride prior to the games. Then, in 2016, he lost out on the two-man selection by Taylor Phinney and Brent Bookwalter, who both had better results in individual time trials than Howes.

Missing out on the opportunity to represent the U.S. at the Olympics dealt Howes an outsized blow, both because he was so close and because of the stakes of competing for Team USA.

“Especially in America, the Olympics are such a big deal that it can’t not be a goal,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to go. Both times I was completely heartbroken, to be honest.”

Howes isn’t one of those people who remembers the moment he knew he wanted to go to the Olympics. But he does remember when the possibility became a reality.

“When I was younger the Olympics seemed like such a big show and production, it didn’t really seem feasible to be an Olympian,” he says. “The idea of being an Olympian — if you tell your teacher, ‘I’m gonna go the Olympics’ it’s like saying I’m gonna be the president of the United States. It’s so far out there. As I grew up and became a pro racer full-time, the goal seemed feasible. Even before it became remotely within reach, it was a big goal.”

While he waits for the high country snow to melt so he can ride his mountain bike before the next race block, the American national champion exudes a sense of ease about the uncertainty of his ticket to Tokyo. He’s hopeful without holding out hope.

“It’s hard to sit here and say I should go,” he says. “[Brandon] McNulty’s had a big spring, Sepp [Kuss] is one of the top three climbers in the world if he’s had his day. But, at the same time, we don’t know how things will shape up, and there’s time between now and when the race kicks off in Tokyo. We will see, anything can happen. Like I said, I was supposed to go in 2012.”