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Can Alex Howes win U.S. mountain bike nationals? ‘I don’t think it’s impossible’

This Saturday WorldTour road pro Alex Howes will try to win the U.S. cross-country MTB national title in Winter Park, Colorado.

Things were going swimmingly for Alex Howes (EF Education – Nippo) at the Firecracker 50 mountain bike race in Breckenridge, Colorado last Sunday, July 4th. Howes was hanging at the front of the race with four-time national XC champ Howard Grotts thinking he had a second-place finish in the bag.

Then, he crumbled.

“I dunno, we just drove up in the morning, trying to get my mother-in-law, baby, and wife in the car at 6:30 a.m. meant I totally forgot to eat breakfast,” Howes told VeloNews. “I had a granola bar 45 minutes before. I was totally unprepared for a four-hour rocket fest. I was doing really well coming into the last downhill, then I bonked my face off and pretty much walked down the last hill. I was like, ‘you’re an idiot man.’ There’s the not-experienced MTB’er thing and there’s being an idiot.”

Howes hopes that the idiot part doesn’t come into play at Saturday’s U.S. national championship XC mountain bike race. Based on his performance — not the part of the forgotten breakfast — at the Firecracker 50, as well as some local Boulder-area short track events, Howes thinks he has a chance at the singletrack stars and stripes.

“I don’t think it’s impossible for me to win it,” he said. “I think if I don’t smoke myself on some rock on the downhill or forget to eat breakfast and lunch I think I’ll be somewhere in there. But I also have no idea what ‘in there means.’ I think I’m within 10 percent of the front guys. I was telling my director, ‘it’s not impossible that I could win.’ But I also think that I could be 19th. I have no idea.”

An alternative to the ‘Alt Calendar’

It’s becoming more common to see professional cyclists jumping across disciplines, from the likes of phenoms Pauline Ferrand Prévot and Mathieu van der Poel, to riders who simply love to compete on different terrain in the off-season.

Howes fits into the latter category, but said that, for him, racing on singletrack and also gravel isn’t part of some larger trend or team program. Rather, once he got a handle on being a WorldTour pro, he was able to also dabble in other events back home.

“When I turned WorldTour, there was no such thing as gravel racing,” he said. “Anytime I was home I was jumping in stuff. When I was younger the focus as 100 percent full-on WorldTour. and a lot of that is because it has to be mentally. You are really learning so much when you’re younger. You need to think about it all the time, train and race, train and race.

“But once  you get into the groove a little bit you can find some flexibility. This makes it a lot easier for me to be a WorldTour pro because it keeps things fresh and I’m not out there trying to knock out 30 hours a week on the same bike all the time.”

Thus, Howes’ foray into mountain bike racing is very much on brand — both the Alex Howes brand and also his EF Education-Nippo WorldTour team’s brand.

Fans of the team in pink will remember in 2019 when Howes, Lachlan Morton, and Taylor Phinney formed EF’s ‘Alternative Calendar’ squad, attending events such as then-Dirty Kanza and the Leadville Trail MTB 100. It was a wildly successful campaign, bringing recreational cyclists into literal contact with the pros.

It was also a far cry from the days when Howes had to disguise himself at bike races he wasn’t necessarily supposed to be doing.

“I’ve been doing stuff like this for a long time,” he said. “I literally used to race Boulder short track races in a luchador mask just so the team couldn’t be pissed off. ‘No, that’s not even me!’ But now it’s like, the team definitely sees the value in it.”

With the ability to make films about the alternative race calendar quashed by the COVID pandemic, however, EF didn’t formally invest in its riders alternative exploits this year or last. That hasn’t stopped them from riding.

While Howes is racing mountain bikes, Morton is riding the entire Tour de France route, including transfers. Mitch Docker just quietly bikepacked the length of Sweden in seven days.

Yet Howes says there’s nothing calculated about what he’s doing. When he’s home and not preparing for an impending race on the road, this is just how he rolls.

“This is 100 percent just for me,” he said. “There’s no pressure from the team on their end. Honestly they might prefer if I didn’t. But seeing people do stuff like this, I think it’s interesting because people wanna see other people go out of their comfort zone, challenge themselves, and do something new.”

“And, I really enjoy ripping around on the MTB, but I also enjoy dorking out, ‘how much faster am I gonna go if I lose 20 grams on my tires.’ It’s refinding that 15 year-old kid that wants to know everything.”

On Saturday, if he eats a decent breakfast, Howes will know one thing — if a WorldTour pro can win U.S. mountain bike nationals.