In cycling, some wins are calculated, planned, and expected; others are spontaneous. Alex Howes left last week’s Vuelta al Pais Vasco with the king of the mountains prize, which definitely falls into the latter category. The unexpected award bodes well for Howes’s upcoming block of racing that includes the climb-heavy Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“It wasn’t the plan at the beginning of the day, and then halfway through the day on I guess stage 3 — [I thought] if I just win this one climb, I’m gonna get the jersey. I guess I’ll just win that one,” the Cannondale-Drapac rider said about Pais Vasco.
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Howes seized the climbing jersey on the third stage from Gasteiz to Donostia. Holding onto the jersey required him to battle former teammate Yoann Bagot during the race’s fifth stage from Bilbo to Eibar. He was able to hold off Bagot, collecting 27 total mountains points to Bagot’s 23.
“It was funny racing against Yoann because we were teammates on La Pomme [a French amateur team] together,” Howes said. “It was more one of those, you do the sprint, you go for the points, you get done with it, and you’re like, ‘Oh man what are we doing to each other? This is really hard, why’d you go a K and a half out?!’”
The effort paid off, and he left the Basque country with a polka-dot jersey and some momentum going into the one-day Ardennes classics. Howes said his Cannondale squad also enters the hilly classics having gelled on the roads in Spain.
“It was the first time all season that I felt like we were really clicking, everyone was firing on all cylinders,” he said. “Everyone had their jobs that they had to do … stuff just got done, people were in the right places at the right time.”
Cannondale’s Pais Vasco squad enters the Belgian races largely intact. Howes said the team wants to match the success of the team’s cobbled squad, which scored a podium at Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix with Sebastian Langeveld. “It should really pay off as long as we can keep this momentum going. We always have a friendly competition with the cobbled classics guys,” Howes said. “They did pretty well so we gotta show up.”
Of the three Ardennes races, Amstel Gold is Howes’s favorite. This year organizers changed the finish, eliminating the traditional sprint up the Cauberg climb in favor of a flatter run-in. Howes believes that will change the dynamic of the race’s finale. “For me personally, I can sprint but I’m no Michael Matthews at the line, so I’d love to get ahead of the race, be aggressive,” Howes said.
Riders now tackle the Cauberg 19 kilometers from the finish.
“It’s still on top of the Cauberg, you just don’t go up it,” Howes said. “It’s funny — explain the physics on that. You go up the Cauberg but it’s not the Cauberg you go up. It’s the other one.”
Howes has no idea how the new finish will impact the overall dynamics of the race.
“Could be just awful for the race, or it could open it up and make it more aggressive,” he said. “We could see some real action … [the] Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix are pretty much flat finishes, and they’re pretty exciting.”