For the last decade of his professional cycling career, Alex Howes has been chasing his own personal White Whale: the U.S. professional road racing championship. Howes’s Ahab-like quest to capture the U.S. title bore out year after year: third place in 2014; fourth place in 2015; and second in 2016.
On a muggy Sunday afternoon in Knoxville, Howes finally won the title with a dramatic last-second attack in the closing kilometers of the race. Just a few minutes before his winning move, Howes appeared to be out of the race entirely, after he was dropped by his breakaway companions Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) and Stephen Bassett (First Internet Bank) with 4km to go.
So, how did Howes fight back, and what does this title mean for his career? We caught up with Howes to discuss.
VeloNews: What is the moment or scene from yesterday’s race that will stay with you forever?
Alex Howes: I think the moment that really sits in my mind is when Powless and Bassett dropped me on the highway with 4km to go. I was watching them just get like 50 and then 100 meters on me, and I was like ‘Oh my gosh, this hurts. This is so stupid.’ I actually had a dream about it last night and was literally like ‘oh my gosh this is happening.’ I was cramping up pretty bad and I wanted to be there with them, I just couldn’t. The body wasn’t doing it and I told myself just just give it 20 seconds of all-out, everything-you-got effort and see what happens. That 20 seconds turned into a minute and a half. I pretty much just willed myself back up there. I’m pretty proud of that moment.
VN: Take us through your final move to get around Bassett in the final push to the line.
Howes: Bassett had a little gap going into that last finishing climb. I thought I’d go through that final corner better than him, and I did. But he came out of it full-on rocket ship mode, and I kind thought it was over. But I also knew it was a long way to go to the line, and I just put my head down and said, ‘If he can do it, he can do it.’ I wasn’t positive he could do it, and I knew the big moment was right as the road levels off. You have to get speed for that push. I had a plan and tried to stick to it. I wouldn’t exactly say I was cool, calm, and collected. It was really pushing the panic button pretty hard at that moment.
VN: What hurt worse: that battle for the finish or the last 50 miles at Dirty Kanza?
Howes: I don’t know. I will say that Dirty Kanza taught me how to keep riding through cramps. I think I had cramps for the final 100 miles of Kanza, which still blows my mind to say that. I rode for four and a half hours with cramps at Kanza and yesterday it was only 7km. That’s no big deal.
VN: You’ve been so close at U.S. nationals over the years. Did the weight of those close finishes impact your mentality during the race, or was this just another bike race?
Howes: It was definitely not just another bike race. I was thinking the whole day, ‘Man, with the thyroid stuff last year, I’m not getting any younger, this could be my last good shot.’ All day I was thinking that. It was like, ‘Just let this year be the year—it’s gotta be the year.’ And then, coming into those final kilometers and then into the final 100 meters, I was telling myself, ‘This has gotta be the year! I gotta do it.’ Coming up short that many times was definitely motivating. It made it exponentially higher this year.
VN: What was the team’s game plan?
Howes: Overall, the whole EF team crushed it. We had a meeting the night before, and we were talking about strategy and tactics, and we came to the same conclusion about Nationals. The only real strategy is to go for it. It sounds lame and amateurish. The strategy was everybody try to win. Just go for it. If you ride a conservative race it almost never pays off. You look at the last guy to win nationals in that textbook control-the-race way and it was George Hincapie. It’s like every other year, you have to go from the front and stay up there, and that was what we were trying to do. I was happy to be the guy with the legs yesterday. You look at how the race was raced behind, and I don’t think I wasted too much being up front and letting the race come to me.
VN: What does this victory mean for your wider career?
Howes: In a lot of ways it kind of completes everything for me. Look, I’m not announcing my retirement or anything. But this has been the white whale for me for a while. I feel whole at the moment, I would say. I didn’t really know a bike race could do that.