We asked Alex Howes to talk about the learning curve once he joined the professional ranks of cycling. What follows is in his own words.
Crashing Scooters, Sleeping Five Hours a Night, Doing Everything
That year I was the youngest Pro Continental rider in the world. I look back now and I think I was maybe a little too young—in terms of both maturity levels and actual physical talent—but circumstances make it tough to tell in hindsight. It was a tough year: I crashed a scooter in Bermuda shortly after I signed, and it took me until March the following year before I could train properly. By that time I was going to college and living in the dorms. I was as responsible as your average eighteen year-old; I lived like your average college freshman, except I had a job44‘I worked for Slipstream Sports; they needed someone in the office and I needed work. I did a lot of grunt work, delivered a lot of packages on my bike, booked hotel rooms, did expense reports, put together sponsorship proposals, I did everything.’ and I trained all the time. I slept maybe an average of five hours a night. And that knee didn’t come around for quite a while.
Good & Bad, Rage Against the Machine, Rosetta Stone
I went to a French amateur team in 2008 after Vaughters helped me set it up. That’s the year Slipstream signed Christian and Millar and Zabriskie—some real heavy hitters. He called me and asked, “I think it’ll be too much for you. What do you think?” I knew he was right and said, “I’m not ready for the Tour.” He told me, “Well, we’ve got to find you a team then.” I asked him who he knew in Europe. I think that was motivated by fear, from the fact that I didn’t want to get stuck in America. I saw a lot of guys, with a lot of potential, choose to stay in America at that pivotal point in their careers in order to develop physically. But then they found a girl, or bought a house, and next thing you know their dream of racing in Europe was gone. It was too late. Life comes at you fast. I figured if I went to Europe right away, life wouldn’t be able to find me.
Excerpt from an interview with La Pomme’s Director Sportif: “‘Alex comes to VC La Pomme – Marseille on the recommendations of Jonathan Vaughters, and he seems, from the first tests, to have great physical qualities and adaptability to a group,’ says Frédéric Rostaing, DS. ‘I had the opportunity discuss Alex with Johnny Weltz, who oversaw the trials in France, and he confirms that we will work with a lot of potential, a young American talent in cycling. Alex will be keen to progress, especially on the intensities of professional conduct and career structure needed as one develops.’”
La Pomme was a mess. The majority of it was not good for me, though I suppose in the long run it was a useful experience. Whatever it was, it was a Baptism of Fire. I used to fall asleep listening to Rage Against the Machine. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was depressed. I felt like was treading water. I was in survival mode until September, until the season was over and I could go home.
I didn’t speak the language at all, so on the way over I skimmed Rosetta Stone’s Level 1 French. I knew how to count to ten, say ‘hello,’ ‘yes’ and ‘thank you,’ and that was about that. My first experience with the team was Training Camp, when we did 36 hours in one week—the majority of it high-intensity. They gave you how much food they thought you needed for the ride, but it never seemed enough for me. I had no idea where we were going, or how far we were going. I’d get done with a four hour ride, totally shattered, and I’d take a shower, have as big a lunch as I thought I could keep down then lay down around one or two in the afternoon for a nap. I’d hope the whole time I’d wake up the next morning for breakfast. Instead, the director or my roommate would wake me up two hours later to train for team time trials. By then it’s three, and the sun goes down at five, so soon enough we were riding in the headlights. It’s one thing to do that when you plan for it, but if you have no idea when you’ll be home, and you don’t know if it’s going to be a 200km ride or a 45min easy spin, it sucks.
FOR THE RECORD
7.Swallow Your Pride
I just assumed that if I want to be good, I needed to eat exactly what they ate, I needed to ride just as hard as they rode, and I needed to pretend to speak French just as well as they actually spoke French.
And it was totally my fault. I shouldn’t have gone to France without any understanding of the French language. When I didn’t know what was happening (which was basically always), I acted like I did, I had too much pride. It never occurred to me to ask for more food, or to ask for specifics of the workout for the day. I just assumed that if I want to be good, I needed to eat exactly what they ate, I needed to ride just as hard as they rode, and I needed to pretend to speak French just as well as they actually spoke French.
Now? First of all I would get to at least level two of Rosetta Stone. I wouldn’t just accept that I was going to die a thousand deaths every day. I would ask for more food. Our director’s motto was, “There is something we can always be doing more of.” It’s true. And that’s why they are as good as they are, and that’s why half of the guys on that team go pro. In fact three are on Slipstream with me: Martin, Nuyens, Navardauskas.