MADRID (VN) — Alex Howes (Garmin-Sharp) returns to the Ardennes this week a year after his coming out party.
Last year in his rookie season, the Coloradan rode in breakaways at both Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race to announce his arrival at the elite of the peloton.
Flash-forward one year, and Howes is back at the hilly classics with more experience and higher ambitions. Garmin is bringing perhaps its best-ever squad to the Ardennes and Howes is an integral part of the team.
“The Ardennes team this year, it’s the best we’ve had,” Howes told VeloNews. “With Dan Martin, winning [Volta a] Catalunya, and Ryder [Hesjedal] looking better than he was last year, there’s no weak link.”
Instead of looking for breaks, Howes will assume more responsibility to help team captains Hesjedal and Martin.
Garmin has performed well in the Ardennes, but the team has never won one of the hillier classics. That’s something the Argyle armada will be looking to change this year.
“We have leaders like Dan and Ryder, you play the game for them,” Howes said. “There’s no reason we cannot win one or two … or three.”
Howes has a budding love affair with the Ardennes. Last year, he stormed clear in Brabantse Pijl, riding to sixth in that hilly semi-classic that transitions the calendar from the northern classics into the Ardennes.
He followed that up with another strong performance at Amstel Gold Race in the Limburg region of the Netherlands, finishing 30th.
The big rides announced his arrival in Europe and helped Howes prove to himself that he could race at the top level of the sport.
“It’s easier when you don’t have to convince yourself that you can be at that level,” he said. “Once you’ve been there, you know you can be there. It’s all about getting at the front of a bike race and throwing punches with the hitters.”
A product of the team’s development squads, Howes made the most of his first full season last year with Garmin, riding from the Tour de Méditerranéen in February all the way through the Tour of Beijing in October.
In addition to the classics, he raced at the Volta a Catalunya as well as the Tour de Suisse, before being part of Garmin’s winning team time trial squad at the Tour of Utah and helping Christian Vande Velde win the USA Pro Cycling Challenge in Colorado. He returned to Valkenburg for last year’s world championships.
So far this year, he’s raced a quality schedule that’s included Paris-Nice, the Vuelta al País Vasco as well as the weather-marred Milano-Sanremo.
Like last year, he’ll be on a heavy racing schedule from here until Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
“The early season goals are the Ardennes, because I’ve been good there before. The races really suit me. They’re hard and kind of ridiculous, almost,” he said. “I’d like to race in the field a little more and get a feel for those races. I want to learn about that, because if you want to win of these things one day, you’re not going to win it out of a breakaway.”
After the Ardennes, Howes is expected to get his first taste of a grand tour with a likely start at the Giro d’Italia.
While the final Giro squad is not yet confirmed, Howes has been training and preparing to ride in support of Hesjedal as the Canadian returns to defend the pink jersey.
“It’s not totally final yet, but I should be there,” Howes said of the Giro. “It shows a lot of faith on the team’s part to give me the nod. I will be more than happy to help Ryder.”
Howes has already proved to be a solid domestique, helping Andrew Talansky ride to second at Paris-Nice as well as riding to support him at the Basque tour.
Earning a Giro start would be the next step in Howe’s progression in the pro ranks.
“The first grand tour, I’m excited, nervous, all that jazz. The legs are coming around in perfect timing to be a good asset to the team,” he said. “I’m real excited about this block of racing. The Ardennes are ideal for me and that leads right into the Giro.”