ASPEN, Colorado (VN) — A post up. Another man with his head down, hand on his helmet. The elation of yes, the instant and cold melancholy of no. This close and Alex Howes gets a win. This close and Kiel Reijnen doesn’t.
What the photo doesn’t say is that the two riders so close here in Aspen are close off the bike, too. That they take boxing lessons together, push one another in all kinds of ways. In order to notch a big result, Reijnen had to take the very same feeling away from one of his friends.
Howes (Garmin-Sharp) led the opening stage of the USA Pro Challenge via a late move as he lopped the apex right off the final right hander into the Aspen finish, about 400 meters away now and coming fast. Reijnen (UnitedHealthcare) clawed back Howes’ wheel and was exactly where he needed to be. All he had to do was wait out those miserable shards of time between moments.
“When I saw Alex go, I know his strengths and weaknesses, I knew this course suits both of us, I knew that could have been the race, and I had to follow,” a beaming Reijnen said. “It breaks my heart to beat my best bud. We were both committed in the final. I’ll say it again, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather lose to, and I think he’d say the same about me. It was a fair fight.”
The moments were long for Howes at the finish line, chest shimmering and in search of huge gulps of thin air. Howes was the victim of a short and fast stage high in Colorado, and the near miss seemed as heavy as his chest. Guys like him don’t get free cards in big races. Not like this.
“That bastard worked me over,” Howes said. “I got no leg speed these days. Just grinding gears out there. I don’t know. At no point in time did I ever think of giving it to him, but Kiel’s one of my best friends. He deserved it … I looked back. I went on the kicker with 2k to go. I knew that downhill left was real tricky. And I made sure to take a mental account of whether or not I had health insurance going into that. And just went full gas from there.”
They both live in Boulder, Colorado, and train together often, two pieces of the Boulder “wolfpack,” a collection of local pro riders that also includes Taylor Phinney (BMC Racing) and Lucas Euser (UnitedHealthcare).
“We’ve been friends for four or five years. He’s a weird guy, and I mean that in the best way. I’m a weird guy. We push each other to train, to learn about life, to do wood projects, to smoke meat,” Howes said. “We took a boxing class this offseason. We punched each other until our teams told us it wasn’t a good idea. We were very evenly matched. We both had fat noses, fat lips, and smiles.”
Score this one for Reijnen, though he thought it was a draw himself. The cruel reality of bike racing is sketched out every day on countless streets. Winners and losers. Friends and adversaries. Both, it could be said, deserved a win, if anyone ever does, in a sport with a hundred losers and one lone victor.
“I’m chewing my hand,” Garmin Sport director Charly Wegelius said. “Yeah, It would have been nice for Alex, for sure. It’s time for him to win a race. But it’s a good sign. A good start.”
On deserving a win, Wegelius was succinct. “Yeah. He does, definitely. But it’s cruel cycling, you know? You don’t get what you deserve. Look at those kids there,” he said, pointing to the Cannondale bus. “They rode all day and they got nothing.”
The difference between something and nothing here is just inches. A missed wheel, a lapse in thought.
On the other side was Euser, Reijnen’s teammate.
“He’s the nicest guy out there. He’s one of my best friends. We live five blocks from each other in Boulder. I was all in for him today,” Euser said. “The team had wanted me to look out for the breakaway, and when I didn’t make it, I went up to Kiel and patted him on the back and was like, ‘This is where I feel most comfortable.’”
For Reijnen and his blue train squad, the victory comes as a stake to the big-race claims. Up against bigger teams with bigger money, UHC always fights. Wins, though, are hard to come by.
“You earn it. You gain the respect over years and years of racing. That’s why cycling is so beautiful,” Euser said. “You don’t just come in and claim your spot. You earn it. Over years. You earn it with respect. I think UnitedHealthcare’s finally done that. It’s one of the biggest wins we’ve ever had.”