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Vuelta a Espana

Grand tour rookie Howes gets a ‘free card’ at the Vuelta

The Garmin rider was slated to ride for Daniel Martin before the team's GC captain crashed out of the race in stage 7

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CASTELLDEFELS, Spain (VN) — Ask Alex Howes how things are going in his first grand tour, and you might get this as a reply: “What day is it?”

It’s not that the Garmin-Sharp grand tour rookie is not paying attention; it’s more that he’s getting used to the whirlwind, sometimes surreal existence that is racing a three-week bike race.

“I am feeling better every day. So far, it’s been pretty smooth sailing,” Howes told VeloNews. “Physically, it hasn’t been too terrible yet. I know the hardest stages are yet to come.”

The 25-year-old Howes is making his grand tour debut in his second season at the top level. Last year, he made a big splash in his rookie season, riding into breakaways at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race.

This season, the Vuelta was on his radar, and he prepared well over the summer to come into the season’s third grand tour in top condition.

He came here to help GC captain Daniel Martin, but the Irishman crashed out in stage 7. He’s also helping out Tyler Farrar in the sprint, but he now has a free hand to chase breakaways.

“With Dan being out, I have a free card, which is good and it also sucks,” he said. “I came here motivated to ride for Dan. It’s hard losing a leader.”

Howes took advantage of that freedom, riding into the day’s main breakaway on stage 9 ending atop Peñas Blancas. With the GC still open at that point, the GC riders, led by RadioShack-Leopard, chased down the break.

“It’s kinda fun to have a free card in my first grandy,” he said. “We thought it could have stayed away, but the big guns went hard. I had a good summer. The barbecue season did me well. I had a high-protein diet. The legs are good.”

Going into today’s stage, Howes enters unknown territory. His longest race so far was the 12-day Tour of Portugal, which he raced with the Chipotle-Garmin development team.

“Those 12 days have been a lot harder than this Vuelta so far. It was full-gas there every day, a lot of climbing,” he said. “This Vuelta is a little more relaxed than a lot of the grand tours. So far, I like it because it’s pretty chilled out. We’ll see what happens when I am on my hands and knees in the third week.”

Howes said he’s eyeing to get into some more breakaways and help Farrar to try to get a stage win. The American sprinter should have two more chances, with stages into Burgos and Madrid looking good for a mass gallop.

“Tyler is riding incredible. The fact that it hasn’t worked out yet has been pretty frustrating to say the least,” he said. “The hardest day was into Sevilla, when the day Dan crashed and Tyler flatted. We had real high hopes for Tyler that day because it was a real good finish for him. It was a hard day, and it was hard chasing back.”

Howes is still developing his skill set as a rider and wants to get through his first three-week grand tour to see how his body reacts.

So far, he knows what he likes.

“My heart is in the Ardennes, and maybe the week-long stage races,” he continued. “It will be good to get this under my belt … I enjoy learning and taking it day by day and getting a feel to see how these things work.”

And that beard? Howes has been gaining attention for his ever-growing facial hair.

“I stopped shaving for a little while, and it kind of turned into my Vuelta playoff beard,” he explained. “I’ve been riding well at Poland and the Tour de l’Ain.”

Howes is now in a contest with Garmin teammates Nathan Haas and Jacob Rathe. The first one to shave loses.

“The first one who shaves has to buy an old-school, straight-blade kit for the other two. I could have this for the next couple of years,” Howes joked. “I think they’re banking on me cracking in the heat of the Vuelta, but they will buckle when they see I am in for the long haul.”

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.