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Six months to the day after he abandoned the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah after suffering from crippling fatigue, American Alex Howes will pin on a number again at the Tour of Colombia this coming week.
In a recent interview, Howes chronicled his fight to come back from that moment. Over the course of the last half-year, Howes was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, a hormonal disorder that is known to sap one’s energy and cause weight loss, among other symptoms. Howes learned that the disorder was the root of his physical problems.
The race abandonment came at a critical moment in Howes’s life and career. He got married in October and spent the fall battling anxiety from the fear that his pro cycling career might be over.
“I was kind of freaking out,” Howes said. “I was studying math and going, well, career’s over. That’s done. Time to get a real job.”
Up until then, his “real” job had been to support the climbers on his EF Education First team, riders like Rigoberto Urán and Mike Woods. Howes also won a few races for himself, sprinting out of select groups to stage victories at the USA Pro Challenge, Colorado Classic, and Tour of Alberta. But the grit that earned him those wins and a place on EF’s Tour de France team in 2014 and 2016 escaped him in Utah.
“It was a strange thing,” the 31-year-old said, “Utah’s a hard race, but I’ve done the Tour de France a couple of times and all the grand tours. I’ve done the hardest races there are, and Utah is not one of the hardest races in the world. I didn’t finish it. I pulled the plug on the last day.”
After he abandoned, Howes regrouped and tried to figure out why he was so weak, why he had lost 10 pounds. Plans to race the Vuelta a España were soon shelved.
“Not knowing is probably the worst thing that there is,” Howes said. “If you don’t know what the problem is, there is no way that you are going to fix it. You think that your body is your body and, especially as a professional athlete, it does what you want it to do. You put in the orders and the body responds, but that was totally not the case. I was putting in the work and telling my body what to do, and it was just giving me the big middle finger.”
Fortunately, after consultations with team doctors and specialists, Howes’s mystery ailment was solved. Hyperthyroidism is a hereditary condition. He discovered that family members on both his mother’s and father’s side had suffered from the thyroid condition.
Thanks to medication and a return to consistent training, Howes is recovering and set to race the Tour of Colombia, February 12-17. He is eager to fire up the work ethic that has carried him through 12 seasons as a pro rider.
“I really do like working for a good leader,” he said. “On our team, we are pretty fortunate in that our top dogs are really good guys to work for. Mike Woods and Rigo [Uran] — there’s nothing but appreciation from both of those guys and a lot of fun. They make it pretty easy to want to work for them. And definitely with Tejay [van Garderen] coming on board next year — I’ve been friends with Tejay for going on 17 years now.”
Howes’s motivation has returned, and his fitness is improving. Yet he knows an early season race like Colombia will be another difficult challenge as he continues to recover. He has yet to reach the end of this long, hard road.
“Right now is, I think, for me personally, the biggest test,” he added. “You know, we talk about overcoming, but I haven’t overcome just yet.”