American neo-pro Howes makes memorable classics debut

Garmin neo-pro and former U.S. under-23 champ plays protagonist twice in a week at Brabantse Pijl and Amstel Gold Race

Photo: watson

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VALKENBURG, Netherlands (VN) — Alex Howes made a spring classics debut worth remembering on Sunday.

The Colorado-based neo-pro not only rode into the day’s main breakaway at the Amstel Gold Race, but he and French neo-pro Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) stretched their TV time out all the way until the peloton swept them up with just over 10 kilometers to go. That’s impressive riding for Howes, who also rode into the thick of the action at Brabantse Pijl on Wednesday to finish sixth there.

For Howes, his recent performances are not only confirmation of what he believes he can do in Europe, but also a demonstration of faith from the team. Howes has been part of Garmin’s development team since 2003 and is the latest in a string of the squad’s U23 graduates to shine on the WorldTour.

“This is the style of racing I think suits me best,” Howes told VeloNews. “It’s incredibly satisfying, and maybe a little bit unexpected, but I will take it.”

After a few years of struggle that saw him make an ill-fated single-season campaign with Vélo Club la Pomme, Howes, 24, broke through with two national U23 titles and a win in the Tour of Utah’s queen stage in 2009. Weeks before his nationals win, Howes was frustrated with what he saw as a lack of interest from the national team’s development program. That all changed when he won the under-23 criterium and road titles, both solo, in Bend, Oregon. Later in August, Howes went on to win solo again, this time atop the Little Cottonwood Canyon climb to close out the Tour of Utah. From there, he went on to play a major role in Tejay van Garderen’s ride for second overall at the Tour de l’Avenir.

Howes was originally slated to join the ProTeam for 2011, but remained with the Holowesko Partners development squad after the Garmin-Cervélo merger crowded the top-shelf roster. After a season that saw him develop into a team captain on the road, Howes made the move to the ProTeam for 2012.

On Sunday, Howes rode with strength that continued to defy the chasing peloton late on the approach to Valkenburg. He proved his durability is longer than his years; after being caught, he took a few pulls to help his teammates in the group, including local Thomas Dekker, and still managed to have the legs to finish 30th, at 47 seconds back.

“The group worked really well together until about 30km to go, then we had to turn up the speed and lost a few riders,” he said. “It was great to be out there in the break today.”

Incredibly, Howes said he wasn’t feeling that great on Sunday. But his big effort Wednesday at Brabantse Pijl set the stage for Sunday’s even bigger ride.

Howes was once again a protagonist in what was the first major one-day classic of his young career. While the Amstel Gold Race doesn’t enjoy “monument” status, at 260km-plus, the Dutch classic is much harder than Brabantse Pijl.

The Coloradoan snuck into the day’s main breakaway, joining eight others at about 40 kilometers into the race.

Joining him were Bardet, Garmin teammate (and former development team member) Raymond Kreder, Pello Bilbao (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Steven Caethoven (Accent Jobs-Willems Veranda’s) and Simone Stortoni (Lampre-ISD). Sébastien Delfosse (Landbouwkrediet) and Eliot Lietar (Topsport Vlaanderen-Mercator) later caught on.

The group quickly opened up a huge gap of more than 13 minutes.

Howes later was among the two last men standing with the breakaway, following Bardet up the Loorberg climb with 35km to go, the peloton breathing down their neck. The pair worked together as the main pack reeled in the remaining stragglers from the breakaway.

Bardet gapped Howes briefly on the Eyserbosweg, the day’s 28th climb, with about 20km to go, but the American clawed his way back onto the Frenchman’s wheel. The pair of neo-pros refused to throw in the towel, fighting over the Fromberg and Keutenberg climbs. When the group of favorites drew them back finally on the run-in to Valkenburg, Howes went to the front to work.

“I wanted to be there to help the guys out in the end, but I was pretty tired at that point,” he said. “I need to recover from this because the plan is to race Flèche and Liège.”

Howes said the plan now is to finish off Ardennes week and then recover to start the Tour of California in May.

For American fans watching Amstel Gold Race, Howes’ ride was just a preview of bigger and better things to come.

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