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The caws of the ravens echoed off the canyon walls before finally bouncing off into the rich blue sky.
Once they escaped, there was nothing — just me, and the canyon. Laying back, staring upward, I let my feet dangle above the abyss, and for the first time in months, felt myself really breathe.
Alone, finally, with nothing but deep space above and (slightly) less deep space below. Finally free from the 200-rider peloton, the claustrophobic streets of Europe, the crammed airports — everything. Liberty, at last.
Let us rewind.
My last update was leading into the tick of the spring racing season. Despite my brave face, my palms were a bit sweaty, staring down the barrel of a cannon loaded with Volta Catalunya, GP Indurain, Pais Vasco, Amstel Gold, Flèche, and Liège. It was an ambitious plan that would either leave me crippled and contemplating retirement, or set me on track for a strong Ardennes campaign and an even stronger summer.
I’m happy to report that the desired effects have thus far been achieved and the negatives more or less avoided. However, it was not all sunshine and roses.
Catalunya was an absolute bear this year. Every rider in the race had more or less the same questions and comments after it was all said and done. “Was that super hard? It seemed super hard. My numbers were insane. Were your numbers insane? My body hurts. My soul hurts. I am spiritually wasted. I’m thinking about going back to college.”
It was a real doozy and, based on power numbers, it ended up being the toughest week of my career. Hard race, yes, but I did not make things easy on myself by spending two big days up the road, pushing wind and teasing the peloton.
GP Indurain is never easy, but the scenery around Navarre is amazing and the people are perhaps some of the friendliest on this planet. It’s always a treat to race GP Indurain.
Pais Vasco… what is there to say? The weather was better at the Iditarod than it was a Pais Vasco. I would rather race the Iditarod on my Cannondale Supersix Evo with 20mm tires, wearing only spandex and eating only expired Lunchables from the 1990s, than go back to Pais Vasco. Rain, rain, rain. Hill, mountain, hill, MOUNTAIN, hill, hill, mountain.
Pais Vasco is an absolutely horrible, treacherous, over the top, insane excuse of a race. Yet, somehow it is this amazing, beautiful, pure, life experience that will forever grant its participants the right to say, “Yeah, but I did Pais Vasco.” And for those who know things about these sorts of things, they will know, that really means something. Only the best win there, and for the rest of us, we spend six days finding God and hoping that what does not kill us will actually make us stronger.
Lucky for me, the horrible weather at Pais Vasco turned out to be perfect prep for the Ardennes.
At Amstel Gold I fell into the breakaway (yes, sometimes it just happens) and deep into the race was granted the luxury of looking around. I say luxury because those in the peloton spend nearly six and a half hours looking no more then 10 feet ahead as they dodge bodies and road furniture and dive through endless corners.
The clouds behind were dark and poisoned with a green hue. Hail. With no car behind, and nothing but a jersey and shorts, we rounded a corner and leapt into the belly of the tempest. This was no light squall. The temperature plummeted as fast as the dime sized hail fell, and in an instant our small group was shivering uncontrollably and riding blind through the chaos. We pressed forward hoping the foul weather would buy us some time, but in the end our fate was the same as most Hail Marys, and we fell just short, caught with 14km remaining.
Still licking my wounds and admiring the hail-inflicted bruises from Amstel, Flèche was not much fun. (For you data geeks out there, the “wounds” of Amstel amounted to 6048 kilojoules, a 487 TSS score, and an average of 267 watts over six hours and 20 minutes.)
I honestly do not remember any of the race, other than admiring the strength of Lawson Craddock at one point before realizing we were both losing serious ground up a climb. That, and watching Nate Brown fly off into a ditch, looking as calm and unperturbed as if he were sitting at the breakfast table eating his morning bacon. So strange, how the mind works.
Lining up for Liège, you could just feel the fear. The forecast was abysmal at best, and everyone had their own theory about how epic/horrible/inhumane the next six hours were going to be.
It is not often we get to see snow in bike races, but when we do, and the conditions are just right — cold, but not too cold, not sticking to the road — it can be truly beautiful.
This Liège, the conditions were just right. As the snow fell, it caked on our glasses. Small white crosses suspended just before our eyes, reminiscent of the World War II cemeteries nearby, as if placed there by the steady hands of ghosts to remind us that this was once the site of a great war, and we were here to once again charge into battle.
Racing through the blizzard brought back to all those days training through the worst of the Colorado winters. In Colorado’s arid atmosphere, snow is a gift, a blessing from above, and is always celebrated. Snow in Colorado, at the Continental Divide, means water, and thus life for the rest of the country.
That Sunday on the backroads of Belgium, it felt just the same. It was a blessing. Born in a blizzard in the dead of winter in the Rocky Mountains — yes, in a hospital — I was made for this.
The Cannondale boys rode perfectly all day, but a freak chain of events saw four of our riders on the pavement over the course of just 10km, only 30km from the finish.
— EF Pro Cycling (@EFprocycling) April 24, 2016
With solid legs, strong help from Lawson “The Law” Craddock and Toms Skujins, and favorable weather conditions, I did my best to try and pull a result in the final.
In the end I came up short of the top 10 finish I thought would help my Olympic bid, but it is not often one finds oneself in the final of a Monument, sprinting in the group for fifth place, knowing that if there was juuuuust that little bit more, the win was right there. Next year.
And that brings us back. To here. At the edge of oblivion. Finally alone, finally dry, finally relaxed, finally safe, and finally off the warpath.
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on the internet, but I firmly believe there is little medicine out there as effective as a few long, lone rides on a mountain bike through the desert. Recharged, happy and healthy, I am looking forward to the summer season.
Next up: The USA Cycling national road championship, in late May, in Winston Salem, North Carolina. I’ve got my eye on a stars and stripes jersey.
A modern-day vision quest
And now, a message from our sponsor. Actually, it’s more about something I came up with, working with Castelli, our team sponsor. Really, it’s just another story of doing epic shit. Anyway, it was a sick adventure.
“Those stupid pencil pushers back at headquarters just don’t get it man. Yeah, give him the permits. Ha, I just want to see if he can pull this off! You sure you good? How much water do you have? That truck runs real good right? You got tools and a shelter? Damn bro, 150 miles is a looooong way out here in the desert. You’re gonna get to know that bike seat real good.”
I pulled out from the ranger station filled with second guesses and excitement. The rangers fudged the permits and inserted enough white lies into the computer to let me get on my way.
Their system was not built to handle an adventure like this. Seven-plus hours of extreme 4×4 driving out into the dessert was on tap for the evening. A quick nap in the bed of the truck, an early wake up, and 120 miles (I didn’t tell the rangers I was taking some short cuts, shhhh) on my Cannondale Scalpel over harsh jeep roads and though deep sand was the next step.
The plan was to stash the truck, then reunite with my girlfriend at the head of the river before plopping our 40-year-old Craigslist canoe into the water, strapping the bike on top of our load and paddling for seven days to rescue our truck before the scorpions and ravens got it.
It was a bold plan. To everyone else it seemed nearly impossible. To me it was to be a test. A modern-day vision quest.
That night, the desert had an otherworldly glow. The stars were out in full force, determined to show they still glowed bright, even if their beauty was too often masked by the harsh, expensive, alternative light found in cities. And that night they were all mine as I crept across the lunar landscape, all alone, pulled forward by dreams of the unknown through the vacuum of my headlights.
Deep into the night, my eyelids began to feel the gravity, and my poor truck was patently asking for a rest. I pulled the beast aside and gave her a once over. All seemed in order, and I made my little bed in the back. Humm… Nature was calling.
Squatting there in the bushes I heard a rustle, then another in a different direction. I could sense a third. Pants down, I sprung up and gave a shout swinging my shovel. The stars revealed not one but three coyotes, no more than 12 paces away, scattering off into the desert.
As I made my way back to the truck I tried to make sense of it all. Probably a few juveniles, I thought. They were just having a look, making fun of me as I had my full moon out. No worries.
The coyote has always been my spirit animal, so it had to mean something. It certainly meant one thing: You are vulnerable. Pay attention.
The next morning, the truck purred to a halt at our destination as the sun arrived to crack the icy grip of the desert night, saving the day as it has done for eons. The bottles were already strapped to the bike. The Camelbak was loaded. The gas station sandwich was mowed for breakfast, and I was on my way. The first 80 miles went by like they never happened. The “roads” were hard packed, and fun.
By midday the sun was white with fire. I waxed philosophically in my own head over the nuclear fusion hiding deep within our source of life and energy. How beautiful. How extreme. How harsh. Shit, I’m going to need more water. None to be had. Keep moving. Be calm. Keep moving. Do not panic. Be calm. That sun is hot.
At that moment, she passed over head — directly between me and the sun. A raven. Shade for the first time all day. She whispered with her shadow, “You are vulnerable, but I am watching. Be calm. You will be okay.”
The sun had come and gone, and my lady was good and worried. I stumbled into the hotel room, drawing in the dusk air behind me. I muttered a few transparent lies about how I as fine I, buying myself enough space to pull myself together. I drank the cold water as it washed over me, and I watched the salty, silty water swirl down the rank drain of our budget hotel. Phase 1 was complete. I had made it back to basecamp with a little help from my friends, and now the real adventure could now begin.
Inspired by my personal vision quest, and built for adventure, with a little help from my friends at Castelli, I came up with this jersey. If you like it, you can buy it here. You can wear it on days when the system cannot handle you. On days when you are ready to stick it to the man. On days when the next level is your level. Get out there and get weird. Get wild.
About the author
Alex Howes is a senior member of the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. Born and raised at the base of the Colorado Rockies, he has acquired a nearly insatiable thirst for adventure and all things wild. He’s completed every grand tour he’s started, including the Tour de France, twice. He took his first career win at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, in Denver, Colorado, and finished as the top American at the world road championships in Richmond, Virginia, in 2015. He’s eyeing a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic road squad. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Pro Cycling Stats.