We marched with heads down and eyes forward. The butterflies in our stomachs did all the heavy lifting as they carried us and our loaded packs up the slope.
“What do you know about hitchhiking?” I asked
“I know you’re supposed to stick your thumb out. I know some wacko murdered a whole bunch of hitchhikers back in the ’70s. And I know my parents would kill me if they knew we were doing this right now. Actually, they’d kill you first, then they’d kill me. What do you know?”
“Not a goddamn thing.”
Stopping just before a nice pullout, we stuck our thumbs up and did our best to look happy, not at all smelly, and the general opposite of a murderer’s prey. Nine cars passed and the tenth stopped. Out popped two of the happiest, bubbliest 21-year-old gals.
With a smile so bright and white it made me happy I was wearing sunglasses, one greeted us in a faint but obvious German accent, “You can please place your packs in back! I believe we have space enough! Come, come!”
Winding up to the Continental Divide, the two girls did their best to recount all the places they had visited. The list was longer than their young, intact memories could handle. The missionary trip to the Philippines stood out. They went to help and came home better for it. They were the ones that had been saved. Closed, ignorant eyes had been opened. We had to go. It was agreed upon that we would. We would go to the Philippines, because they had given us a ride.
We crested the top of the pass and thanked the saintly young ladies for not murdering us, and opened our hearts to the great American west and the promise of inestimable new beginnings.
Were they tears of joy or just tears brought on by the icy 50mph wind in my face? I don’t know, but the tears were real, and my thoughts seemed too focused down onto one small laser beam of a word as I looked out over the jagged icy peaks: Freedom.
And so began the off-season of 2016.
Let’s rewind, shall we?
This will be the year
Being an Olympic year, 2016 had been one circled on both paper and in my mind, as the year. This was the year I was going to Rio. This was the year I was really going to go big, or go home.
A huge winter of training, a big spring with a perfect build up to the Ardennes classics, multiple altitude camps, a massive training block leading into the Tour de France, a tough (but actually pretty fun) Tour, straight to Utah, the Leadville 100 MTB Race, and then… well, then I figuratively and literally went home.
The moment our U.S. boys sat down in their seats with their plane headed for Rio, I felt my heart explode. The dream was dead. This was not the year.
Physically, yes, I was tired. But mentally, and spiritually, I was absolutely crushed.
This sport can be pretty ugly sometimes. We push ourselves to the absolute limits all too regularly. We push far beyond them to the point where we do not just break, we shatter and crumble.
Motivation to ride was at an all-time low. Beers were cracked before noon most days. Only one race left. Just. Keep. Going…
Alberta was a blur and somehow I survived (with a nice little top 10 and a close second-place on day one). My one lasting memory of the race was of looking out over an empty, rain-soaked prairie, and thinking of how badly I wished I was out there. Out there — anywhere really — just somewhere wild. Away from my two-wheeled prison, away from Olympic failure, away from a noisy stressful peloton, away from… well, everything.
Fast forward and my girlfriend and I are sitting on top of a windy saddle, saturated with sunshine and a sky more blue than any you’ll ever find in any painting. Three days of hard climbing with heavy packs brought us to this moment. No trees, just rocks, tundra, sky and a sharp, cleansing breeze. We were so completely away from… well, everything.
And in that moment it all made sense. All that pain, all that sorrow, the root of the crumble was caused by one thing: I fucking love racing my bike.
Cycling has a gift that few things in life do. To do it well, it requires everything. Even something as small as trying to win the local town sign sprint requires a full commitment of mind, body, and spirit.
To do it right, one must fully commit in that moment. In an attempt to make the Olympic team, one must commit fully for years. To miss out and be crushed hurts, but the sport can also do the opposite, and help one find nirvana. Am I bummed? Sure, but the only cure is more bikes.
They say one must learn to love the practice, and not obsess over the end goal. But, without that end goal; without the highs and the lows, one will never truly understand the purpose of the practice. Make ultimate greatness your goal, drink a beer when it doesn’t happen, then try for it again. You will get there.
About the author
Alex Howes is a senior member of the Cannondale-Drapac 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, three times. He took his first career win at the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, in Denver, Colorado, and finished as the top American at the 2015 world road championships in Richmond, Virginia. Follow his adventures on Twitter, Instagram, and Pro Cycling Stats.