American Alex Howes won the mountains classification at Vuelta al Pais Vasco on Saturday. The 29-year-old pulled on the red and white-spotted jersey following a stage three breakaway and clung tight to it until the stage six finish.
The KOM jersey is the most tangible show of success for Cannondale-Drapac in Basque Country in a week that saw #GreenArgyle riders repeatedly factor into the early breakaways, late race attacks and stage podiums.
“This jersey represents a week of great teamwork and high spirits,” said Howes. “It has taken us a bit of time to find our legs this season, but things are really starting to click. Mike [Woods] and Rigo[berto Uran] are riding with the best in the world, and with a strong, motivated and well-drilled squad around them, we are really starting to believe that anything is possible.”
Howes unintentionally stumbled into a position to contest the jersey on stage three. One of several Cannondale-Drapac riders tasked with getting up the road, Howes flew the green argyle flag in the early breakaway in order to support Uran and Woods in the final.
“I passed the category two climb on that stage uncontested and then realised if I won the category one climb after that, I could take the jersey,” Howes said. “Obviously I put in a good sprint for that.”
With the team’s overall ambitions centered around Uran and Woods, any plans to chase mountain classification points would need to fit in with general classification goals. Stage four passed without any threats to the mountain classification jersey.
“For stage five, we wanted a rider or two in the break to try and place riders up to the road for our hitters,” said Howes. “If I made the break I could fight to keep the jersey. It was quite simple. That night I went to sleep knowing there was absolutely no chance I was going to miss that break.”
Simple doesn’t mean easy. Far from it. Howes emptied himself to make the breakaway alongside Toms Skujins. The fight wasn’t over yet as Howes’ closest competition for the mountains classification had also made the 18-rider move.
“With the field going full gas, the break only contested one KOM,” said Howes. “Once we were swept up, I still had to fight to take points on the category one and category three climbs from the peloton. I can tell you that neither climb was a walk in the park with how quickly the field was riding.”
With the points Howes picked up from the peloton, he had clinched the mountains classification win. The sixth and final stage of Vuelta al Pais Vasco was an individual time trial with no mountain points.
“I’m over the moon,” said Howes. “Pais Vasco is known as the hardest climbing race on the planet. To take the KOM jersey here is special. They don’t give this one out for free.”