24 August 2014

Alex Howes wins the final stage of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge

Alex Howes races for Team Garmin-Sharp. Plenty of local Coloradans know Alex, so when he won today, tons of people where very happy for him.

I have this thing about not liking to follow the pack. My niche in this great big crazy world of bike racing is to write about what it is like to experience a bike race and to offer tips to fans on traveling to and being at the race.

That is because I am good at moving around at a bike race.

I don't have big sponsorship or preferential treatment, but I have okay access and I can move. I often find myself in the right place at the right time during a race. Today I saw this large pack of photographers (below) crammed in at the end of the finishing straight, growing bigger by the minute, and I decided I did not want the same photo as everyone else. I also had added confidence knowing Ryan Wallace was out there somewhere (shooting for me) and Ryan is a very good action photographer (RevLine Photo).

All these photographers were lined up to catch the oncoming sprint finish.  © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®

So I went where I belong and feel best - I went to be with the fans. I studied the late afternoon light and decided that the stage winner would come flying around the corner past these photographers. I also knew the riders would stop shortly after the finish area and I wanted to get those happy post race shots. After all this would be Jens Voigt's last day of racing.

I watched the race while chatting with a variety of fans as I moved easily along the barrier between the VIP tents and the capital building. We were all thrilled to see Jens Voigt in the break, lap after lap. I had no idea who would win the sprint, I had no idea who would appear from around the corner.

Observing the mayhem from afar as more photographers and then team soigneurs were added to the corner where Alex Howes would later barely miss crashing into the barricade.  © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®

Then it happened

A bird shit on my shoulder.

I turned to the fan next to me, whom I had earlier asked if it was okay if I stepped in next to him and said, "Oh that's why you weren't standing here." He laughed and said "Hey, that's good luck!" "Well it's kind of icky luck," I said, as I tried to brush the shit off my shoulder, quickly realizing I was just smooshing it around on my tshirt instead. But the fan and I decided that it indeed meant good luck.

Shortly there after, I could hear Dave Towle announcing the finish, and just as he declared Alex Howes had won the stage, Alex came screaming straight into the corner.

When I say straight, I mean he was not arcing as the riders had in previous laps. His added speed in the sprint changed his line and he was headed straight for the barrier. It all happened so quickly - the gasp from the crowd when they saw his trajectory, the surprise, the fear for his safety. Suddenly I was tracking an object in my viewfinder that I fully expected to be elsewhere.

Click click click

What just happened? He's still up, how did he do that? In a blur of seconds Alex Howes had won the final stage of the USA Pro Challenge in Denver and not only completed an impressive sprint, he defied gravity and barriers in a perfectly instinctual bike handling move; he was victorious. It was brilliant.

Or, it was the bird shit on my shoulder that brought the good luck. Either way the victory was thrilling.

Last Km of Stage 7 with replay (04:56 English)nbcsports (via Steephill.tv)

click any image to enlarge
Alex sprints to the line (where my fellow photographer Ryan Wallace of RevLine Photo snapped this shot. © Photo by Ryan Wallace of RevLine Photo for Pedal Dancer®
Giving his victory salute, maybe he lingered too long, but his speed was high, and he needed to start thinking about turning - and fast! © Photo by Ryan Wallace of RevLine Photo for Pedal Dancer®

Alex's speed was so fast and his position so left, he began the curve before the pack of photographers and just didn't have enough room. I caught sight of him rapidly arcing toward the barrier. I really thought his front wheel had touched.

Nice save Alex!  © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Fifteen feet later, here he is applauding himself, with the teams' soigneurs (who had luckily moved down the barriers) and the fans applauding as well. Can you imagine Alex's adrenaline level at this point? © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Alex Howes still celebrating as his floats up Colfax trailing Reijnen and Schär behind him. © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Alex Howes immediately after the race.  © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Alex being guided by team staff after his stage win. © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Alex, very happy on the podium  © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®
Stage 7 winners!  1. Alex Howes, 2. Kiel Reijnen 3. Michael Schär.  © Photo by Ryan Wallace of RevLine Photo for Pedal Dancer®

In the last minutes of the stage, I saw Alex Howes nearly crash into the barrier after winning the stage, I ran up the road to see Jens Voigt stop racing (forever), I heard Alex Howes screaming out in joy behind Jens, and then walked back down the street to the podium presentation for more photos and to get sprayed by champagne. It turned out to be a lucky day.

My photo of Alex Howes doing a tripod in the meters just after his Stage 7 win got lots of air time on Twitter after the race. Thank you Neal Rogers, Dan Wouri, Ride_Argyl, Kathy Lemond and so many others who shared the experience of what we all saw on TV only couldn't tell quite how skilled a rider Alex Howes needed to be to have stayed upright.

Today I saw the race as a regular fan at the barriers - and loved it!

I attended the press conference after the race where I chatted with a number of my favorite photographer friends, I admitted to them, I don't want to go home, I don't want to discover I didn't get the shot. They knew exactly what I meant but did not know what I had seen through my camera lens. What I later discovered, was that I got the shot! I had already felt quite a part of the day as a fan of bike racing, but to see that image held in time - was so cool.

A quote from Alex Howes at the press conference post race:
"A lot of Europeans don't understand America, they think it is Las Vegas or whatever.  To me, this is what America is -- It's big open mountains, It's small towns, It's beautiful, It's home."

Alex Howes. © Photo by Karen Rakestraw of Pedal Dancer®

Anyone in Denver tomorrow - Jens Voigt will be at Wheat Ridge Cyclery (Ron Kiefel's bike shop) from 10:00-11:00am for the TrekFactory farewell.

Send good thoughts to Ian Crane (Jamis-Hagens Berman) injured today in the race: USA Pro Challenge stage marred by crash of Ian Crane by Cycling News

Results, photos and more stories from the road for Stage 7: 
Pro Challenge reports from the road Stage 7 - Boulder by Karen Rakestraw
Pro Challenge reports from the road Stage 7 - Denver, Final Stage by Karen Rakestraw
See more photos from Stage 7 by Ryan Wallace at RevLine Stage 7 by Ryan Wallace