Want to know who the up and comers sprinters are in North America? Races to watch include the USA Crits Series, where crit sprinters go head to head in 9-races during the season. With the help his Team Mountain Khakis fueled by Jittery Joe’s, Isaac Howe just won the overall at the USA Crits Series this past week. After leading the series earlier this year, Howe regained the lead after the penultimate race, the Chris Thater Memorial Crit. The 24-year old sprinter also took home the U25 classification while his squad won the team competition in the Series.
With their two top sprinters moving on to new teams at the beginning of the year, Howe had to step up to the plate to fulfill the team’s goal while still learning about racing crits and being a pro cyclist.
The once pre-med student, with a goal of returning to medical school, is in his second year as a pro on the North American circuit.
“It’s so much more challenging, it’s so much frustrating than an amateur rider would think.” Howe said about being a pro. “As a collegiate racer dreaming about a professional, I never thought that the things I appreciated the most about the sport were going to be what they are and I never thought the frustrating things that make me hate the sport sometimes. It’s nothing like I thought it was going to be but it’s still fantastic and I love it.”
After two years with his current development squad, Howe has signed a contract with the Kenda p/b GearGrinder team for the 2011 season.
After a brief chat with Howe to get the story on ‘How he saved a life and lost a race‘, it was time to get to know the young sprinter. I caught up with him prior to the USA Crits Series finale, TX Tough.
You are leading USA Crits by 13 points going into the final race, how important is the series to you and the team?
It’s the most important, it’s all the work for nothing if I can’t hold onto it. Finishing second in awesome, I’m sure a lot of people would like to be in my shoes but I’ve been racing for the win all year so if I can’t hold onto it through this last race then for me, it’s kind of a loss because I want to win. So it’s incredibly important.
What this a goal that you set for yourself?
It was a team objective to win the overall in the USA Crits. It’s been a series that is within reach for our size team, it’s pretty competitive, it suits our sponsor, what Mt Khakis wants us to do, we like swagger, we like racing their events.
This year, with Tom [Soladay] leaving the team and Eric [Barlevav] leaving the team, the team is asking for me to step up and fill the role that was lost when they left, the void of them leaving and part of that was going for the USA Crits Series. I had a pretty tough race at Athens, in the rain and the cold so I wasn’t in really good standing but then I got second at Grafton and all of a sudden, I was in the lead, I was like wow, I went from 17th to first in two races, it really put a lot of wind in my sail and I started seeing it as a more feasible goal. I was in the U25 jersey, all of a sudden I felt I had a lot more confidence than I had in early season. I got sick in April and early May and it took awhile before I got on my feet again. Then I came back stronger than I ever had it seems.
You said you gained confidence but did you feel extra pressure at that point, everyone was looking at you?
I handle that type of stuff really well, when someone asks me to step up for a challenge I think I always can and that’s what made me successful on this team, I’ve always been able to do what they ask for me, of course if they are realistic expectations. I just felt really fortunate to have the fitness and the skill to step up from being a support rider to being a leader. Yeah a little bit more stressful but it wasn’t something that I didn’t think I was prepared for.
Given all that, how satisfied are you with your year?
I think I’m missing the big win, I think I’ve been really consistent, always a top finisher in the NRC and I’m proud of that accomplishment but one thing that I am missing is an NRC win or an NRC podium. I’ve gotten really close, I had bad luck at Grafton, I dropped my chain in the sprint and came back and got second. At Hyde Park, I crashed as I was taking the lead in the sprint…. The only thing that keeps me from being completely satisfied is missing that big result to be able to summarize my whole season, close but no win yet for all my hard work this season.
Why an NRC podium or win?
I just think that the thing that everyone is looking at. This team, Mt Khakis, their objective and goal is to give people like me, riders who are relatively unknown an opportunity to showcase themselves in the national circuit and part of that is USA Crits and part of it is NRC. If you say USA Crits this year, you can’t say it without mentioning my name because I’ve always been there and I’ve been a contender at every race but NRC appeals to a different crowd and I don’t think showcased myself to ideally in that circuit. I’ve consistently been able to finish in the top 10 in those races. I’m trying to fulfill the mission of this team which is to get an offer from a bigger pro team and I felt that by showing that I have the capacity to win an NRC race that that would demonstrate my value and my worth to another team and give me the opportunity to be able to ride for another team next year.
Which you are.
Yes, I am very happy that I am riding with Kenda. I don’t have any less ambitions to meet my season goal, the NRC calendar is over. That’s why the NRC races are so important to me.
After racing US Pro Crit in Glencoe, against top American and non-American sprinters, where do you think you stack up?
(laughs) I had high expectations for that race, and I was talking with Jonas Carney [Kelly Benefit DS] before the race, saying you know man, I think I really have it today, I think I can show you and prove to you my potential in this race. He pointed to me that I’m 24 years old, that this is one race out of hundreds that I’m going to do in the future and that I’ve done in the past, how well I do in that race is not really an indication of where I will be next year and my confidence at that moment in time because anything can happen. I saw myself sprinting for the win when I was dreaming about the race. In the race, I was really happy with the change in the course, the new course in Glencoe really suits my strengths. I got caught up in crash early on in the race and I really banged up my leg, I was happy to finish the race I got back up and got a flat tire, and when I got a flat, I missed the winning breakaway. As Jonas said, it’s only one race and anything can happen. In my mind, I saw it happening differently, it didn’t play out the way that I’d hoped but I didn’t walk away from that race thinking that I wasn’t one of the best, I have that confidence, I’m just still waiting on the opportunity to be able to show it.
You said that course played to your strengths, what do you consider your strengths and weaknesses to be at this point?
I think that I’m just a skilled crit racer with a good finishing sprint. That’s a hard question really. If you make a crit really hard, I can do it well, it was really tight, it required to be powerful and I’m explosive up that climb it had, it had a little bit of everything, it wasn’t the standard 4-corner crit and you really had to be able to read the race. I think that all my crit racing and doing crits with this team has given me the competence, the experience to be able to be fully in that race. It’s really hard to summarize, I think I’m a good sprinter, my style of racing just suited that course, it was tight and it was very scary and I’m kind of fearless.
Not every sprinter is a good crit rider and not every good crit rider is a good sprinter.
Definitely. What makes a good crit racer is someone who doesn’t say oh it’s a crit, it’s going to be a sprint. It’s someone who is capable of really reading the course and looking over the start list and being able to predict how the race is going to play out. Being able to ride with Adam [Myerson], the last two years, has given me a lot of insights into his 20 years of racing and that knowledgebase has made much more competent when I go to the start line. I really don’t think that I’m the strongest racer by any standards, most of the time when I go to the start lime, I’m under the impression that I’m definitely not the strongest racer but racing with Adam, he’s one of the smartest, if I have a little better punch than him but if I can manage to queue off him the way he races, it’s made me much more of a threat at everyone of these races.
How did you get here? How did you get to Mt Khakis? And weren’t you pre-med?
Yeah, I studied bio-chemistry in college. I got really serious into cycling because of the UVM Cycling team. It’s a really interesting and tight knit family in that club and there’s some really greatttt bike racers that have come through the ranks, like Wil Dugan, Jamey Driscoll, Kevin Bouchard-Hall, Mike Cody, all thee former and current pros have been sprouting from this small cycling community in Burlington. Unknowingly when I applied to school, I was really fortunate and thrilled to find that when I got there,
I was already a struggling cat 4 when I got into college, having had a few of junior international racing but very little success now being immersed in a cycling community at college, it made it much more of a priority for me to become successful in the sport but I guess I was still very unknown in New England. Myerson didn’t even know about me when I signed for the team, he didn’t want me on the team, like ‘if he lives in New England and I don’t know him them he’s no good’. (laughs) I think that’s true, anyone that wants to be part of this team, you have to beat Adam and you have to impress Adam by beating him. I think I really got onto the team because I convinced Pat Raines, one of the managers of the team, of my mission and how my goals were really in line with the team’s goals. I was willing to just race for jersey and shorts, all I wanted was the opportunity because I only have so much time. If I’m not racing bikes, I’m in medical school and I made a commitment to myself that if I’m going back to college, I’m not racing bikes, because that is going to consume my life as much as cycling is consuming my life now and I need to be content with my achievement in the sport when I leave it for medical school. So I reached out to Pat, he stuck to his instincts and gave me a shot. I went through a quick learning phase last year and discovered what being a pro bike racer was all about, learned the ranks in one year and I guess that’s where I am now.
That’s pretty fast.
Yeah, I was a cat 2 in 2008 and I had been a cat 2 for 2 years. I came down to do the Crossroads series, and I knew that Time Factory Pro Team, now Mt Khakis, were local and I had heard about the Presbyterian race and that it was a USA Crits race which I had never done, I was like well maybe I can meet the guys down here. So I flew down from Vermont to do the Crossroads races, I beat a lot of the guys on Mt Khakis just racing by myself, I never won one but that week I got my cat 1 upgrade and then I got into the Presbyterian Invitational the day before the race. I was so completely overwhelmed, I made it 1 hour 15 minutes into the race, some of the Rock Racing guys were getting dropped besides me and I was like okay it’s time to quit (laughs) I’ve done enough, this is a level so far above me that there’s no way that I’m going to make it but then, Pat recognized my name after and it got me onboard. I went from a cat 2 to a pro in two months, it was petty weird.
That is pretty fast. Did you put school on hold until after the cycling career is done?
The fall of 2008, I graduated in December from University of Vermont but I had already signed my contract with Mt Khakis for the spring of 2009, so upon graduating in January, I moved to the SouthEast in the winter and then basically began training.
So you actually courted Mt Khakis. What does Adam say now?
I’m sort of a little shy and Adam is not the most approachable-looking guy. I was so intimidated by being a professional, I was just a club rider from New Hampshire, just got my cat 1 but didn’t think I really deserved it. I was so intimidated by even introducing myself to him. I did it and he was still oh whatever (laughs), he’s a hard guy to win over. He beat me in the Pittfield in Western Mass, I was trying to impress there, he beat me by one place, he got 4th and I got 5th, and then I went up to him after the race and that was the beginning of my relationship with Adam.
Here you are, after 2 years with Mt Khakis, you signed with Kenda. What’s your goal for next year?
This year, I focused on USA Crits and next year, I think I want to turn my eye to the NRC. I was top 20th or 21st [note: Howe was 29th] this year by just doing USA Crits and East Coast NRC races. I think I have the potential to be able to be a contender in the top 10 in the NRC and I’d really like to go after that goal. Clearly that goal might not be in line for Kenda’s goal for me, I don’t know but just thinking and dreaming about next year, I’d like to do more of the NRC circuit and get that NRC win that I’ve been chasing since I started to have the confidence to be a competitive sprinter.
My expectations of myself and my performances are only getting greater, I’m not even close to satisfied yet. I remember in college, my only dream was to become a pro and when I reached that last year I was pretty much just happy to be where I was, I didn’t have any real goals that required much work but this past winter I set those goals, one of them was to win the U25 jersey in the USA Crits, and got that locked up, next thing is to win the overall.
What’s your long-term goal now, your dream?
Nothing would be greater than winning the National Championships. I had a chance at it in college in my last year, but I crashed out on the last corner of the race. I was in great position, ready to go for it and then my dreams were swiped from underneath me, oh it was awful. To be National Champion, I think, is the biggest achievement that I can ever dream of making being a domestic pro.
I don’t know how far I want to take this sport, I’ve surpassed all expectations I had for performance, I never really thought that I could ever be this competitive, to be someone that’s known, to be someone that gets the opportunity to be interviewed by someone like you, it’s a dream. I’m having a hard time setting realistic, achievable goal that go further than this, but the team seems to think that I have more to learn and more to develop and so for me, just looking and watching [Daniel] Holloway win the jersey this year, and watching [John] Murphy win it last year, and being twenty feet behind as Murphy raised his hands, it was ‘man I only have twenty more feet to get better, before I can get that’. For me, it would be such an honor to be able to wear that jersey and next year I really hope to not have the same luck, to go through the same thing that I went through this year but again it’s only one race.
That’s a tough one.
There’s a lot of luck that goes into it, it wasn’t my fault there was a crash on that corner this year that I ran into. I didn’t crash myself, it was pretty hard to deal with that, I’m just thrilled to be getting this opportunity. There are so many people out there that are really good at bike racing that are waiting for their opportunity to be able to do what I’m doing. I think that it would be really bad of me to not be soaking this opportunity for everything that it is, and loving the chance that I’m getting right now to make my biggest love my job.
Were you actively looking for a team next year?
There are so many good guys out there, there are so few jobs. I’d been working on trying to make contacts with people since the beginning of the year. I had my expectations and the teams that I was looking at, I was looking at smaller-budget teams at the beginning of the year and then as I felt a little bit more confident in myself I started reaching out to bigger teams. Kenda came after me, I had been talking to Chad Thomson all year but he came after me and said that he wanted me to do for them what I did for Mt Khakis, to be their sprinter. He just made me the right offer, he’s going to give me the opportunity to be a leader from the sprinting side of things and that was just one that I couldn’t refuse, it was too good and I’m really excited where they are going next year and to be a part of their growing program. We have a good squad lined up and I think we’ll be really competitive in the NRC and I’m excited to be a part of it.
NRC has stage races too, do you want to get into the stage racing too?
Before this year, I was coaching myself. I study bio-chemistry in college, I have an interest in exercise physiology, I’ve been building my own training plan. This year I decided to get rid of that, (laughs) make an investment in my future by purchasing a qualified coach, I hired BJ Basham from Peak Cycling Group to work with me over the winter. If I had known how good he was, or how it can be in the last 8 years of racing bikes I would have hired him 8 years ago. He’s just so great to work with. Sadly I didn’t hire him until April, right when I came back from my racing in California. I’m really excited to work with him this winter, to have a whole winter to work on my weaknesses, and my biggest weaknesses are things like road racing, time trialing and climbing and I expect that I’m going to get better at that stuff this winter. I don’t want to increase my expectations in my performance in stage races too much because I don’t want to sacrifice my skills in crit racing and sprinting. So I’m trying hard right now to figure out what Kenda has in plan for me next year and figure out how I can develop both in the crit sprinting and the road races because the NRC is so heavily weighted towards stage races and I need to get better at them if I want to have the hopes of being able to be an NRC contender. I would love to become better at road racing and climbing but I still have a lot of work to do to be able to reach that.
You’re still young.
I have to have a very rapid growth in this sport because I have so many other goals and so many other things that I want to do in my life. I was talking to Adam about this today, it’s kind of like this wave, and it keeps getting bigger and bigger and I’m trying to surf as long as I can, and get the wave as big as I can and then get off of it before it crashes down on top of me. I don’t know where I am on that curve so far but that’s the hard part you never know. I’m trying not to leave myself hung out if for some reason this isn’t working out. I’m actively preparing myself for the MCAD exams, I studied all winter for it. I had another year to prepare before I have to take it because I signed another contract so I keep on working on it, keep on studying. I hope that I have scores that are high enough that I’ll be able to apply for school so I have that lined up in case cycling doesn’t work out. My career is pretty volatile right now because I don’t think that I’m so established that I’m guaranteed any sort of work, I’m not really that well known so I don’t want to get too distant from my educational goals.
What other things do you want to do?
I went to college to become a doctor, I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I was in high-school. For my birthday last year, my mom sent me this video, I made this little self interview when I was a little kid, 5th or 6th grade when you interview yourself. I was living in this crappy apartment by myself, poor as you can be, living on 20 bucks a weeks and she sent me this thing on my birthday in March and [on it] I said ‘the only thing that I want to do in my life is become a professional mountain bike racer and a surgeon.’ It brought me to tears, there I was, sitting in an apartment by myself, finally getting the opportunity to be able to live my dream – and look I made it halfway through. Thinking about how it sucked to be doing what I was doing, living paycheck to paycheck, thinking how fortunate I was to be able make a goal when I was a kid and being able to actually go through with it as an adult and now is the other half. Now I’m eager to jump on the other half. But I also feel so fortunate to get this opportunity and I’m going to work as hard as I can to get as far as I can in this sport and take it as long as I can but I don’t want to forget about the medical school. I like fly fishing, hiking, there are so many other things in the world that you don’t have a chance to do as a bike racer but I’ve got the rest of my life for that.
I’m just trying to have a realistic goal. If I had the opportunity to race on a D1 or D2 team in Europe, I would jump on it but you can’t bank on that but I can control the medical school and that is definitely within my reach, and that’s something that I’m hanging on to. I don’t know that my goals will be the same next year, maybe next year I’ll be thinking I can go to the next level but right now I only really have what I’ve gotten so far to base my future on so I’m just hanging on to that.
Howe’s season is nearly over. He plans on racing the $10K Tour de Fairfield in New Jersey and the Boston Mayor’s Cup at the end of September, his traditional last race of the year.