• Damien Howson (R) with Mitchelton-Scott team-mate Nick Schultz during Stage 4 of the Vuelta a España. (Getty)Source: Getty
Damien Howson has 576.5km in his legs from the past four days but knows the real work is yet to come.
Robert Kidd

Cycling Central
28 Aug 2019 - 11:19 AM 

“Of the four stages we've ridden so far, it was probably the least stressful up until the final 50 kilometres,” Howson tells Cycling Central after Stage 4 of Vuelta a España.

“We had the final climb, the technical descent and a little bit of wind off the coast. Everyone was paying attention and keeping their leaders safe.

“It was the same for us and at the end of the day no harm was done, so it's a positive day.”

This is the fourth Vuelta for the Mitchelton-Scott rider and his first, in 2015, was the moment he realised he could compete with international cycling’s finest.

“I probably went into my first one not knowing what to expect,” Howson says.

“I remember in under 23s you'd think a one-week race was a big ask, so to step up to the professional ranks and compete for three weeks was a daunting exercise. I'd done seven-day races like Critérium du Dauphiné and I couldn't really grasp how three Dauphinés on top of each other was possibly going to go.

“It's kind of a roller-coaster affair, it's never smooth sailing. When you think you're tired and you don't think you can come back, you'd be surprised that your body can have the best day off the back of one of the worst days.”

In El Puig, the small town 15km north of Valencia, on Spain’s Mediterranean coast, you wouldn’t know one of the world’s most important cycling races was about to arrive for the first time.

In the early afternoon, the tourist office is closed for siesta and families enjoy long lunches in a shaded plaza. It could be any other sun-soaked Tuesday in August.

“All three Grand Tours are completely different. There's a different style of racing, a different climate, the roads, the fans, everything is laid out differently,” Howson says.

“The Vuelta, in general, has, maybe like the country's culture, a bit more of a relaxed, summer vibe about it.

“But the racing's anything but relaxed, that's for sure. It's taken as seriously as any of the other Grand Tours and it's definitely not easy either.”

Howson, 27, comes into the Vuelta in “pretty consistent” form and after well-tuned preparation for this season’s final Grand Tour.

“This is my seventh Grand Tour so I definitely know where my body should be at coming into a Grand Tour by now,” he said.

“Once you know your body, getting it at its best on the due date is essentially the aim.”

Back in El Puig, the town has woken up.

On either side of the main street, lined with smart pastel-coloured houses, crowds two or three people deep prepare for the riders to arrive.

A giant screen shows them 5km away. A ripple of excitement moves through the crowd.

“El Puig!” one woman exclaims on seeing the birdseye view of her humble town being broadcast around the world.
The leading pack arrive to a chorus of people cheering and banging the roadside barriers. They speed past – a one-second glimpse of greatness.

On the finish line, in the shadow of El Puig’s imposing monastery, Fabio Jakobsen wins the stage by a whisker.

Jakobsen denies Bennett to claim first Vuelta victory
Fabio Jakobsen sprinted to victory to win stage four of the Vuelta a España and deny Sam Bennett a second successive stage victory by the finest of margins.

Howson finishes 75th, the highest-ranked Australian rider, and sits 129th overall at this early stage of the final Grand Tour of the season.

Those numbers, though, are not particularly important to the South Australian. As a mountain domestique, Howson’s role is a selfless one.

“The first Grand Tour I did was just for experience and to see what I was capable of. I learned a lot about myself and the team,” he says.

“I've progressed to be there in key moments in events like the team time trial and the climbs and stuff like that. It's definitely something I pride myself on, being able to support the team and their ambitions.”

Some might struggle with being asked to put the team’s needs ahead of their own chances of podium finishes.
“Maybe for some, for me it kind of comes naturally,” Howson says.

“I've always, even from a young age, wanted to support others. I enjoy seeing the success of others as much as having my own success so for me it's not difficult to change that mentality, it's built within me.

“Everyone likes their time to shine and if the opportunity comes about that I get to win a race, I'm definitely going to take it. But I'm more than happy supporting guys like Esteban (Chaves) and the other leaders in our team.”

Howson, who dropped a promising basketball career to focus solely on cycling aged 14, is philosophical about his chances of one day being one of those leaders.

“Keeping the team pleased with the role I've currently got is what I'm after and if that leads to being a leader, we'll have to see how that goes,” he says.

“But if I complete my career over the next however many years and I'm still doing the role I'm doing now, I enjoy it and I get my own thrill from that. So I definitely wouldn't be disappointed or look back on my career and have a regret of supporting others.”

That support is likely to prove crucial in the later stages of the Vuelta, when tired minds plead with tired legs to stop.

“I guess having been there before, you realise everyone is human and everyone is getting tired,” Howson says.
“I think that plays to my advantage when everyone loses that explosive exhilaration that you have when you're fresh in this first week.

“A lot of fatigue comes about and it becomes more of a hard slog in that third week. That's something I enjoy, as much as not enjoy, but it plays in my favour a little bit more. And that's where I can offer some extra support to the leaders.”

When Cycling Central speaks with Howson in a Valencia hotel after the stage, he is “just off the massage table” and has the evening’s plans laid out – for the next 18 days.

“I’ll have dinner, a bit of an ice bath and then go to bed and do it all over again tomorrow.”