Many riders have three months of preparation for the Tour de France. It involves a carefully-coiffed race programme, training camps at altitude, gradual weight loss, tapering and exact bed times. IAM Cycling rider Leigh Howard had three days between his last-minute call-up and the start of the 2016 Tour de France.
When team-mate Dries Devenyns was ruled out of the roster with gastroenteritis, the Australian was phoned on Wednesday morning by directeur sportif Rik Verbrugghe to take his place.
“It was a big surprise,” Howard said. “Luckily I didn’t have any holidays or anything else planned. The last week has been a little bit more relaxed than it normally would have been if you were preparing for the Tour. I had a few days down the beach but it could be a blessing in disguise.”
At his home in Andorra, Howard hurriedly packed his bags, then friend and former team-mate Simon Clarke drove him to the airport to catch the next flight. Ironically, the Tour goes right past Howard’s front door during stage 9, which finishes in the mountainous principality.
It’s little wonder the sprinter calls his late call-up “an absolute rollercoaster”. On June 20, he was informed that he had missed selection for the IAM Cycling Tour de France team after spending all season on the longlist.
“I went through a couple of weeks feeling disappointed not to do the Tour, but in hindsight after a day or two of coming to terms with the fact, then I thought ‘okay, focus on the next year maybe.’ So I was more relaxed mentally.”
Fifteen years on from childhood days watching Armstrong-era Tours at the crack of dawn in Australia, Howard is happy to finally be here. “My first couple of years, I knew I’d never go to the Tour, especially with Highroad [2010-11]. Then with GreenEdge, I never got the opportunity for numerous reasons, mainly because there were other riders that were better-suited in the team. And that was okay, I could accept that.”
Readers may remember Howard most for his Tour of Britain stage win in 2012, outsprinting Mark Cavendish into Knowsley Safari Park. However, he cast doubt on a repeat performance; at the 2016 Tour de France, the 26-year-old will be chiefly there to help Sondre Holst Enger and take opportunities himself if they arise.
“I think on the main sprint stages, we’re not quite on the level of someone like Greipel, Kittel, Cavendish, but in the same moment, we’ll continue to try. You never know what can happen in those sprints, so we’ll be there fighting.”
Howard has extra motivation to finish the race in the form of a visit from his mum. “She comes over with four or five days to go in the Tour. To Andorra, but maybe if I can make it to Paris, I’m guessing she’s going to come to see me finish. That’d be nice.”
Having joined IAM Cycling at the start of the year from Orica-GreenEdge, Howard was left disappointed by the mid-season news that the Swiss WorldTour team would close at the end of 2016: “It’s been a breath of fresh air here. The great thing is that they gave us news early enough that we can always search of new jobs. I started the season off really well and wanted to continue that, hopefully I will continue that good form.
“After hearing that we’re gonna have to search for a new team, hopefully this is a good platform to show the other teams what I’m capable of. I’m racing for a contract, more or less.”
It would be some story if last-gasp substitute Leigh Howard could clinch a Tour de France stage win. He says that thought has crossed his mind before no less.
“I think it’s every kid’s dream growing up to win a Tour stage, you’ve always got that in the back of your head. First of all, you wanted to get there, now I’m here, and the next thing I want is to take home a stage. Whether that’s this year or another year, but you have to be there to win it.”