KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Alex Howes won his first national championships with a deftly played chess match.
Ruth Winder won hers with brute power.
After getting dropped by breakaway companions Stephen Bassett and Neilson Powless, Howes caught back on in the closing miles Sunday, then swept to the lead on the final climb. The EF Education First rider cleanly made it through the last left-hand turn and raised his arms in victory.
Bassett came through in second and Powless rounded out the podium.
“I’ve been running after this one for a while, eight years or so,” Howes said. “I’ve been on the podium a few times and always an animator and just never there, and today we went early and just kept going and I can’t believe it paid off.”
Earlier in the day, Winder won the women’s race after a dramatic solo attack six miles from the finish, holding off hard-charging Coryn Rivera and Emma White at the finish line.
“Just keep on going, that’s all I was thinking. Just trying to motivate myself to go as hard as I could,” Winder said. “Coming across the finish line, I thought everyone was going to pass me in the last 100 meters, just coming down there because I was dying so bad. I had nothing. I sat down. And I was like, `Get up! Sprint, sprint, sprint!’ Nobody passed me and I can’t believe that I won.”
The men’s race came down to a cat-and-mouse game between the three breakaway riders.
Powless was the first to attack with about four miles to go, then Bassett – the hometown hero – countered and Howes was dropped from the group. That left the best-known rider in the trio fighting to get back with the leaders on a scorching day in Tennessee.
The Denver native finally caught back on, and it became a tactical battle among the trio.
Powless was the first to crack on the final hill, and Bassett ramped up the pace to create a gap, raising the hopes of his personal cheering section. But as he crested the final hill, Bassett looked over to see Howes pulling even, then swinging to the lead on the final downhill push.
He breezed through the final left-hand corner to claim a long-awaited national championship.
The women’s race covered just over 70 miles, but nothing was decided until riders returned to Knoxville and began making laps toward a large crowd awaiting them at the finish.
Winder’s teammate, Tayler Wiles, began to set the pace for a chase group up Sherrod Road, and Lily Williams and Shayna Powless soon joined Winder on the attack. They swept up a pair of breakaway riders and kept working together until Winder and Williams built a gap.
“It’s just really hard to get away in a breakaway in these races,” Winder said, “because everybody is watching everybody else so intently, so I tried being a little bit sneaky about my attack. I wanted to know how Tayler was, of course, but I also used it as a way to be sneaky in my attack. Because she had just gone really, really hard and everyone was just started to slow up, and I was like, `Hey, are you doing OK?’ And she’s like, `Yeah.’ And, `OK, cool. See you.”‘
Winder left Williams behind on the final climb of Sherrod Road, but she still needed to survive about six miles with a strong but reduced peloton giving frantic chase.
Wiles was there to help once again, going to the front and effectively slowing it down. Rivera finally managed to get around her and launch a sprint, but she couldn’t get Winder at the line.
“I knew I could go in the straightaways and I knew that I had a couple of corners to recover in,” said Winder, who was born in England but raised in Lafayette, California. “So just go as hard as I could, breathe in the corners, and go as hard as I could.”
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