Local rider rising in world rankings
Alec Cowan readies for forthcoming events in Germany and Canada
Through cycling’s ranks, he charges.
Quietly and quickly. Unwittingly.
At 13, he hops onto a rental and wins the novice class at the BMX provincial championships. He tries mountain-biking. “My first race — top three or something.”
Then he travels to Los Angeles for a closer look at track cycling — specifically, the Pan-Am championships, which are doubling as Canada’s identification camp. Good thing. Because not a soul knows him. “I was just this dude from Calgary,” recalls Alec Cowan. “I was really no one. Just a random guy from Alberta. I had no big expectations. I’d only been in a handful of races — nothing compared to the other guys.”
Then 17, he turned in fair times — “nothing really astonishing.” But his unflinching manner is what impressed coaches.
Comfortable whizzing through traffic. Gutsy, too.
“In one of the races, I crashed, got back up on my bike, managed to finish fourth,” he says. “I showed that I cared, that I would fight to the end, you know.”
Rewards were stunningly immediate — a spot on the national-junior team, a trip to the worlds in South Korea — even if consequences were not.
“Even after track worlds,” Cowan says, “I didn’t think that I would be here.” Here? Yes, in a tiny town in Belgium, an hour east of Brussels, where he’s competing for Cycling Canada’s development outfit, Team RaceClean, for the second year.
All from those modest beginnings.
“It was more like a hobby, something to do in the afternoons in Calgary,” Cowan, only 19, says. “I’d always go to the Olympic Oval (for the Canadian Sport Institute’s cycling program). But I didn’t take it actually too seriously at the start. I started noticing I was decent at it.”
The boy could always move, according to his father.
“He has an ability to really dig deep,” says Angus Cowan, who would know a thing or two about that — he’s the local ultra-marathoner, who, in December 2010, ran for 25 straight hours (on a downtown five-kilometre loop) to raise $25,000 for the Calgary Food Bank. “He can kind of go into that hurt locker … he has a strong, natural motor and some mental toughness, right?
“I think he’s started to turn a few heads.”
Two weeks ago Cowan placed 20th in the second stage of Union Cycliste Internationale’s Nations Cup event in Holland. No small thing, going head to head with the fastest under-23 riders on the planet.
“Right now, I’m fully committed to the road,” says Cowan, who races Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany. “I really want to see myself become a professional road cyclist — that is my dream.
“I decided that last year when I (earned) some results … I saw that I could maybe actually pursue this.”
So on hold for now are university plans for the Western Canada High School graduate. Not that hard lessons are ever very far away.
Travel, for instance, has taken on a tragic flavour. Cowan was training in Spain during the Brussels bombings last month. Familiarity alone floored him. “Shocking,” he says. “That Starbucks that got blown up? A number of times I’ve been there. You hear about these terrorist attacks — it is terrifying — but it’s never close to home. When you actually see a place that you’ve been to before, when you’ve sat there spending a lot of time waiting for flights or waiting for friends? It hits home way more than seeing it in the newspaper.”
On this particular evening, though, Cowan is relaxing.
The previous day’s grind featured a six-hour ride — “you can be the strongest dude in the world and you’d still feel it the next morning” — so the recovery day is welcome, even if it did include 90 minutes of seat time.
“It has its ups and it definitely has its downs,” the five-foot-10, 160-pounder says of the season.
“It’s fun to pursue your cycling career, but it’s for sure hard to be away from home for three months. It can get stressful at times.”
Cowan returns to Canada for June’s national championships in Ottawa and the Grand Prix Cycliste de Saguenay in Quebec. Then it’s back to Europe. If this life seems mind-blowing for Cowan, imagine how peers feel. He laughs. “It’s actually funny,” says Cowan, a product of the Cyclemeisters-Bow Cycle club. “The neighbourhood I came from — I moved into Kelvin Grove around Grade 7 — we created this really close friend group. One of my friends (Cole Josefchak) is playing junior A (hockey) and he’s going to Colorado College next year. He spends his winters training really hard and I spend my summers training really hard. And another friend, he’s becoming a chef.
“So we have a group where everyone understands how much commitment you have to put towards something to achieve a goal.”