From first pro race to the Tour in 18 months: Georgie Howe’s whirlwind ride

In her own words, Howe is at the Tour to play 'water bitch' for her team leaders ... and for the final stage ITT.

Howe (right) with one of her two team leaders, Ane Santesteban.

Matt de Neef
by Matt de Neef 27.07.2023 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Few professional riders have risen through the ranks as fast as Georgie Howe (Jayco-AlUla).

A former international-level rower who turned to cycling during COVID-19 lockdowns, Howe only did her first elite-level race in January 2022 – the Australian time trial championships where she finished fourth. A few months later she was the Oceania TT champion. A few months after that she was doing her first European races.

She excelled there too, finishing fourth overall at the Baloise Belgium Tour in just her second European UCI race. The three riders ahead of her on GC: Audrey Cordon-Ragot, Lorena Wiebes, and Ellen van Dijk.

Today, Howe is halfway through her debut Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift, in what is her very first season as a professional. In her own words, it’s been a whirlwind. 

I catch up with Howe on a non-descript sidestreet somewhere in the town of Cahors, before the start of stage 4. She and her Jayco-AlUla teammates have just ridden from their hotel to the start, adding a few kilometres to what is already the longest day of the Tour at more than 180 km. The Jayco-AlUla bus is getting serviced after the aircon stopped working.

Howe and her teammates gather near their team cars, chat with team staff, and collect nutrition and drinks for the day ahead. Howe explains that she can still barely believe how quickly she’s come up through the sport.

“First races last year, [now] Tour de France,” she says. “It’s definitely something I keep pinching myself about. But I’ve just been super lucky with the people in my corner and I can’t thank them enough, from my coach to the team, to everyone back home. It’s been phenomenal. I’m just having a ball.”

Howe knows she has a lot to learn. And she wants to learn, which isn’t surprising when you consider she’s a former student at Princeton University, where she studied the classics and medieval history.

“Everything’s learning,” she says, upbeat, smiling. “I think positioning [in the bunch] is still something that I’m personally working on. You can have all the watts in the world but if you start a climb too far back and you’re not, you know, 45 kilos, it’s really hard to work your way to the front. So you might be going the same speed, but just 50 or 30 metres behind. That’s something that I’m working on every day.”

Howe’s sports director, Martin Vestby, reiterates Howe’s inexperience in the sport, but quickly says that he’s impressed with both her potential and her attitude. Especially her willingness to learn.

“She has a big engine and we’ve seen that she has adapted to cycling really quick,” he says. “I think this first full season is quite a learning year. There’s a lot to learn. But she’s really onto it and asked a lot of questions [and is] interested to take these steps as quick as possible. [She’s] really an exciting rider to work with. And of course, her engine is her big thing at the moment, and by developing all the rest, all the other aspects of cycling, we hope to see a nice pathway into a really a top rider.”

I’m curious what sort of rider Vestby sees Howe as; where he thinks her development pathway might lead.

“With her engine, it’s clearly time trials – it’s something that suits her really well,” he explains. “I think [she’s] a rider who can go in breakaways. If she adapts to the classic races, bit rolling terrain, and tough conditions – that’s something that she handles well. But for now, I think it’s more about the development and take this step by step [to] actually transit into a road cyclist.”

Before the Tour, Howe had spent just 31 days in an elite-level peloton in her career, making her perhaps the most inexperienced rider in the entire Tour de France bunch. It’s no surprise then that, for Vestby, a lot of Howe’s development will be about gaining experience in the peloton. 

“Just understanding how the bunch is working, positioning, how to save energy, and of course, knowledge of cycling tactics in general,” says Vestby, when asked what he’d like to see Howe work on. “All these kinds of things.”

Howe in the sprinter’s jersey at the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race earlier this year.

When I ask Howe what her role is at the Tour de France Femmes, she thinks about it for a moment.

“Water bitch?” she says with a laugh. “Domestique for the girls, supporting them. We’ve got our leaders in Alex [Manly] and Ane [Santesteban] so just making sure they have everything they need in terms of like nutrition and support within the race as well as just being close to them, checking in on them.

“And then, yeah, when shit really kicks off, it’s time to spin the legs and save for another day.”

But while Howe is on domestique duties for much of the Tour, that’s not the only reason she’s here. The final stage of this year’s race is an individual time trial – a first for the Tour de France Femmes – and that’s a stage Howe very much has her eye on.

She’s been out to recon the course, and she’s glad she did.

“I’m excited for it,” she says. “It’s going to be fast. The berg is … it’s a berg, but it’s not like a berg, you know? Actually I think the back half of the course will be quite difficult. It’s almost English countryside-esque with the lanes and the hedges, so you can’t actually see the exits to the corners. So recon-ing the course, knowing the course is going to be super helpful.

“People are like ‘Oh, there’s a climb in it’, but it’s actually more of like a watts and aero course actually. So if you can produce the power and punch over that climb – it’s only like two to three minutes of real steep, and then it kind of flattens out to about 2% – then watts per kilo don’t really matter. It’s not like a solid, pure climber’s TT, you know?”

Howe has only competed in five time trials at the elite level so far, but none nearly as big as stage 8 of this year’s Tour. So what would she be happy with from that stage? When asked, she pauses again before answering.

“I’d love to win it,” she says, smiling again. “But yeah, I mean, the support that we have here for the team is phenomenal. And so if I can do the best possible result for the team, that’s the main goal, and executing the plan.”

While Howe has done time trials in stage races before – the prologue and stage 3b ITT at the Baloise Ladies Tour last year – this Tour TT is different. It comes at the end of a very hard eight-day stage race, and directly after the race’s big mountain-top finish. That makes the stage 8 ITT a real unknown for the Melbournian.

“You never know how the legs are going to be stage eight of the Tour de France,” she says. “And I have to climb the Tourmalet the day before. So I’m not sure what that day will bring.”

Based on her career trajectory so far, Howe might well surprise some people in that final-stage time trial. But whichever way it goes, she won’t have to wait long to test herself in another top-level ITT. She’s just been selected for the Australian team for the Road World Championships in Glasgow early next month where she’ll join Grace Brown in the ITT. She’d been eligible for a spot in Wollongong last year, as Oceania champion, but AusCycling opted not to send her, citing her inexperience and supposed lack of medal prospects.

“It’s always tough with national selection stuff,” she says. “All you can control is how you ride your bike, so as long as you enjoy doing that, everything else is a bonus. I love to race my bike, love to race TT, it’s a good TT, it’s gonna be a fast TT, probably a wet TT. But it’s always a privilege to pull on the green and gold. I’ve been fortunate now to do that in two sports so I’m really looking forward to it.” 

Right now though, Howe has a more immediate task: doing what she can to support Manly and Santesteban in the biggest bike race in the world, all while learning as much as she can along the way.

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