Is the Neilson Powless America’s Sleeper Tour de France a threat?
In an alternate timeline, Neilson Powless jumps from the Tour de France Stage 6 breakaway and takes victory over his solo rivals. The 10-second time bonus for the win, plus flying legs in the final kilometer, puts the EF Education First-Easypost runner in the yellow jersey of the race by just one second.
Alas, in this timeline, it was not to be. Powless took the break on the legendary and feared cobbled stage of the race. He worked all day and dutifully attacked inside this last kilometer. But instead, Edvald Boassen-Hagen of TotalEnergies brings it back. Gassed by the effort, Powless fell a little behind as Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech) barely edged Taco van der Hoorn of Intermarché-Wanty for the victory. And the most cruel, the infernal chase led by Wout van Aert deprives Powless of a chance for yellow.
Not that it seems to bother him that much. He was thinking of a stage victory, not the yellow jersey, he said BikeNews after. But that could start to change now.
You’re forgiven if Powless is a little unfamiliar to you. There are seven Americans on this year’s Tour, and the headliner of course goes to Sepp Kuss and Brandon McNulty, both because of their own considerable abilities and their proximity to the superstars of the peloton. McNulty rides for two-time defending champion Tadej Pogačar’s UAE Team Emirates, while Kuss – a stage winner here last year – is a top mate for the Jumbo-Visma pair of Primož Roglič and Jonas Vingaard .
A step back from Kuss and McNulty in terms of fame for American fans is an intriguing quartet of talented young pros (McNulty himself is only 24), running a bit under the radar and far from home: versatile like Matteo Jorgenson from Movistar (23) and Kevin Vermaerke (21) from DSM; Classics specialist Quinn Simmons (21) on Trek Segafredo; and of course Powerless. (The seventh participant of the American Tour, Joe Dombrowski of Astana, is 31 years old).
Against all that, it’s easy to miss that Powless, who is only 25 himself, is already in his fifth season on the WorldTour. It’s easy to miss because despite all his talent, Powless is usually not on the top step of the podium. But if that’s your only indicator, it’s easy to miss his talent: an ability that makes him EF’s second protected GC rider behind team manager and former Tour podium finisher Rigoberto Uran.
Powless started out running X-Terra off-road triathlons and then mountain bikes with NICA in Roseville, Calif., with her older sister, Shayna Powless before both transitioning to road racing (Shayna now runs for the central criterium team L39ion). While part of Axeon’s much-loved development team, Neilson showcased his talents with a string of top-flight finishes at home and abroad, in races like the Under-19s Edition. 23-year-old from Liège-Bastogne-Liège and a stage victory in the Tour de l’Avenir, the so-called Tour de France for young riders. This led to a WorldTour deal with Jumbo alongside fellow first-year pro Kuss.
Powless and Kuss – who is two years older but started road racing relatively late – had followed a fairly similar trajectory so far. But on Jumbo, their paths diverged. Kuss quickly became one of the best climbing support riders for Roglič, helping his team captain to the 2019 Vuelta title and winning a stage along the way. Powless was also part of that 2019 Vuelta squad, but while Kuss was given a new contract and a raise, Powless left, signing instead with EF Pro Cycling for the 2020 season.
The move paid off, with a Tour de France race where Powless – a member of the Oneida tribe and the first Native American to race the Tour – nearly clinched a stage win on two separate days out of the breakaways. Then, last season, his only professional victory: a superb victory in the prestigious Klasikoa de San Sebastian, a difficult one-day race in the hills of the Spanish Basque Country. The finish was crazy: Powless making pick after pick on a nasty, wet day. Attacking on a soggy and foggy final climb and being caught by Matej Mohorič, the two-time Tour de France stage winner. Powless has just ducked inside Mohorič as the Slovenian cuts a curb on the descent and the other two riders from the break crash. And then Powless, improbably, surprisingly, ahead of Mohorič and Mikkel Honoré of Quick-Step in a photo-finish.
After the finish line, Powless was exuberant spectators, punching, teammates and staff hugging the bear, and carrying a giant “Isn’t it fucking cool?!” smiled as he made his way to the podium to collect the txapelathe large traditional Basque beret which is the trophy of the race.
If you considered this a bizarre victory, you would miss his other best results: fifth that year in the world road race. Eighth this season in the difficult Liège-Bastogne-Liège. And fourth overall last month at the Tour de Suisse, including another near-miss on stage 5, when he was narrowly edged out by Bora’s Aleksandr Vlasov. Incidentally, it is Vlasov who is quietly singled out as the sneakiest challenger to double winner Pogačar. But it would be a mistake to overlook Powless.
Truth be told, Powless wasn’t on anyone’s list of Tour contenders at the start, even with his recent results. His Grand Tours history is as a support rider. But maybe that’s exactly why he’s a good candidate for a top spot here: nobody expects him, except maybe his own team. “Powless is not considered a contender for a podium finish once the Tour is over in Paris,” said the Laconic verdict from NBC Sports after his near miss for yellow. But speaking ahead of the Roubaix stage, EF team principal Matti Breschel expressed his confidence in their versatile youngster. “I’m not too nervous about Neilson to be honest,” he said. “He’s a great bike handler and has a great team to back him up.” Return him at the top. Not the opposite.
It’s pretty clear that Uran and Powless are the 1A and 1B options for EF. And the team has a history of unexpected Grand Tour successes: Uran’s second-place finish at the Tour in 2017, or Ryder Hesjedal’s stunning upset victory at the Giro d’Italia in 2012. Either way, they started anonymously before getting up late. in the first week of racing. Neither was considered a serious threat at first.
So maybe it’s better, in the long run, for Powless to be second now, for people to put him down. It’s the closest an American has been to yellow since 2018, when Tejay van Garderen tied for first with a teammate after the team time trial. And no American has really gate yellow since 2006 (or 1991, if you take into account the stripped results of the United States Anti-Doping Agency’s investigation into doping in the United States Postal Service team).
Opportunities arose, starting with Thursday’s uphill finish at Longwy. But they are also thin. Powless is sandwiched on the GC between van Aert – a possible threat to the Stage 6 victory if his wrist (and legs) are in good condition after the crash and cobblestone odyssey of Stage 5 – and Pogačar, the betting favorite to take yellow on Friday with the first real summit finish on the “super” climb of the Planches des Belles Filles.
Expect him to try. One of Powless’ strengths is its day-to-day durability. And paradoxically, it could still be reasonably fresh: being in the break may be (relatively speaking) an easier ride on the cobbles than fighting for position in the peloton. His EF side could certainly use the results: while Magnus Cort’s move to the KoM shirt has been a positive, EF have just five wins this year and are dangerously close to being relegated out of the sport’s premier league. next season. A stage win? Yellow? It would solve a lot of problems.
Even if Powless pulls off this unlikely double feat, he’s unlikely to be considered a serious threat. Riders will say all the right things about him, of course. They always do. But deep down, Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingaard and the others won’t really believe that Powless can match them in the mountains. Which will make it even more interesting if when we get to those mountains he does.
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