MORGAN HILL, California (VN) — Neilson Powless has already experienced the agony and ecstasy of WorldTour racing—and he’s only been at it for four months.
The ecstasy? Six hours into Milano-Sanremo, Powless sprinted up the Cipressa, dragging his teammate Danny Van Poppel into a perfect position near the front of the peloton. A dropped chain eventually slowed Powless on the approach to the Poggio, but he still finished the race, all 298km of it.
“It was like holy [crap] this is the longest ride I’ve ever done on my bike and I’m smashing it,” Powless said. “I felt way more comfortable than I thought I would.”
The agony? In February Powless was unable to start the Abu Dhabi Tour after customs agents in Amsterdam deemed his passport unsatisfactory—the cover was tattered—and forbade him from traveling to the United Arab Emirates. In April he fell ill in the Tour of the Basque country and spent the six-day race suffering on some of the steepest climbs in European racing. During that race’s second stage Powless missed a crucial split in the peloton and was forced to chase full-gas for hours.
“It was so much suffering,” Powless said. “It was wild to see how fast they go up those finishing climbs.”
Those experiences have shaped Powless’s young WorldTour career. Just 21 years old Powless graduated from the domestic U.S. racing circuit at the end of 2017 and signed a two-year contract with Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo. The multi-year deal was a reflection of Powless’s status as the most promising American racer of his generation. Last year he won the U23 national road race and finished second in the elite event; two years ago he nearly won the Amgen Tour of California’s summit finish to Gibraltar Road. In 2016 he won the hardest stage of the Tour de l’Avenir.
According to his LottoNL-Jumbo bosses, Powless has the natural talent to achieve big things in pro cycling. He can soar up long, painful climbs, and blaze a fast time in the individual time trial. He can also survive punchy, challenging days in steep terrain. LottoNL-Jumbo’s team management believes the key to unlocking Powless’s full ability is to let it progress over time. Forcing the results too early in Powless’s career could lead to injury or burnout.
“The first year we give him the possibility to get results without the pressure,” said Merijn Zeeman, the team’s sport director. “For the fourth and fifth year, we think he can be on the highest level. So right now we take it step by step.”
What do those steps entail? For his debut WorldTour season, Powless races a variety of one-day events and weeklong European races, where he rides in support of the team’s GC strongmen. Powless also competes in the American tours of California and Utah, where he leads LottoNL-Jumbo’s GC ambitions.
In 2019 Powless starts a grand tour. In 2020 he rides the tough one-week stage races as LottoNL-Jumbo’s leader.
“The most important thing is we have made long-term plans with him. That is how we always work with our biggest talents,” Zeeman said. “He is good uphill and a good GC rider. He has the mentality to grow as a GC rider. That is what we’re aiming for.”
Powless has already seen a change in his racing and training. He’s learned to focus on the later stages in a weeklong race, rather than the first ones. He’s perfected his individual time trial and learned more about the current limits of his body. He’s also adjusted to the life in Europe. Powless rents an apartment in Girona, Spain, a town where the majority of European-based American riders live. He still keeps a room at his parent’s place in Roseville, California, a suburb of Sacramento.
Powless has endured a topsy turvy ride at this year’s Amgen Tour of California. He struggled on the stage 2 summit finish to Gibraltar Road and was unhitched from the front group only a few kilometers into the ascent. The performance was puzzling, considering Powless rode so aggressively on the climb in 2016.
Powless knew he lacked the high-end climbing legs for that effort. The sickness from the Tour of the Basque country knocked him off his bike for a week in April when he was forced to go on antibiotics. He had just two weeks of intense training prior to California.
“The pace was about the same—I was about 420 [watts] near the bottom which is where I was two years ago. I just couldn’t sustain it,” Powless said. “I was over my limit early and had to let the group go.”
Powless then rebounded for the individual time trial and posted an impressive ride. He stopped the clock 56 seconds down on winner Tejay van Garderen, which was good for eighth overall. He now sits in 16th place, 3:45 down to van Garderen.
Should Powless crack the race’s top-10, that would be reason to celebrate. If he does not, well, it’s all just part of the process.
“You have a bad day and just think about moving on,” Powless said. “Today is a completely new day.”