19-year-old Neilson Powless is taking on the biggest race of his young career this week in California

SAN DIEGO, California (VN) – Before this season, most of the elite cycling world knew nothing about 19-year-old Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman). And then he started winning, and winning some more. Through April, he had taken third overall at the San Dimas Stage Race, victory at the Redlands Cycling Classic time trial, and the overall title at the Joe Martin Stage Race, where he also racked up the win in the points competition (not to mention the best young rider competition). Most recently, he finished third in the Tour of the Gila time trial on his way to 12th overall. He leads the USA Cycling Pro Road Tour rankings. The kid is on fire.

“I have improved quite a bit from last year but it hasn’t been as big as the results are making it look like,” Powless said. “It’s just because I’ve maybe improved two to five percent and I’ve been in a leadership role. It’s been really great so far. After Redlands was when I realized it was going to be a really good season! It was an awakening.”

One person who has seen his rapid progress firsthand is teammate Logan Owen, winner of the Liège-Bastogne-Liège espoirs race this spring and a multi-time national cyclocross champion.

“He’s taken people by surprise and just come out and started smacking it!” Owen said. “It’s impressive. He’s a really nice guy. He’s definitely a huge talent for the future.”

Powless’s steady progression has taken him all the way to the Tour of California just two years after delving into road racing at a serious level, and four years removed from what he though might be a life as a pro triathlete.

His parents met at a triathlon. The day after he was born, his mother, who ran for Guam at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, brought him to the YMCA and into the pool. “They just didn’t want us to be afraid to try or do anything,” Powless said.

In 2011, he started getting serious about triathlon. He quickly realized it was hard to make a living in the sport, though he continued to compete. He won Xterra nationals, came third at worlds, only to improve upon those results in 2012 by winning both titles. Soon after he transitioned to mountain biking, racing in and around his Roseville, California, home.

His meteoric rise continued. When he was 17, he went to Europe with the national mountain bike team and also spent time dabbling in road racing. He had finished second overall at the Valley of the Sun Stage Race in Arizona, which led to his being selected to race the junior’s Paris-Roubaix, his third road race with the national team. He happily talks of crashing out of the race. The fact that he was extremely green is not lost on Powless.

Last year, as a member of the Hagens Berman team, as well as the U.S. national team, Powless served his time in a domestique role, slaying himself for the benefit of others. He enjoyed and appreciated every minute of it.

“Up until this year, I don’t think there was a single race where I tried to go for a result for myself. It was more about paying my dues and riding for other guys, and I enjoyed it a lot because when other guys succeed based on what you’ve done for them it’s a really cool feeling,” Powless said. “Especially the guys in the national team—all year long they were so appreciative of everything that you did. And I needed to pick up on all the nuances of how to race, how to read a race. It was a big learning curve.”

It all brings us back to California, which will undoubtedly be the biggest race in Powless’s nascent career. He’s all in.

“My teammate Tao [Geoghegan Hart] will for sure be going for GC. I’ll do whatever [team director] Axel Merckx wants me to do,” he said. “I’d like to go for a good GC; I’d really like to do well in the time trial and see how I stack up against the guys that are here. Obviously I’m not expecting to win but even top 20 would be pretty incredible.”

And where does he go from here? Only up. Powless, though, willingly admits he still has much learning to do. California will serve as a crucible, one in which every strength and weakness will be amplified among some of the best riders in the world. [On Tuesday, Powless rode to fifth place in the queen stage after attacking early on Gibraltar road -Ed.]

“Neilson’s really fresh to it, and it’s his first time doing everything and he’s definitely excelled being in the States for the early season,” Geoghegan Hart said. “The next step is for him to do that over in Europe because a lot of guys find that much more difficult — and not really the bike racing. It’s everything else.”

Powless is young enough that he can still be asked who his idol is, whom he wants to model himself after when he “grows up.” The answer comes quickly.

“Almost anyone at the WorldTour level is someone I look up to because I want to be in the WorldTour. I like Sagan — I mean, who doesn’t like him? — and he came from mountain biking so I have that connection with him. He has fun on the bike, he has personality. But I don’t know if my facial features would support such luscious locks.”