I am continually amazed by Neilson Powless.
On Thursday Powless put in a gritty performance on the slopes of Mont Aigoual, riding with an aggressive zeal that got him oh-so-close to a stage victory in his Tour de France debut. It was Powless’ 24th birthday, and he seemed hell-bent on celebrating — he rode into the day’s powerful breakaway alongside Greg van Avermaet, Alexey Lutsenko, and other veterans. Then, Powless attacked again and again on the final climb until only Lutsenko remained.
The Kazakh rider eventually dropped Powless and went on to take the stage win, while Powless rode behind him in fourth place.
“I think I was a little too overzealous in the last 25k or so and was too much the aggressor on the climb, and that got the best of me,” Powless said after his ride. “It was still amazing to be off the front in the Tour de France.”
Hey — that’s not a bad ride for a Tour newbie.
There is extra significance behind Powless’ big ride on Thursday, and the backstory shows just how mature and collected Powless is at such a young age.
For several years now Powless has been the next great hope of U.S. cycling — a role he took on in 2016 after he finished 9th place at the Amgen Tour of California and then won a stage of the Tour de l’Avenir. At that time he was a rising star amongst an international cohort that included Pavel Sivakov, David Gaudu, and even Egan Bernal.
Powless was on a trajectory toward big things, and then his growth curve plateaued in the oddest way possible.
In 2018 Powless joined the WorldTour’s most exciting team, Dutch squad Jumbo-Visma, and those of us in the cycling press assumed the marriage would help Powless blossom into an international great. After all, Jumbo-Visma’s methods had just unlocked the raw talent of Primož Roglič, who had become a bona fide grand tour contender.
And yet, things just didn’t work. His compatriot, Sepp Kuss, morphed from an unpolished gem into a diamond in one season. Powless, meanwhile, crept along. Two steps forward, one step back, for two full seasons.
In the meantime, Gaudu, Sivakov, and Bernal all grew into stars of the sport.
In February I sat down with Powless at EF Pro Cycling’s training camp in Southern California, and he spoke at length about what went wrong at Jumbo-Visma. While he liked working with the Dutch team, the squad’s training methods just didn’t suit his body and attitude, he said.
“In 2018 I had a few good days on the bike but overall it was not a very good year for me — I was underperforming all year for me,” Powless said. “I talked to the team and we worked together, and I always felt like it was a struggle with the training. In the winter I would just commit to the training and I wouldn’t fight it. I did everything perfectly, and then in the spring I was underperforming again, and I didn’t feel like I was prepared to race, and I didn’t feel great in races. The team was like, ‘Oh, I don’t know why you’re feeling that way, the training has been going well, you’re hitting the numbers well.’ When we plugged in the calculations, we should have gotten X and we got Y.”
What didn’t work for Powless? The team’s training plan called for far less volume and intensity than he normally completed. Also, the team had him follow a Ketogenic diet for periods of the season, and complete long rides with no food in his system. Powless said he understood the diet manipulation and the new training plan, but it simply didn’t get the best out of him.
“I was always feeling mentally exhausted even though my overall training load wasn’t as high,” he said. “They were manipulating my diet, which I understood, to make me more efficient. I just think it didn’t work for me. I was way worse [at age 22] than I had been at 19.”
Now, here’s where Powless’ patience and maturity paid off. He didn’t panic. He didn’t look at the success of his peers and get down. And he didn’t maintain that prescribed method from one of the world’s top teams. Instead, Powless spoke to his Jumbo-Visma bosses to propose a new approach. They let him go back to his old training methods, and his situation improved. Powless returned to his hard intervals and long, punishing rides, and over a few months, he got back on track. He attacked and took long pulls during the 2019 Vuelta a España, and helped Roglič win the overall.
Powless was back on that trajectory to the pinnacle of the sport that he stepped on in 2016.
And Powless had the foresight to look at Jumbo-Visma and realize that the team was so jam-packed with talent, he might not get his opportunity to shine at the Tour de France. So, at the end of 2019 he signed on with EF Pro Cycling for 2020. It was his best way to secure a spot for the Tour and other big races.
Powless’ decisions should not be overlooked. He contacted his bosses and proposed a change. He did so as an American on a Dutch team — not an easy feat given the sport’s oft-repeated stereotype that U.S. riders are mentally and physically soft. And he did so at 22, an age when many of us lack the professional confidence to ask a coworker for a cup of coffee.
And that’s the thing about Neilson Powless. Should you ever find yourself speaking to him, as I have, you will want to see his birth certificate. How can a man of such a young age have such a pragmatic and mature outlook on life, sport, and the future? How can he be so calm, cool, and collected?
Neilson Powless is the guy who makes you remember yourself at 23 and then ask yourself that personal question: What the heck was I doing with my life in my early 20s?