The 25-year-old started the day just 13 seconds off the top of the general classification standings and with a good chance of taking over the race lead.
With race leader Wout van Aert more than three minutes off the pace as the bunch went through the final kilometer, Powless was within touching distance of the yellow jersey.
However, he had his hopes dashed on the line by stage winner and new race leader Tadej Pogačar.
From his place at the back of the leading group, Powless saw the young Slovenian post up and celebrate his victory. The time bonus would be enough for Pogačar to leapfrog Powless and take the yellow jersey.
“I couldn’t even see who went and who was going where. I was maybe 15th wheel or something. All I could do was follow and make sure I wasn’t going to get gapped,” Powless told VeloNews. “I was feeling yesterday a little bit after being in the breakaway. I’m happy to be there but all I was doing was crossing my fingers that Tadej didn’t win. When he threw his hands up, my shoulders sunk, I knew that was yellow.”
- Alberto Bettiol denies working for Tadej Pogačar, apologizes to Neilson Powless
- Neilson Powless 13 seconds from USA’s first yellow jersey since 2006
- Tadej Pogačar takes stunning win and yellow jersey
Powless had come close to taking the yellow jersey during Wednesday’s stage 5 over the cobbles. It was only a mighty chase from Van Aert, who was working to salvage Jonas Vingegaard’s GC hopes, that saw him denied the opportunity.
With such a small gap to the race lead, EF Education First-EasyPost saw the longest stage of the race from Binche to Longwy as its best shot at moving Powless up the standings.
There was a worrying moment when Van Aert got into the breakaway and appeared to be holding the bunch off in the final kilometers, but the Belgian did eventually crack and Powless would get his opportunity.
Powless held on tight as the bunch broke up over final two climbs and was one of just 14 riders that finished on the same time as Pogačar, but the yellow jersey just wasn’t meant to be.
“I just tried to get the best result possible, but I couldn’t crack the top five into that last corner and I was already at my limit on the second to last climb. Guys were getting dropped and I was always the last guy closing the gap and making it back on,” Powless explained. “I made it into the front group just over the top of the climb. I had Bettiol with me to close the gaps, he was amazing today. Maybe he would have been fighting for the win today if he wasn’t working for me.
“We executed our plan to perfection, and it was just disappointing it didn’t pay off. I’m still second in GC, it’s just a different guy in front of me.”
Pogačar only holds a small lead over Powless in the overall standings with four seconds separating the pair. The American is still tantalizingly close to taking the yellow jersey, but with the first summit finish of the race on Planche des Belles Filles coming up on Friday, he doesn’t think it will be a case of third time lucky.
“Tomorrow is probably even more so in Tadej’s wheelhouse, there were still a few fast guys in the finish,” he said. “[Michael] Matthews was second and I think tomorrow it’s going to be hard to take it from him tomorrow. Everyone was committed to today because this was our best shot. You still never know, the Tour de France is long and hard. Today was definitely our best shot.”