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HAINAUT, France (VN) — Neilson Powless huddled with EF Education-EasyPost staffers at the finish line after Wednesday’s brutal fifth stage with the yellow jersey of the Tour de France hanging in the balance.
Did he have enough time to snatch the maillot jaune? The American asked, “why is it taking so long?”
A reporter showed him the updated results, and he was 13 seconds shy of becoming the first American yellow jersey since 2006.
“Well, that’s a bummer,” Powless said as he pedaled toward the team bus. “Not bad for the first time on the cobbles.”
Just like he’s done since his 2020 Tour debut, Powless’s first ride as a professional across the Paris-Roubaix-style pavé was an impressive one.
He and EF teammate Magnus Cort surged into the winning, five-rider breakaway, and Powless powered into the “virtual” yellow jersey coming into the close tense kilometers of the stage.
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Speaking to VeloNews at the team bus, Powless said he was thinking about the stage win when he attacked just before the red kite.
A chasing Edvald Boasson Hagen led the hunt, and Simon Clarke won the stage in a bike throw, with Powless trailing through fourth to match his career-best Tour result.
“All I was thinking about was the stage win,” Powless told VeloNews. “At the end of the day, it was a fun day to be out front and ahead of the mess. I could hear about the chaos behind and that makes it a little smoother where you are.
“I thought I timed a pretty good move with just one 1km to go, unfortunately Boasson Hagen rode me back. I think he was thinking about the yellow jersey as well,” he said. “I think he thought if he finished in front of me, he would take yellow.
“I just wanted to be ahead of the mess. We knew it was going to be a pretty risky day in the bunch, so we figured we’d have a smoother ride in the breakaway.”
Wout van Aert was leading the chase in the main GC group, and defended yellow on what was a rough day for Jumbo-Visma.
“I was thinking a little bit about GC and the stage win,” Powless said. “In the last 5km I was only thinking about the stage win because we started playing games a little bit. The other guys started playing games, so I knew the only way to keep the race moving was to attack.”
Close to USA’s first yellow jersey since 2006
Powless tried to look at the stage as a glass half full. He moved up to second overall, matched his career-best Tour stage in fourth, and is first in line for yellow if Van Aert struggles.
Wednesday’s big ride confirms Powless as a top U.S. hope at the Tour.
At just 13 seconds back, Powless is close to becoming the first American rider since 2006 to wear the yellow jersey. George Hincapie wore it that year as well as Floyd Landis, who was later disqualified for doping.
“For a minute I was really disappointed that I got caught for the stage win, for a moment, I thought I had it because I had a pretty good gap,” Powless said.
“I knew if anyone who would close me down, they wouldn’t win, unfortunately there was a guy in the group thinking like that,” he said. “It was just unfortunate, but I think I played and raced the best I could.
“I played my cards, and I didn’t hold anything back.”
‘It’s a little bittersweet to come so close to success’
EF sport director Charly Wegelius said the team’s plan was to race aggressively on the brutal cobbles.
“At the moment after coming so close to success, it’s a little bit bittersweet, but after a stage like that, if you’re reflect for a second, you realize it could have been much, much worse,” Wegelius said. “Another day of fighting for everything, and it would have been great to have come away with the maximum, but that’s what it is.”
Powless came into the Tour as EF’s second protected GC rider behind Rigoberto Urán. The Colombian finished in the main GC group, and is 40th overall at 2:18 back.
Wegelius revealed that the team wanted Urán to also be in the breakaway, in part to have a cleaner ride across the cobbles.
Wegelius said the ride only confirms what everyone inside the EF bus know about Powless’s talent and potential.
“I think he’s showing himself. The talent was never in doubt and that’s the first quality,” he said. “It’s taken him awhile to get his aim, and that’s harder to do in three-week races when you get punished if things don’t go to script.
“He’s been doing a great job getting top results in races like Tour de Suisse, and we hope he continues on the same path. He has his head in a great place, and he’s doing great so far.”
Thursday’s stage is quite hilly, perhaps lumpy enough to see Van Aert ease up on yellow, especially with some of the lumps Jumbo-Visma took on the chin Wednesday.
Powless, a winner at the Clásica San Sebastián and fifth in last year’s road worlds, would be first in line if the door swings open.