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Tour de France

Tour de France: We are far from seeing the limits of Neilson Powless, says EF sport director

EF Education-Nippo hopes American can pick up where he left off in second Tour de France ride, with breakaway efforts and GC support.

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After making a splash in 2020, Neilson Powless is back at the Tour de France.

The American rider took to the world’s biggest bike race with relative ease last year, striking out in several big breakaways and supporting his Colombian teammate Rigoberto Urán.

Over the opening months of this season, Powless has continued his upward trajectory, culminating with a strong performance at the Tour de Suisse while playing righthand man to Urán. With the mountains approaching towards the end of the week, his EF Education-Nippo team is keen to see what he can do on the roads of France.

Also read: Neilson Powless is first tribally recognized Native North American to race Tour de France

“He is making some really nice progress. Over the last year or so, he’s got his first tour under his belt, did some great rides in that tour last year,” EF sport director Charly Wegelius told VeloNews. “You know, I think that he could use this race as a great way to sort of dive deeper into that role of being you know, a crucial helper for a GC rider.

“Given the right circumstances and the right chances, I don’t see why you couldn’t also be successful with a long-range attack in the hills a little bit like you did last year. So, he’s got options and he’s making, you know, a lot of progress with the seasons, and I think he’s, you know, slowly but surely going in the right direction. So, we’re pleased with his development.”

There is so much science in cycling these days with every calorie, watt, and drag coefficient measured to the n’th degree. In a sport that is increasingly about small margins, it’s what is needed to find that extra percent between finishing on a podium and winning a race.

However, not everything can be measured and there are intangible elements to bike racing that need to be learned through experience, and trial and error. As Powless figures out what he is capable of, there have been mistakes but there are few better ways to improve oneself than learning through your errors.

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“He showed that he’s got a nose for racing, because in these races, you know, just getting in the break isn’t necessarily the easiest thing,” Wegelius said. “You know, he showed that he’s got the resilience to his engine to sustain not just long efforts, but several times because he was in the breaks, you know, on more than one occasion.

“He also showed a sort of an understandable overexuberance at certain moments. It’s probably better that somebody makes those mistakes rather than playing it more conservative and not finding where his limits are. So, I think he learned a lot doing that.”

From developing GC talent to experienced head

After stagnating somewhat at Jumbo-Visma during his first two seasons as a professional, Powless has flourished lately and showed the talent that helped him turn professional in the first place. Where he goes and what he can achieve in the sport will only be known through time.

Powless has proved himself a very capable stage racer and he could well develop into a strong grand tour rider. While some like Tadej Pogačar can take a Tour de France win on his first try, for most it is a work of progress that takes time to figure it out and Wegelius isn’t in a rush to force him in one way or another.

“He’s got the qualities in the sense that he can climb, and he can ride a TT, which is obviously like the first two important things for that. But it’s a long journey of development to get to that point to be able to take that kind of responsibility,” Wegelius said.

“On his way to that point, he can put together a lot of great performances and results for himself as he goes on that journey to find out if that’s if that’s doable for him or not. Time will tell where it goes but I think far from having seen his limits at the moment.”

For now, the focus is not on the future but firmly on the present. EF Education-Nippo has been relatively quiet over the opening days of the Tour de France with their biggest ambitions, namely the GC, coming later in the race.

Also read: Lachlan Morton sets out to ride entire Tour de France route solo, including transfers

Urán has avoided the worst of the carnage in the first few stages, but he has lost some time out on the twisty roads of Brittany. Ahead of the first time trial, the Colombian – who finished second at the 2017 Tour de France – is some 52 seconds behind the yellow jersey of Mathieu van der Poel, and 13 behind defending champion Pogačar.

As he has been in recent years, Urán is a dark horse in the GC competition and EF will not be surrounding him in the same way as the teams of the top favorites. With 19 grand tours – seven of which were the Tour de France – under his belt, the team is confident he can handle himself in the mountains.

“Rigo has got a lot of experience on his side, he knows how to play to his strengths and weaknesses. He knows quite well the patience that you need to be doing well in these races,” Wegelius said. “When the moment’s right, he’ll go for it. But it takes some patience to wait for that moment to come around. But I know when that moment comes, he won’t be, he won’t be sleeping.

“There’ll come a moment where the gloves will be off and there will be no helpers left. It’ll be one against another, and then we’ll see who’s the strongest, and I think the course is good enough for him. Like I say, he’s just got to navigate through everything else between here and that moment and hopefully get there with his powder dry and able to do his thing.”