For many grand tour rookies, team orders are often little more than to try to finish and don’t get in the way.
That’s not the case for Neilson Powless, who is making his grand tour debut at this Vuelta a España with the stakes much higher than just trying to survive until Madrid.
“Every day is about staying focused,” Powless told VeloNews on Tuesday. “It’s nice that I have a goal for every day, be it cutting the wind, or getting in position for a climb. I’d rather have a goal every day rather than just floating around.”
There won’t be any “floating around” for Powless as the 22-year-old hits a personal milestone with his first grand tour.
Jumbo-Visma, already on a franchise-best run this season with podiums at both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, is looking to finish the grand tour racing season on a high.
Powless earned his spot on the eight-rider Vuelta squad to help protect Roglic and George Bennett throughout the upcoming three weeks of racing. Co-captain Steven Kruijswijk abandoned Tuesday, adding even more responsibility for the helpers of the team like Powless.
“Save when I can and use energy only when necessary — that’s why I am here,” he said.
Powless, who sees his first grand tour nod in the second season with the Dutch outfit, is relishing the chance to see how far Roglic and Bennett can go.
“I think it helps to get more out of yourself when you’re racing for something, than to go through the motions to survive your first grand tour,” he said. “When you’re with a team that can potentially win the race, you have to make it to the final climb to be there in case something happens. Having a race to really push myself out of the team, we all have one big as a group. I can get more out of the race in a situation like this.”
On Tuesday morning, Powless was sporting a few small bandages on his knee from the opening stage pileup during the team time trial on Saturday. What a way to make a grand tour debut. The team hit a wet sector of pavement where water had leaked onto the course, sending Powless and his teammates smashing into the race barriers.
Kruijswijk banged up his knee so badly he was forced to abandon Tuesday. Powless didn’t suffer any serious injuries, and dove right into Sunday’s wild ride to Calpe. Things calmed down a bit on Monday and Tuesday, stages well-suited for the bunch sprints.
Powless has barely had a chance to soak it all in. It’s as if he’s jumped off the high dive on his first trip to the pool.
“That was a heck of a way to kick things off, with a team time trial and an intense GC battle in stage 2,” he said Tuesday. “This is a race for three weeks. We’ve moved on past that, and it wasn’t a massive time loss. We are just trying to focus on doing things well, and get back the time we lost.”
A product of Hagens Berman Axeon, the highly touted Powless joined Jumbo-Visma on a two-year neo-pro contract last year. While teammate Sepp Kuss raced his first grand tour with last year’s Vuelta, the plan was for Powless to wait until this year to get his shot.
Expectations are high that Powless will be there to deliver for the team. In a team as deep and competitive as Jumbo-Visma, earning a slot on the eight-rider team isn’t easy. After racing the Giro d’Italia in May, Kuss is back for his second Vuelta. Powless is here for his first. The team is counting on the Americans to deliver when it counts.
“Sepp and Neilson can be very important, and they will be physically ready to show themselves,” said Jumbo-Visma sport director Addy Engels. “They both are very strong. If they were not, they would not be here.”
Engels echoed the sentiment that Powless will be racing under more strenuous conditions than if the team had come to the Vuelta with secondary goals of perhaps winning stages or targeting the sprints. That would mean there would be days when riders can hide in the gruppetto. With Roglic starting as one of the pre-race favorites, the team is counting on every rider to perform at key moments over every stage.
“If you start your first grand tour with a team that is targeting the overall, it’s more challenging. The way we approach this Vuelta, we have to be there every day,” Engels said. “For a guy like Neilson, it’s a challenge. It’s also a big ‘gift’ to experience that in your first grand tour. There are a lot of lessons that he is learning now he will take for the rest of his career.
“To work for a rider who is trying to win the overall is very different than just to finish the race,” Engels said. “[Powless] has to deliver, of course, that’s his challenge. It’s also a big opportunity to experience that.”
Powless is taking things in stride. The highly touted all-rounder is still in early days of his promising professional career. Finishing a first grand tour also counts, and Powless is intent on doing his job for the team, and making it to Madrid. If things go well, this won’t be his last grand tour, and perhaps in a few years, someone will be working for him.
“I am pretty excited to see how I come out of it,” he said. “It’s a big difference for guys in the future who can win a race like this to see how fresh you can be in the final week. Finishing a grand tour is important and I think you can see it in the winter training. It’s going to be cool to feel those changes and see how it affects my body.”