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Q&A: Neilson Powless on lining up at his first gravel race

The EF Education-Nippo rider is heading to Bentonville, Arkansas this weekend to ride the 100-mile The Big Sugar.

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After returning home from Il Lombardia, Neilson Powless had a plan to take a month off the bike.

He’s still committed to the rest, short of one 100-mile, all-out effort.

Listen: VeloNews Podcast — Neilson Powless and Elisa Balsamo

On October 22, the EF-Education Nippo pro will line up at The Big Sugar, his first-ever gravel race. Following in the footsteps of teammates Alex Howes and Lachlan Morton, Powless is jumping into a late spot on the squad’s Alternative Racing calendar.

We caught up with the 25-year-old before his trip to Bentonville, Arkansas for the 100-mile gravel race.

VeloNews: So, why you are doing Big Sugar?

Neilson Powless: Why not! My come-up in athletics was more in the adventure side of things with mountain bikes and triathlons. Growing up in California was such an amazing place to race triathlon, especially off-road tri. We’d do all the XTERRA races in the western US and world champs in Hawaii, so I was always really into open water swimming, trail running, and mountain biking. I guess I’ve been sort of craving that atmosphere again. The team reached out and asked if wanted to go to a gravel race this year and I said ‘heck yes.’

I’ve been wanting to get involved in the alternative calendar and was planning on raising my hand last year. Then I got mono, COVID hit, so I didn’t get to do any. This year I was like, ‘when am I gonna be able to get into this alt calendar program?’ And the team was like, ‘you want to?’ I’m like, ‘just tell me when.’ And when they asked about Big Sugar, the timing couldn’t have been better.

VN: It seems like this could go one of two ways. One, you’re fit and just off the WorldTour, or two, you’ve never done a gravel race.

NP: I’m just going into this with the ambition of having fun and getting involved in that crowd again. The mountain bike and tri scenes are so friendly, everyone is out to enjoy themselves and have a good time. To be completely honest, yes I just raced Lombardia last week but I’m not going to be touching my bike really ’til the day before the race. The goal was to take 4-5 weeks totally off the bike after Lombardia. That’s still sorta the plan except for a 100-mile all-out exertion. I’ve definitely never raced gravel and will be going in cold turkey, but at the same time, I’m pretty competitive and want to do well. Part of having fun there is racing what you can with what you’ve got. I think there are probably a lot more people that are going to be better prepared but I’m hoping I’ll still be fit enough to survive it. Maybe I’ll feel great, maybe I’ll feel terrible, but I’m going out to race and have fun.

At the end of the day, I think a well-trained Pete Stetina in a gravel is race is probably a lot stronger than a two-weeks-off-the-bike Neilson.

VN: Speaking of, have you reached out to Pete or any other gravel guys to get beta?

NP: Yea, but Pete’s being sorta cagey.

VN: So, what advice have you been given? 

NP: Well, I’ve got this super slick new Cannondale EVO gravel bike. I’m really excited about that. I basically spent the last week freaking about what tires to use because I do feel sorta unprepared for this. I’ll show up with whatever and still give it. I’ve definitely been asking Alex for advice. Maybe ten minutes after I asked about tire set up, he asked all of his followers on Instagram. It was like, ‘I guess we’re just gonna be getting 10k responses,’ and I guess that’s what happened. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea now.

That’s such an amazing development in the past five to ten years, having that resource in Instagram. You can just throw a question out there and have 10,000 people see it and thousands of people give their input within minutes.

VN: Are you a big ‘grammer?

NP: I mean, I have an Instagram account. People follow me on it. It is part of sharing what we do as pro athletes, and it’s part of our job, but it’s also a super cool way to stay connected to people. I think that it can be pretty addictive and even I can get sucked into watching 500 reels in a row and realizing how much time has gone by. But it’s been super useful in figuring out what I need for Big Sugar.

VN: Who has the most followers on the team?

NP: Rigo [Urán], hands down. And then maybe Lachlan [Morton]. Sergio has quite a few. We’ve got a few guys high up there, but Rigo is prob one of the top cyclists in general, it’s pretty insane.

VN: Are you attuned to any of the ‘drama’ going on in gravel? 

NP: Not really, to be honest. I’ve just been seeing updates of what Alex and Lachlan have been up to and following Pete and Ted King. And then what I know from what I read on Big Sugar website when I found out I was doing the race.

I don’t know, is there something I need to know?

VN: Oh, you know, the ‘race or wait’ debate

NP: I actually did hear about this. I’ve had thoughts of just like, ‘no, I’m gonna do this and if someone wants to stop they can lose.’ But at the same time, once I find myself in that situation, the reality is that I’ll probably need to pee before anyone else. Fair enough, it probably all comes back around. I think I’m just gonna show up and if everyone wants to stop, I guess I’ll stop, too.

I did hear about the unwritten rules but I’m planning on learning as I go.

My thought was I’d get all this info on the start line, or if I happen to be in the lead group, then I can field some questions of ‘what happens now?’ It’s 100 miles, it’s pretty long on dirt. It’s a race and I’ve done plenty of those. But I don’t know, it’ll be a learning experience. I’m just wanting to have fun and race a dirt bike again.

VN: EF has shown an interest in racing gravel, will we see more WorldTour teams following suit? 

NP: I don’t think it’s ever gonna get to a point where it’s like ‘oh this is out of hand, 30 pros showing up and that’s the race.’ Mostly because during the season it’s not really that realistic that pros are gonna fly over from Europe to do a gravel race. The interest is there, but it’s not like it’s a need really. More of, if it works out, it’d be a fun thing to do.

VN: Have you heard anyone say that ‘pros are ruining gravel?’

If people are upset that pros are coming to gravel races, I just don’t see it as a solid argument because at the end of the day we’re all just there to have fun anyway. It should be cool for the younger kids to see a pro athlete there. When I was younger, I thought it was really awesome that Lance showed up and was racing XTERRA at the same race I was. This was when he was still my hero, so I thought it was amazing. I think it can be pretty inspiring, and it’s a good way to network and meet people.

We’re all bike racers. I race my bike in Europe but at the same time, Pete and Ted dedicate the same amount of time to gravel racing. They’re still incredible athletes and I don’t think a hard line should be drawn between us.

It’s a fun way to feel more connected to fans because of the alternate races — it shows more of our personalities than road racing does. Road racing is like a show of our athletic talent but the alt calendar shows our desire for adventure and fun and addiction to suffering.