Neilson Powless was struggling.
It was May 2019 and Powless had recorded a DNF at the Tour of Romandie. The result wasn’t concerning, as Powless’s job throughout the race was to pull into the wind for his Jumbo-Visma team leader, Primoz Roglic, who secured the overall title.
But Powless felt as though he were missing his usual high-end power throughout the race. In fact, Powless had felt similarly mediocre all season long. For a guy who turned heads as a teenager, this downturn in performance did not sit well.
“I was still pretty far off my best numbers from when I was 19,” Powless told VeloNews. “When I looked at things, I was a lot worse at age 21 than I had been at 19.”
In the months following the Tour of Romandie, Powless came to a tough realization. If he wanted to progress as a pro cyclist, he felt he would need to leave Jumbo-Visma behind. Powless liked the Dutch squad and believed he had plenty to learn from its lineup of all-star riders and experienced directors. But the team’s training plan didn’t work for him. Taking charge of his training, he felt, was the only way to keep progressing.
“I went back and forth with the team on the training principles, and I had to take things into my own hands for the second half of the year, and I got better,” he said. “When I took that freedom I started performing better, and that freedom helped me make the decision to [join EF Education First], which was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
Setbacks in training
Powless joined Jumbo-Visma (then LottoNL-Jumbo) for the 2018 season after dazzling U.S. fans throughout 2016 and 2017. His first season followed the plan for many first-year riders, with an emphasis on hard week-long stage races such as the Tour of the Basque Country and Critérium du Dapuhiné. Powless had a few early setbacks — he caught a chest infection during the Basque Country and had to withdraw. He also missed the races in the Middle East due to a problem with his passport.
He was surprisingly flat at the Amgen Tour of California, and an 8th place in the individual time trial was his best result. Powless chalked the setbacks up to his springtime sickness.
“I had a few good days on the bike but overall I was underperforming all year,” Powless said. “It was not a good year for me.”
It was during the off-season build-up for 2019, however, that Powless began to feel as though his trajectory had plateaued. He said Jumbo-Visma’s training plan called for fewer total miles and lower intensity than his previous training. The plan also called for intense diet restrictions during these sessions.
“They were trying to manipulate my diet a bit, which I understood, because they wanted to make my system more efficient,” Powless said. “You do some pre-breakfast rides and excess double days. Some guys can do it and get success, but it didn’t really work for me.”
Powless said the intense focus on diet left him feeling mentally drained, despite the drop in volume and intensity.
“I was always mentally exhausted even though my training load wasn’t too high,” he said. “I was banging out low-carb double days for five hours. Do nothing but ride your bike and get ready to ride your bike. That was a big factor.”
Powless started the 2019 season feeling flat and lethargic. His power numbers were far below where he had been two years earlier, and he was often discouraged.
Jumbo-Visma management maintained its confidence in him, despite the step back. During the 2019 Amgen Tour of California, team director Grischa Niermann acknowledged Powless’s setbacks, but said he expected him to blossom into a top rider.
“He had a rough start to his pro career and he did expect a little more out of it for himself, but we’re confident in his talent and that it’s gonna come,” Niermann said. “In the under-23 he was one of the best climbers in the world and he couldn’t prove that in the biggest races in the pro calendar. There is power he still needs to gain to be with the top best guys on the hard climbs.”
Powless traveled back to the United States after the 2019 Tour of Romandie in an effort to reset his season. When he asked Jumbo-Visma management if he could abandon the team’s training plan, the team agreed.
Rather than continue with the diet restrictions and low-intensity riding sessions, Powless went back to his preferred long, hard training rides.
“As soon as I took things into my own hands it got better,” Powless said. “I worked in more intensity and started having more fun in training. As soon as I had that I was breaking power records from last season.”
But Powless had no guarantees from the team that he would be allowed to continue his own training indefinitely, and that lack of certainty, he said, convinced him to begin reaching out to other teams. He enjoyed racing with Jumbo-Visma, he said, and he was motivated to help the team at the Tour of Poland and at other races. But he also felt like his WorldTour career depended on him following his own strategy for training.
“At the end of the day it wasn’t clear if I was going to keep control over my training,” he said.
During the Amgen Tour of California he had preliminary conversations with Jonathan Vaughters, he said, and the communication continued throughout the summer. Powless knew he was slated to race the Vuelta a España with Jumbo-Visma, and didn’t want to start the race with his 2020 plans undecided. So, during an altitude training camp with the Dutch team, he made his decision to leave the squad and join EF Education First.
“I wanted a clear headspace going into the Vuelta,” Powless said. “I felt great after I made the decision. It didn’t change my commitment to ride for Primoz. Personally it was a weight off of my shoulders.”
A leadership opportunity
Jumbo-Visma is on a trajectory to challenge for victories at the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and the classics. Its lineup is teeming with talent, from grand tour riders Roglic, Steven Kruijswijk, and Tom Dumoulin, to one-day racers Wout van Aert and sprinter Dylan Groenewegen.
Powless said he was unlikely to have many opportunities at Jumbo-Visma to race for the win.
“Next year Jumbo is going to get a bit crowded for the guys who are lower on the totem pole,” he said. “Not to say they won’t develop, but there won’t be too much freedom to go for their own results.”
In his grand tour debut Powless was part of the team that helped Roglic secure the Vuelta a España victory. Throughout the three-week race Powless said he learned multiple lessons for how to thrive in the stressful environment.
“As soon as my job was done I’d shut things down immediately,” Powless said. “Don’t slog it out to the line. Every watt counts.”
The experience, Powless believes, will help him slot into a leadership role on EF Education First. Powless will get multiple opportunities to ride for his own results on the American squad, he said. In fact, he heads into the season’s opening race, the Santos Tour Down Under, with ambitions of riding for victories.
“I want to show up and do something,” he said. “EF had faith in me becoming a leader, in being a rider who has the potential to really do something.”