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How fighting for WorldTour survival gave Neilson Powless wings

EF Education-EasyPost's battle for WorldTour future inspired US star to best season yet: 'No matter what, you showed up and you had to contribute.'

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Adversity can inspire great things, some say.

Neilson Powless proved that point this year as he dug deep to help save his EF Education-EasyPost team from WorldTour relegation.

“I think with the points situation there was no other option – no matter what, you showed up to a race and you had to contribute something and accomplish something. There was always that concern about the points situation,” Powless told VeloNews.

“I feel like that mindset may have helped me get a bit more out of the season than in past seasons. I just felt like pretty much every time I went to a race I felt ready to go and was competitive.”

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This year, Powless spun the looming threat of WorldTour relegation into the most consistent season of his still-young career.

The Californian firecracker hit top-10s at Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Tour de Suisse, and the Tour de France and roared to within 13 seconds of becoming the first U.S. rider to wear the maillot jaune since 2006.

A season-ending victory at Japan Cup saw the 26-year-old and his EF Education EasyPost team close the calendar on a high after months spent in a taut tangle of teams fighting for top-tier survival.

The pink-clad crew saw a barren mid-season drag it deep into the “danger zone” as the UCI’s three-year points-accumulation cycle drew to its close.

“I was following the points standings all throughout the year. I knew the situation and I knew how races were impacting the points, and just tried to do my part as best that I could because I knew it was just down to the riders,” Powless said.

No stopping until off-season: ‘You really couldn’t take your foot off the gas’

Powless came within seconds of yellow on the Tour’s cobblestone stage (Photo: DAVID STOCKMAN/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

The ominous shadow of the UCI’s new system saw EF, Israel-Premier Tech, Lotto-Soudal, BikeExchange-Jayco and more battling for a WorldTour license and the crucial Tour de France guarantees and funding pipelines it brings.

Dropping to ProTeam status, on the other hand, means hunting wildcards and unhappy sponsors in a downstep that can cost millions.

“The team made us aware of the situation, and they told us that it was important that we take it seriously and work hard to save the team,” Powless said.

“Management was telling us there wasn’t much they could do other than just let us race and try to support us to do as best that we could. I felt a lot of pressure, but it was coming from myself rather than externally.”

EF Education-EasyPost dragged itself to safety in a late-season surge that left it comfortably mid-table.

Victories from Powless at the Japan Cup and Rigoberto Urán at the Vuelta a España contributed stacks of UCI points as Jonathan Vaughters’ team stretched its resources across the globe.

October saw EF Education-EasyPost bringing pink to races in France, Italy, Malaysia, Japan, and more as it looked to retain its top-tier license for another three years.

“I had friends going through the same thing on other teams,” Powless said. “That stress was definitely motivating, you really couldn’t take your foot off the gas.”

“That’s maybe why I was so good in Japan. As soon as I finished the Tour, I was on my hands and knees, but I made a plan to rest and then go to altitude again to try to make myself fit again for the second half of the year. I knew we still had a long way to go till the end, and we needed to keep performing.”

Powless: ‘Relegation is a death sentence’

A strong second half of 2022 secured the team’s WorldTour future. (Photo: Photo by THOMAS SAMSON/AFP via Getty Images)

The newly imposed triennial points cycle overshadowed the back-half of this season for all-but the most prolific in the WorldTour.

Lotto-Soudal and Israel-Premier Tech ended up out the back and booted to the second tier for 2023. Meanwhile, Arkéa-Samsic and Alpecin-Deceninck pocketed WorldTour licenses and a gateway to the money-bringing Tour de France.

“I’ve seen some positive impacts from the points structure, like how it forced me to be consistent and made us work as a team better,” Powless said. “It made it a bit more straightforward how somebody else in your team winning helps you and the team as a whole. But I think the way it’s laid out right now the negatives definitely outweigh the benefits, and I think it needs restructuring.”

Many see a lot of room for improvement in the UCI system.

Israel-Premier Tech owner Sylvan Adams called the system “destructive” and threatened legal action if his team was demoted. EF Education-EasyPost chief Vaughters wrote his thoughts in a column for VeloNews as he and many top figures called for change.

Vaughters commentary: If we have to have relegation in cycling, there are better ways to do it

“It really put a strain on some teams, trying to turn up at more races at the end of the season. And it doesn’t seem like the most beneficial thing to the survival of a team, with the way sponsorships are laid out in the sport – like if a big sponsor pulls out of the sport because their team is relegated and might miss the Tour de France,” Powless said. “That’s a loss for the whole sport. And that was a situation I really didn’t want to let us fall into.

“I’m hoping if the system stays it’s restructured so it’s a bit more sustainable and life-giving to the sport – it feels like a death sentence if you’re getting relegated at the moment.”

EF Education-EasyPost heads into 2023 with a WorldTour license and fresh wind. Grand tour ace Richard Carapaz arrives on a marquee deal, while team talisman Urán postponed retirement to stay in pink.

WorldTour relegation might not even factor in Vaughters’ and Powless’ thoughts for the next three years as the team starts a new top-tier chapter.