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LEUVEN, Belgium (VN) — Neilson Powless rocketed to the best U.S. elite men’s world championship result in a decade with fifth place Sunday in a brutal race.
The EF Education-Nippo rider powered into an early group featuring Remco Evenepoel (Belgium), and then latched onto the wheels in the closing hour of racing in the punishing six-hour, 270km race.
History was there for the taking to possibly become the first U.S. elite male to win the rainbow stripes since 1993.
After Julian Alaphilippe soloed to victory, Powless was playing for the medals in a four-up sprint.
“I played my cards to the best of my ability,” he told VeloNews at the line. “I am super happy, I was happy to be there. I just didn’t have that punch in the end, but I knew that going into the sprint.”
The medals were in play at the line
Powless lit up the finale Sunday with a series of searing accelerations that splintered the already fractured lead group.
Joining him in a chasing quartet behind the Frenchman were eventual silver medalist Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) and bronze medalist Michael Valgren (Denmark), along with Jasper Stuyven (Belgium).
“I am very satisfied with how I rode today,” Powless said. “There was no chance [when Alaphilippe went]. In the end, we wanted to bring him back, but all of us knew how strong he was, and it was hard to stay cohesive the whole race.”
This is the best American placing in the Men’s Road Race since Chan McRae in 1999. Some of the members of the team weren’t born until 2001. https://t.co/rX0hudwRQk
— USA Cycling (@usacycling) September 26, 2021
Alaphilippe jettisoned the field with two laps to go on the final Leuven circuit. Behind him, the lead selection coalesced as Powless accelerated to draw out the others.
With the Dutch, Belgians and Danes also present, no one was putting up a chase from behind.
Powless was gapped on the final climb, however, and it appeared he might be out of the frame with 5km to go. Powless, who won the Clásica San Sebastián in July, fought back to rejoin the medals group.
Powless led out the bunch, but simply didn’t have the power to hit the podium.
“Chapeaux to Alaphillipe and I am just happy with my ride,” he said.
The best U.S. men’s result since 2011
Powless received a hug from teammate Lawson Craddock, who was bullish on the U.S. men’s team coming into the worlds.
“I truly believe that the U.S. can have another rainbow jersey within the next five years,” Craddock said before the worlds. “I think that this year in Flanders is the start of that process.”
The U.S. selection rode well Sunday, and Brandon McNulty snuck into an early move featuring Evenepoel and some other big guns. The Italians buried their team to bring it back, and then Powless was quick to follow the counter-attacks to join the late winning moves.
— Jonathan Vaughters (@Vaughters) September 26, 2021
The fifth place is the best since Tyler Farrar was 10th in 2011.
The last U.S. winner in the men’s race was Lance Armstrong in 1993. Despite his doping violations that resulted in the disqualification of his results from 1999 going forward, including seven Tour de France victories, his 1993 title is still officially on the books.
In fact, Armstrong’s fourth in 1998 remains the best U.S. men’s worlds ride since he won.
Powless’s fifth is only the seventh top-10 since 1993 in the elite men’s road race.
“I am really happy with that,” Powless said. “I just hope we can keep it going.”
Top-10 U.S. riders since last worlds win
1994 — 7th Lance Armstrong
1998 — 4th Lance Armstrong
1999 — 5th Chann McRae
2000 — 8th Chann McRae
2004 — 8th Chris Horner
2011 — 10th Tyler Farrar
2021 — 5th Neilson Powless