Powless won’t pigeonhole himself as pure climber

Heading to Europe for his first stint on a WorldTour team, Neilson Powless wants to sample some cobbles even though he's a climber.

During his stint in the under-23 ranks, Neilson Powless forged a reputation as perhaps the best American climber of his generation. Yet on the eve of his WorldTour debut, Powless, 21, has his sights set not on l’Alpe d’Huez or the Colle delle Finestre, but rather on the Carrefour l’Arbre and Koppenberg.

“I’d really like to try out all the hardest one-day classics. I’d like to race Roubaix; I’d like to do Flanders. I’d like to do Gent-Wevelgem,” Powless said. “Just because of the allure of the races, just the history they have.”

Powless spoke with VeloNews in mid-December at a media engagement organized by USA Cycling. The 21-year-old was just a few weeks away from attending his new Lotto NL-Jumbo’s winter training camp, which kicks off on January 15.

Powless said the team has yet to give him a racing schedule for 2018. Based on his talents on the uphills, one could assume that he would tackle a mix of shorter stage races in the United States and in Europe.

Powless said he wants to start a wide range of races throughout his career — yes, even Paris-Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders. He sees a future as a grand tour rider but knows that it may take years to develop those skills. In the meantime, he wants to try as many different races as possible.

“The long-term goal is mainly on developing myself as a stage racer, that’s the avenue that the team wants to push,” Powless said. “That’s the most attractive to me is eventually becoming grand tour racer but that’s a long way off. I don’t know what my next couple of years are exactly going to be like.”

Powless has already proven his talents on the cobbles and at tough one-day races. He was 14th at the U23 version of Gent-Wevelgem in 2017 and 10th at Flanders for riders under 23. Powless was also an impressive sixth place at the U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège last year.

Of course, Powless is still best-known for his exploits on the climbs. As a 19-year-old, Powless delighted fans on stage 3 of the 2016 Amgen Tour of California, when he attacked the summit finish of Gibraltar road. Though he was caught and ended up fifth on the day, he announced himself as an up-and-coming climber among WorldTour pros, such as Julian Alaphilippe (Quick-Step) and Andrew Talansky.

Powless went on to win the best young rider prize that year in California. Since then, he has won five UCI under-23 races and the U.S. U23 national road race championships. Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo took notice and hired him on a two-year contract.

Despite his talents on the climbs, the young Californian knows that his growth as a rider will be aided by a diverse race program.

“I think my body is still developing too. Right now the plan is to be aiming toward stage races, but I think you need to do one-days to just have the experience of those chaotic, stressful days,” he said.

One of his fellow Americans, Kiel Reijnen (Trek-Segafredo), agrees with this approach.

“I think it is a good idea because the top WorldTour pure climbers are so good that unless you happen to be one of them it’s hard to compete, and to make a dent you have to have some other skills, the guts to go on the attack,” Reijnen said.

Going outside of the (relative) comfort of mountainous races will challenge Powless, and that’s what he’s looking for.

“These days it is hard because everyone is so specialized, but lots of respect for a guy who is willing to go outside their comfort zone to improve,” he added.

Powless has experienced stage racing’s fickle fortune firsthand. After finishing second in the stage 4 time trial and winning the final day of climbing on stage 8 at Tour de l’Avenir in 2016, expectations were high for 2017.

Powless rode well for the first six stages, top-10 overall going into the rest day. Then, he lost two minutes on stage 7’s summit finish in Hauteluce-Les Saisies. The next day, with three categorized climbs and a summit finish over 120km, was worse — he lost more than 16 minutes. He rallied for the final stage, however, and finished second to Russian Pavel Sivakov, who’s now with Team Sky on a three-year contract.

Certainly, LottoNL-Jumbo will look to foster Powless’s resiliency over multiple days of hard climbing in stage races. And if the team wants Powless to race one-day events, he says he’s up to the challenge.

“It’s a different kind of stress than in stage racing I think,” Powless said about the classics. “Because it happens very quickly and you don’t have another day to make up for it.”