It’s hard to believe that Neilson Powless’ inaugural professional win came last Saturday. The 24-year-old has been in Tour de France breakaways and stepping on national championship podiums since 2019. Avid American cycling fans will remember when Powless swept the jersey classifications at the Joe Martin Stage Race, won the Youth Classification at the Amgen Tour of California, and nearly won the Redlands Bicycle Classic, all in the same year.
Fast forward to 2021, and Powless, who races for EF-Education Nippo, is one of the strongest riders in the WorldTour – and his power numbers back this up. Having been in the sport for only seven years – and racing against riders who’ve been on a bike since they could walk – Powless is still moving up the learning curve, while letting his legs do the talking. After finishing the Tour de France just four weeks ago, the American lined up at the Clásica San Sebastián, a 223km Spanish race with over 3,800m of climbing.
An uncharacteristically large breakaway of 16 riders was let go at the beginning of the race, as rain continued to fall as it had for the entire women’s race earlier in the day. From an outside perspective, it appeared that not much happened in the first 160km of racing. Things seemed status quo as Jumbo-Visma and Ineos Grenadiers sat on the front of the peloton and kept the breakaway’s gap around three minutes. But when we look at Powless’ power file, we can see that the first climb of the race was ridden at a ridiculous pace of over 6w/kg.
Powless – Azkarate:
Average Power: 421w (6.4w/kg)
Average Grade: 8.3 percent
The next two climbs of the Urraki and Alkiza were ridden at a much more reasonable pace, around 5-5.5w/kg for ten minutes at a time. After a long, flatter section of about 50km, the peloton approached the Jaizkibel climb, which is deceivingly classified as 7.9km at 5.5 percent. In reality, the first three kilometers of the Jaizkibel average nearly 8 percent, while the latter half averages nearly 7 percent. Ineos Grenadiers set the pace, bringing the dwindling breakaway’s gap down to just 90 seconds. Though there were hardly any splits on the climb, the peloton blew into bits on the Jaizkibel descent, which has about 47 corners in 8km.
Powless – Jaizkibel climb:
Average Power: 365w (5.5w/kg)
Normalized Power: 388w (5.9w/kg)
After only a few kilometers in the valley, the peloton hit the toughest climb of the race, the Erlaitz, which was 3.9km long at an average of 10.6 percent. Mikel Landa (Bahrain-Victorious) attacked at the base of the climb, taking just Simon Carr (EF-Education Nippo) with him. Carr got the best of Landa, dropping the Spaniard halfway up the climb, and went solo over the crest with 42km to go. Matej Mohorič (Bahrain–Victorious) led the chase group, which was now down to fewer than 15 riders by the top of the Erlaitz.
Powless had amazing legs for the entire race, producing some of the most impressive power numbers I’ve seen in a one-day race. Even in the cold rain, Powless was producing nearly 7w/kg for 10 minutes, after 180km of racing. And the best was still to come.
Powless – Erlaitz:
Average Power: 441w (6.7w/kg)
The cold and wet conditions affected the broadcast as much as it did the riders (we lost race coverage from about 32km to 25km to go). When live pictures returned, there were four riders left at the front of the race: Powless, Mohorič, Mikkel Frølich Honoré (Deceuninck-Quick Step), and Lorenzo Rota (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux).
Judging from Powless’ file, it looks like the winning breakaway was formed on one of the most dangerous corners of the race, when Powless went from 90kph to 50kph in the blink of any eye. Riders must have been starting to freeze on the descent, which was rain-soaked and 12°C (53.6°F). After an 868w dig out of that corner, Powless started riding hard, helping drive the front group, which caught his teammate Carr at the bottom of the descent.
The big teams behind – Jumbo-Visma, Deceuninck-QuickStep, Ineos Grenadiers, etc. – refused to pull, and so the leading five-some had a minute and 15-second gap at the base of the final climb with just 9.5km to go. The final launching pad for major attacks, the Murgil-Tontorra lasts 2.1km at an average of 10 percent with the second kilometer averaging nearly 14 percent with a 16 percent pitch.
Powless attacked before the halfway point on the climb and instantly got a gap. The American held nearly 7w/kg for five minutes, but still, Mohorič, Honoré, and Rota were able to claw their way back before the wet and twisty descent.
Powless – Murgil-Tontorra:
Average Power: 446w (6.8w/kg)
Last 1.2km: 460w (7w/kg) for 4:42
Mohorič confidently took the lead on the descent, but then, coming into a right-hand corner, the Slovenian overcooked it. With his right foot unclipped, Mohorič skidded through the corner, barely making it away safely, while Powless dove up the inside. Honoré wasn’t so lucky, and went wide into a stone wall, somehow staying on his feet, only for his bike to bounce back into the road and take out Rota. Both riders would be ok, but this crash would completely change the outcome of the race, leaving Mohorič slightly behind, Honoré injured, and dropped Rota out of the lead group.
Powless was the only rider of the four to make a clean getaway, and so he pushed the pace until he was caught by Mohorič and Honoré with 2.2km to go. Then, Mohorič inexplicably went to the front, attacked from the front, got caught, and then continued to lead out the sprint all the way until he launched with 225m to go. And who was on his wheel? None other than Neilson Powless. The American peaked at over 1,100w with 200m to go and came around Mohorič to the first win of his professional career.
Powless – final 3km:
Average Power: 400w (6.1w/kg)
Final sprint: 947w (14.4w/kg) for 0:11
Max Power: 1,153w (17.4w/kg)
Powless – Clásica San Sebastián (excluding neutral zone):
Average Power: 273w (4.1w/kg)
Normalized Power: 331w (5w/kg)
Average Heart Rate: 144bpm
Max Heart Rate: 178bpm
Peak 5-min Power: 455w (6.9w/kg)
Peak 10-min Power: 440w (6.7w/kg)
Peak 20-min Normalized Power: 428w (6.5w/kg)
Riders: Neilson Powless