Soon-to-be father Neilson Powless roars into Tour of Flanders racing for everything
Can his ripping spring form make him only the second US male to finish on the podium? Powless goes better the longer the race.
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Neilson Powless is carrying the form of his life into Sunday’s monument race at Tour of Flanders, and he’ll soon be racing for one more.
Flanders arrives to the heart of the spring classics in a sweet spot both professionally and personally.
Not only is he flying so far in 2023, with two early season wins, seventh at Milan-San Remo, and a podium third at Dwars door Vlaanderen, he and his wife are celebrating an imminent arrival.
“It’s been a fun season so far. The biggest thing is my wife and I expecting a baby in October, and that’s a huge motivator,” Powless told VeloNews. “I always draw motivation and drive from family and friends, and I’ve a had little extra this season.
“We have a baby on the way, and I’ve been able to stay healthy and keep on a consistent training plan, smooth start, and I’ve been able to show I can perform at consistency at a high level,” Powless said in a phone call Friday from the team hotel. “I’m extra motivated for Sunday.”
The EF Education-EasyPost star is hoping to deliver a breakthrough performance Sunday in what could be only the second U.S. male rider to hit the final podium at De Ronde.
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Things are clicking for Powless at a lot of different levels right now, and that’s translating into career-best performances on the road.
Now in his fourth season with EF Education-EasyPost, Powless is hitting new personal bests in just about every race he starts.
Powless, 26, opened the season with a bang with victory at the French semi-classic in January at GP La Marseillaise, and followed that up with his first career GC title at the five-stage Étoile de Bessèges in France.
He hit another podium at the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, and blazed to sixth overall at Paris-Nice behind Tour de France kings Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard.
“I’ve had flashes the past few years, but this is the longest I’ve been able to put it together,” Powless said. “I’ve been able to hang on to the fitness for a long time, and it feels good to have a healthy spring. I’m excited to see what I can do Sunday.”
Happy racer is a fast racer
Powless was zapped by COVID-19 in 2021, and last year fell ill with a lung infection that slowed him down last spring.
This spring, he’s healthy, motivated, and obviously racing very fast.
“This success now is making me appreciated what I’ve got,” he said after a training ride Friday. “It hasn’t always been so easy, and it’s really satisfying considering what I’ve been through.”
The payoff is coming after an ever-steady, patient approach to training, diet, preparation, and recovery that it takes to be an elite WorldTour pro, but also from a support system that Powless said he didn’t find until he joined EF Education-EasyPost in 2020.
His first two seasons were alongside Sepp Kuss at Jumbo-Visma. While the Colorado climber rocketed up the WorldTour power rankings, Powless took a few more seasons to find his groove.
“In every hardship and setback I’ve bad, the team has managed it well and in ways that I was really happy with,” he said.
“After four years here at the team, it really does feel like a family environment. The team is paying attention to the riders’ emotions and what they need to be happy. Happiness plays a huge role in performance.
“I am glad I am stay motivated, because now it’s paying off.”
Confidence on the rise
That inside-the-bus tranquility and home-front stability is allowing Powless to pour everything into his professional racing career.
And it could pay off in a dramatic effect Sunday at the Tour of Flanders.
Powless lit up Wednesday’s Dwars door Vlaanderen so much so that five-star favorite Wout van Aert said in a press conference Thursday that Powless will be a wheel to watch Sunday.
“I didn’t know he said that, so that makes me feel even better,” he said. “If someone at that level is calling me out that means I am doing something right.”
All eyes on the cobbles…
Read more on the De Ronde preview here: https://t.co/jRMv05JRu6 pic.twitter.com/1Exwm1N16w
— EF Pro Cycling (@EFprocycling) March 31, 2023
EF Education-EasyPost brings a solid team to Flanders on Sunday, with Mikkel Honoré and Jens Keukeleire (former winner Alberto Bettiol is sidelines with illness), but even Powless admits he’ll likely be racing for places of honor behind the likes of Van Aert, Tadej Pogačar, and Mathieu van der Poel.
Yet he knows that he’s closer than he’s ever been, and that only gives him confidence to go down swinging Sunday.
“I am getting there,” he said. “They are still a level above of where I am right now, but after the races I’ve won in the past few years, some of the results I’ve had in the world championships, the Tour de France, and some of the other one-day races, I am confident I can be there with them.
“Physically they’re stronger than I am, I am also strong enough to be there and look for my own opportunity,” he said. “I am confident I can be there and be a part of the race.”
If confidence, motivation, and tranquility are all important ingredients to success, there’s no denying that the legs are the deciding factor in any bike race.
And even more so in the 250 km-plus, six-hour marathons that are monument racing.
And it’s when the race breaks that mythical six-hour barrier is when Powless believes he comes into his own.
“It just feels like at one point when the race goes into the sixth hour the peloton starts to whittle down and guys start to suffer,” Powless said. “Guys run out of gas, and my tank might be a little bit deeper against all the guys I think would typically be better than me in different conditions.
“By the time it gets to where it matters most that’s where I come into my own.”
Powless said that in shorter races, he reckons that “50 percent” of the peloton would beat him in a reduced bunch sprint to the line or out-kick him in a searing, short five-minute acceleration.
“At the end of six hours, the tables start to turn in my favor,” he said. “You’re a different rider at the end of six hours, and as I’ve gained more experience and confidence, I believe I can be there with some of the best riders.”
Powless recounted how after racing Milan-San Remo last month, the season’s longest race at nearly 300 km, he still felt fresh.
“I still felt fresh after that race. I was joking with a teammate, ‘I am not tired at all. All I had to do was soft-pedal for six hours and go three minutes all out!'” he said. “Joking aside, it’s still a long race, and you have to ride your bike to the finish line. Riding that distance I feel I come into my own.”
Spreading his wings
Seeing Powless starting his first Flanders as a favorite is still somewhat of a surprise even for him.
Built more of a sleek climber and stage racer, he never expected to be bumping shoulders with the brawny classics-style riders in one of cycling’s most treasured titles, but here he is.
His road to Flanders started after he bounded across the cobbles in last year’s Tour de France stage to Arenberg.
Powless rode into the winning breakaway, and came within seconds of snatching the yellow jersey.
That tremendous experience triggered some off-season conversations that will lead him to the main square in Bruges on Sunday morning.
“I never saw myself with a realistic chance of competing for the win or the top-5 at Flanders, and I wasn’t sure even if would ever race it,” he said. “Flanders was always one of my favorite races to watch on TV, but these guys are big and burly, and I was always skinnier.”
Powless continued to impress in longer, harder races. His first pro win came at the 223 km Clásica San Sebastián in 2021. Fifth at the Leuven worlds in 2021, a brutal race at 268 km, confirmed his long-distance, one-day chops.
“We started talking about at the end of last year,” he said. “I had fun that day at the Tour over the cobbles. I know it was in a stage race, and it’s a lot different than a one-day race and the factors were different than a standard cobbled classic, but the more we started to talk about it, the more I thought, why not?”
As a Flanders rookie, Powless starts Sunday with no pressure, and knows he’s coming into the heart of his spring classics campaign in top form.
He’ll also race Brabantse Pijl, Amstel Gold Race, La Flèche Wallonne, and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and then reload for the Tour de France, but he’s quietly hoping the stars align Sunday.
“I’m in the right place at the right time, and I hope to have another good day Sunday,” Powless said. “I’m excited to see what I can do.”