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For the past three seasons American rider Neilson Powless has been on a fast learning curve. Deciding to focus on road racing barely two years ago, Powless found instant success, taking an eye-opening fifth place in the Amgen Tour of California last year and winning a stage of the prestigious Tour de l’Avenir. This year, he confirmed the promise placed on him by not only winning the U.S. national under-23 road title, but also placing second in the pro championship. Such results earned him a WorldTour contract with the Dutch team LottoNL-Jumbo, where the 21-year-old knows his learning curve will continue.
Words & images by James Startt, European Associate to PELOTON
PELOTON Magazine: Neilson, you have been one of the premier under-23 riders in the U.S. and you’re the current national champion in that category as well as runner-up in the men’s elite race. Many consider you the next great hope of American cycling. Are you aware of that, and the expectations that go along with it?
Neilson Powless: Yes, it’s in the back of my head and I am eager to live up to those expectations. But mostly I want to work hard to simply have the best career I possibly can for myself. Growing up, my friends and family always knew that I was a talented rider. They hoped that I would do well, but nobody was telling me that I was going to win the Tour de France or anything. I was fortunate to be mentored by people who knew how hard the sport was, in fact. I never told myself that I was going to make the WorldTour one day. I kept it realistic with myself and that kept my drive super-high. Racing at the WorldTour, racing at that level, was so far out of reach that I knew that I would have to work so hard to reach that level and that really pushed me the last couple of years. There was almost a mind-set I had to take on to get there.
PELOTON: Well, I’ve seen you for the last two years at the Tour de l’Avenir, the world’s top under-23 stage race. And although your results this year were not what they were in 2016, I sensed that you were racing with a lot more confidence and assurance.
Powless: Well, Avenir definitely wasn’t as good as I had hoped. I changed my program a bit and probably came into the Tour of Utah a bit too good and ended up racing too hard (he eventually got fourth). As a result, when I got to the Tour de l’Avenir, I was probably a bit tired. At the same time, it was so great to battle it out at the head of such a race in America. All of the fans are there and it is just great! But, mostly, I think I came into 2017 with so much more confidence. In 2016, I was the new guy on the Axeon team. I didn’t really know what my capabilities were. But 2016 gave me huge confidence for this year and I think it really showed in the way I was racing in the spring and, tactically, in races like Avenir as well
PELOTON: You obviously had several offers to go professional in 2018. Why did you choose to sign with the LottoNL-Jumbo team.
Powless: Well, I’ve spent a lot of time in Holland with USA Cycling in the last four years as we have a team house there so, for me, signing with a Dutch team was on par with an American team. I like the Dutch spirit. I find them pretty lighthearted and easygoing.
PELOTON: Well, have you had a chance to sit down and talk with them about how they see you evolving in the next two years as a neo-pro?
Powless: Well, we’ve talked about the big-picture goals but we haven’t really talked about the individual races yet. We’ll do that at the end of this month or next. I’m really hoping to come back to the Tour of California, but we’ll see.
PELOTON: And what kind of big-picture goals did you discuss?
Powless: Well, like at what point I can do a grand tour and at what point I can maybe go for results in a grand tour. We also discussed at what point I can start leading the team and what I have to do to get to that point. It was pretty interesting really because they laid out basically a four-year plan. My contract is only for two years, but they would like to work for four years. I have to say that these are some of the reasons I signed with them. I was just impressed by the professionalism and effort that they put into the recruitment. They put together this massive presentation and told me up front what they thought my next four years were going to look like and they were super confident that I could make the steps in order to achieve the goals like leading a grand tour.
PELOTON: I know you’ve done some mountain biking and you have ridden races like Paris–Roubaix in the U23 category. Are the classics and great one-day races something you are interested in or do you really see yourself focusing on stage racing?
Powless: Well, I’d like to enter some of the one-day races this spring, but from what I can understand though it seems as though they really have their eyes on developing me as a stage racer. That said, I’d be really happy if I could get into some one-day races just to see. I’d like to try everything out!
PELOTON: What is the classic that inspires you the most?
Powless: Well there is Paris–Roubaix. I watched the race inside the velodrome as a junior and it is just amazing. And I’d have to say that the Amstel Gold Race is up there too, because I have lived and trained around the course for so long. That would be a super fun race to do and the hills there might suit me better.
PELOTON: Well, obviously you have been one of the premier under-23 riders but next year you enter the WorldTour. By all standards, that’s a big jump.
Powless: Yeah, I’m really expecting another huge jump like there was moving from the juniors to the U23 category. I kind of got a taste of it racing the Tour of California two years ago but, that said, California is not as mentally draining as almost every other race in Europe. So I am really preparing for a heavy year in terms of both mental and physical stress. I’m just going to take it one race at a time and focus on getting the work done that my coach gives me. I’m not expecting to win a bunch of races this year or anything. What I’m expecting is to find experience and see how I really compare to the professional ranks.