The rising U.S. all-rounder finished Sunday in the wheel of Wout van Aert and in the group of chasers behind the modern Merckx that is Tadej Pogačar and double Ronde champion Mathieu van der Poel.
And yes, it was just his second cobblestone classic.
“I’m tired, very satisfied, and left wanting more again,” Powless told reporters at the finish line. “But what can I say? I think the guys that finished in front of me are the biggest riders in the sport. So I think finishing fifth with the riders that showed up today – I’m just proud.”
Powless was received by a swath of his EF Education-Easypost staffers and a pack of press at the finish line Sunday.
The peloton buzzed at his breakout cobblestone ride to the podium this week at Dwars door Vlaanderen, and Powless suddenly was the talk of Flanders.
The 26-year-old delivered on the wave of hype since his ride Wednesday by barnstorming across the pavé into the elite break of the day in what was an edition of De Ronde for the record books.
“It’s hard to believe. I think I need to go and look at the results just to make sure because I never thought I’d be fighting for top-5 in the Tour of Flanders,” he told the press. “But here I am.”
An incredible ride by Neilson to take 5th in his first time at de Ronde. And an amazing job by the whole team in pink. pic.twitter.com/TAS3Atu8sp
— EF Pro Cycling (@EFprocycling) April 2, 2023
Riding on instinct in De Ronde debut
The fatigue was writ large in Powless’ bloodshot eyes and mud-splatted face as he stood with his bike at the finish.
In a windswept, crash-riddled, high-pace edition of De Ronde where so much could have gone wrong, Powless made the race his own.
“I crashed twice, lost my computer, and was just relying on what I could get from the radio. I wasn’t sure how far into the race we were or when the climbs were coming,” he explained.
“I just had to take them as they came and just ask Andreas [Klier, sport director – ed] what was coming up, and even the riders around me how far into the race we were. I was a bit lost sometimes. But maybe it’s best to race on instinct like that.”
This year’s Tour of Flanders was overshadowed by talk of the so-called “big three” of Pogačar, Van der Poel, and Wout van Aert.
Powless was one of many outside contenders that vowed ahead of time they’d try to anticipate the onslaught by going on the attack early – and he lived up to his word.
The 26-year-old hit out with a heavy-hitter group of cobblestone veterans on the Mollenberg some 100km from the finish, and the split went on to gallop to a two-minute lead.
But it seemed destined the “big three” might steal the show, and Pogačar proved that right with a blazing attack that set the finale into action.
“Like I guess said this morning, I just had to take some risks if I wanted to try to win today,” Powless said. “So I did that, and went from quite early out on the Mollenberg.
“Then when [Pogačar, Van der Poel, Van Aert] came up to me I tried my best to follow on the Kwarement and I was taken out of position by some guys that were pulling off the front. In the end they hit it from behind with so much speed, I just had to ride as fast as I could.”
Neilson Powless is ready to take on one of cycling’s most iconic races and his LAB71 SuperSix EVO is the perfect bike for the job. It’s their lightest weight, most advanced carbon construction sculpted for the most aerodynamic efficiency. He’s looking for a fight on the cobbles… pic.twitter.com/tKJOZIFyNA
— EF Pro Cycling (@EFprocycling) April 1, 2023
‘I’m just loving the sport right now’
Fifth in Oudenaarde marks Powless’ best monument finish yet, with seventh this year in Milan-San Remo and eighth in 2022 at Liège-Bastogne-Liège a testament to his versatility.
Powless said before how he came out of the off-season buoyed by undisturbed training and perfect family life.
And now with a first GC victory and cobblestone podium also on his 2023 palmarès, Powless roars into the Ardenees with huge things at his fingertips.
“I hope I can just stay on this momentum,” he said. “And yeah, I’m just so so proud to be where I am today. I’m just loving the sport right now.”