Neilson Powless is ready to fly in the Alps
The American climber has GC ambitions and wants to win a stage
Neilson Powless is ninth in the race for the yellow jersey, less than a minute back from the podium, as the Tour de France heads into the high Alps for three big tests.
Tuesday’s 10th stage will head from Morzine to Megève, crossing three cols before the summit finish. It will be a prelude to Wednesday, which might be the hardest day of this year’s Tour. After the start in Albertville, the peloton will race over the Lacets de Montvernier, Col du Telégraphe, and Col du Galibier, before the final showdown on the 2413-metre Col du Granon. On Thursday, the GC favourites will go toe to toe once again on the switchbacks of Alpe d’Huez.
Neilson is looking forward to the challenge.
“I came out of the first week better than I was expecting,” he says. “ I was able to climb with the top 10 guys. Now that we are in the Alps on climbs where you can find a better rhythm, I can meter my efforts and just climb as fast as possible. Still, it’s the Tour, and you never really can predict what is going to happen. So far, I’m just happy that it has gone my way, and I had a few really good days.”
Neilson sure did. At the start of this year’s Tour, the American climber had no plans to race for the general classification. He rode a conservative first time trial on the rainy streets of Copenhagen and was glad to get to the finish in good time without losing any skin. He enjoyed the next two stages in Denmark, surfing wheels at the front of the peloton and soaking in the cheers from the Danish crowds, while other riders endured the stress and chaos behind him. He has worked hard on that skill.
“It has not been a secret with us that Neilson has got a lot of talent,” says EF Education-EasyPost’s head sports director Charly Wegelius. “But it has taken a while for him to learn how to use that energy in races at this level. When you’ve got too much talent, you can solve your positioning problems by using power, by using your legs, but the higher the level you get to or the higher your expectations of yourself, you can’t keep doing that. So he has almost had to relearn the importance of staying covered and staying in the right place but doing it in an efficient way, and I think he has done a great job of that. He is really level headed. He is taking all of the ups and downs that the Tour throws at you in a good way so far.”
The first half of this Tour de France has been a rollercoaster for Neilson. His greatest high and low came during the Tour’s fifth stage, when the race crossed over the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Attacking early and going in the break was a stroke of tactical genius. Neilson had his teammate Magnus Cort in the move and could ride his own line and avoid all the stress and crashes behind him. Staying safe was priority number one. Heading into the finale, Neilson realised that the break could stay away and he had the chance to win the stage. Just before the red kite, he attacked. He was only caught a hundred or so metres before the line. He finished fourth and was devastated. Only then did he find out that he was just a few seconds out of the yellow jersey. Within a minute, he had re-found his focus. On stage six in Belgium, Neilson rode a perfect race and came to the line with the elite front group. If Tadej Pogacar hadn’t won the sprint and the day’s bonus seconds, Neilson would have been in the lead of the Tour de France. Even then, he soon found his equilibrium.
“He has got the right mindset,” Charly says. “He has learned how to be motivated and be concentrated, and keep a rational distance without getting overly involved. We are going to get to the moment when the really big decisions are made amongst the best riders in the race, and I think our job is just to deliver him to that moment in as good shape as possible. He is doing the right things and he is managing his mental energy as well as his physical energy in the right ways.”
For Neilson, that means riding his own race and conserving his strength for the crucial moments. Neilson knows that he can’t make any mistakes if he wants to stay at the top of the general classification. Still, he trusts that a moment will come when he can break free and go for a victory uphill.
“All I can do is ride the climbs as best as I can, and if there is an opportunity to attack later in the race, I would like to try that too, because I still really want a stage win,” he says. “I would be happy with a top ten, but I would also be disappointed if I finished tenth without a stage win. It is going to be a balance, because now I am in GC and it is all about not taking too big of risks. Top ten in the Tour would be incredible, but I really just want to win a race. I feel like everything has been working out exactly the way that it is supposed to.”