Neilson Powless powers over the cobbles at Flanders
The American finished fifth in a historic edition of De Ronde
The United States of America has a new cobbled classics contender.
On Sunday, Neilson Powless sprinted to fifth in the fastest ever Tour of Flanders.
“It's hard to believe,” the Californian says. “I never thought I'd be fighting for top five in the Tour Flanders, but here I am. Growing up, I loved watching the Tour of Flanders, but never thought I would be one of the riders suited for this race. I am very satisfied—left wanting more again. What can I say? The guys that finished in front of me are the biggest riders in the sport.”
The 110th edition of De Ronde was a grand cru, according to the Belgian press. As soon as the peloton rolled out from the medieval Markt in Bruges and the flag dropped, riders started trading blows at 50 km/h and the pace hardly let up for 273.4 kilometers. Across Flanders’ fields and into the hills around Oudenaarde, the best bike riders on the planet launched themselves up cobbled tractor tracks and down narrow concrete roads, as a cold, northerly breeze blasted across the countryside.
There was action from start to finish, and every village on route was out for the party.
Neilson and his teammates, Tom Scully, Jonas Rutsch, Mikkel Honoré, Jens Keukeleire, Julius van den Berg, and Owain Doull rode an excellent tactical race. During the chaos of the race’s early hours, they kept Neilson at the front, while his rivals were caught behind breaks in the pack and forced to make huge efforts in the wind.
"Finishing fifth with the riders that showed up today, I'm just proud."
When the race hit its first cobblestone sector, Jonas Rutsch made our team’s first move. As the wind whipped across early-spring pastures, he pushed ahead to join a break that soon gained five minutes. Going up the Oude Kwaremont for the first time, Jonas could hardly contain his excitement, as he blazed through the thousands of fans who had trekked out to the famous cobbled farm lane, but he stayed calm. With over a hundred kilometers left, he knew that he would soon have a job to do for his friend.
Back in the peloton, Neilson was ready to go on the offensive. The Molenberg was the next key point. Tom Scully did a huge turn to navigate Neilson through the mad bunch sprint into the corner at the base of the rocky climb. Thanks to Tom’s work, Neilson hit the Molenberg at the front and followed the best over the top, breaking clear with a nine-rider group in the powerful crosswinds.
Neilson knew that his best tactic was to put pressure on his rivals from ahead. He has made his name as a climber and knew he would likely be outmatched by the likes of Tadej Pogacar, Mathieu van der Poel, and Wout van Aert in an explosive sprint up Flanders’ steepest bergs. By going out in front, he’d play to his strengths and force them to chase. Neilson kept his effort steady, rolling through the break over the next hills, until his group made the junction with Jonas’s. Jonas then did a huge series of turns to get them to the second ascent of the Oude Kwaremont with a solid lead.
"I love cycling so much, especially racing at the front of a Monument as beautiful as Flanders."
When the favorites went ballistic on that climb, Neilson could keep calm and save some strength in reserve for the finale. He rolled through the group and waited for the decisive moment.
Eventual winner Tadej Pojacar and second-place finisher Mathieu van der Poel joined their group right before the final ascent of the Oude Kwaremont. When they launched their attacks, Neilson couldn’t follow, but he came over the top at the front of the chasing group and led them over the Paterberg. Neilson then rode a great sprint to finish fifth in Oudenaarde.
He would have loved a podium, but knows there is no shame in losing to a bike racing legend in a historic edition of De Ronde.
“Each rider you ask after today will say that it was brutal,” says sports director Andreas Klier. “Not only because of the parcours, but because of the wind. The best rider won. And that means that it was an honest race. That is the nice thing about this race. It is an honest parcours, so congratulations to him. And with our fifth place, we also did a good thing.”
Neilson can’t wait to come back to Flanders to have another go at De Ronde next year.
“Finishing fifth with the riders that showed up today, I'm just proud,” Neilson says. “I love cycling so much, especially racing at the front of a Monument as beautiful as Flanders.”