With his sixth-place finish in the 2016 UCI Road World Championships U23 men's time trial to stand on, American Neilson Powless is going into the 2017 Bergen Worlds as one of the favourites for a medal in Monday's race. He'll be joined on the start by US teammate Brandon McNulty, the 2016 junior world champion whose time last year in Qatar would have earned a bronze medal in the U23 race.
The pair will present a formidable duo when the U23 individual time trial rolls out Monday in the Norwegian host city, and they'll provide crucial firepower to the five-man US roster for the 191km road race on Friday. Cyclingnews spoke with Powless about the expectations for next week.
Oien is the man for Friday's road race
Powless, 21, who recently signed a two-year deal with LottoNl-Jumbo, picked teammate Justin Oien as the US men's top prospect in the road race. The 22-year-old former Axeon Hagens Berman rider, who is in the first year of a two-year deal with Spanish Pro Continental team Caja Rural-Seguros RGA, recently finished fourth at the one-day Grote Prijs Marcel Kint with the US national team.
"It went pretty well for a bunch of the guys," Powless said of the tune-up race in Belgium. "They all seemed to be on super good form. Justin Oien was fourth in a very small front group, then we had a bunch of guys in the second group. It was a good race, really windy and rainy, so good prep for Worlds, for sure.
"[Bergen] is definitely a Classics-ish style course, and the team we brought here is going to be super competitive on that terrain," he said.
Filling out the rest of the U23 roster are McNulty, 19, Ian Garrison (Axen Hagens Berman) and 21-year-old William Barta (Axeon Hagens Berman). Nineteen-year-old Garrison finished third in last year's junior Worlds time trial.
"I think that Justin Oien does super well in races like this, especially if it's raining and really chaotic, because he really seems to shine in those kinds of moments," Powless said. "When the race gets really difficult it gets kind of hard to peg a leader for the team, so we'll see what happens, but I think for now Justin is the leader for the squad going into the road race.
"I think if we play it right we can have a lot of guys there at the finish to do something special," he said, "which would be really cool."
Neilson Powless competes in the U23 time trial at the Doha Worlds. (Tim de Waele/TDWSport)
'TT course is pretty much handpicked for us'
On paper, the best chance for the American U23 men to win a medal or rainbow jersey will come in Monday's individual time trial, where Powless and McNulty will line up in the stars and stripes.
"USA is definitely coming in with a competitive duo for Worlds," Powless said.
McNulty won the junior time trial last year with a time that would have earned a bronze in the U23 race. His time of 34:32 was half a minute better than Powless. Of the two riders who finished with times better than McNulty, winner Marco Mathis is 23 and riding with Katusha-Alpecin this year, while runner-up Maximilian Schachmann, also 23, moved to Quick-Step Floors.
That fact alone moves McNulty way up the ladder of favourites, even in his first year in the U23 race. McNulty broke his pelvis in a crash early in the 2017 season with Rally, but he bounced back strongly, winning the US U23 time trial title ahead of Barta and Powless.
Powless got the best of McNulty five days earlier at the US pro race when he finished third in the time trial behind BMC Racing's Joey Rosskopf and Brent Bookwalter. McNulty was 22nd that day. Powless finished second to Larry Warbasse (Aqua Blue Sport) in the pro road race the day after the pro time trial, and he won the U23 road race less than a week later.
Those results notwithstanding, Powless acknowledged that his US teammate is a top pick for the win, but he knows he has a few cards to play as well.
"I think that Brandon has the best shot of anybody at Worlds," he said. "Honestly, I see him as the strongest guy coming into it, just based on how I've compared to his past performances. I think everybody else sees that.
"If we get a rainbow jersey on the USA's side I'll be happy, whether it's me or Brandon," he said. "But I'm going to give it my all, and I would definitely like to win, but only one person can win, and if it's me, that'd be really cool.
"But Brandon also has a super, super good chance of winning, so if he gets the jersey it's not like I'll be utterly disappointed. I'd be super stoked for him, because at the end of the day we're here to get rainbow jerseys for the USA, and we think we brought the team most capable of making that happen."
The course in Bergen also suits the two Americans, both of whom have considerable climbing talent to go along with their time trial chops.
The 37.2km course in Bergen starts with a 16.1km "short loop" that leads to the larger and final loop of the day. At 24.5km, the route reaches the Birkelundsbakken, a 1.4km climb that averages 7.2 percent but pitches up to 9.1 percent at the top, where just over 11km of fast, mostly downhill roads lead to the finish.
"It's a super good course because it's a kind of in-between," Powless said. "The climb isn't super long, but there's definitely still an uphill effort, and I think it will play into both Brandon's and my advantage. I think the course is pretty much handpicked for us."
The weather could also be a factor, although Monday's forecast is currently for overcast skies and temperatures at 15 Celsius. Powless, who won the 2016 Redlands Bicycle Classic time trial in torrential rain, shouldn't have a problem in any conditions and could actually excel if precipitation shows up.
Certain to show up are the world's best U23 riders, and Powless has taken note of who, aside from McNulty, he'll likely face on Monday. He picked recent Olympia's Tour time trial and overall winner Pascal Eenkhoorn (Netherlands) as a rider to watch, along with current Belgian champion Senne Leysen.
"And Lucas Hamilton (Australia), I can't rule him out," Powless said. "He had an incredible time at the [Baby] Giro. It's safe to say that he would like to do well. I don't know if [Pavel] Sivakov (Russia) is going to do the time trial, because when I talked to him at the Giro he was unsure. But he's pretty much always good, so he's another really strong guy."
But in the ened, Powless said, riders can only worry about their own effort and not get caught up in who else will be in the race, what the conditins are or even the start order.
"You just have to focus on putting in the fastest time you can, and wherever you end up is what you have to be happy with at the end of the day," he said. "I'm coming into this with a clear head of what I can and cannot do, and I'm going to give it my best shot.
"If you start thinking about everybody else, like going at this time compared to that time - which is better - you start kind of getting into your head. Time trials are a very mental effort, and anything you can do to keep your mind clear, calm, collected and focused is the best way to go about it."
Brandon McNulty en route to the 2016 junior time trial title in Doha. (Getty Images Sport).