It was a leap of faith for Axeon-Hagens Berman to sign former mountain biker Neilson Powless. After all, his palmares on the road didn't show much. But given the opportunity to go for some results, he quickly repaid the team's faith with a time trial win at the Redlands Classic, the overall victory in the Joe Martin Stage Race, and now is the best young rider in the Tour of the Gila.
Cyclingnews caught up with Powless after his third-place finish in the Tour of the Gila time trial to find out how he found his path to road success.
"I started out doing triathlons, then switched to mountain biking when I was a junior. I raced the world cup circuit both years as a junior, and my last year as a junior, I went with USA Cycling National Road team as well, dabbling between both trying to choose," Powless said.
An offer from the Hagens Berman U23 team last year tipped his hand to the road, and he won a smaller races - the Valley of the Sun stage race, but spent the majority of the season learning the ropes working for his more experienced teammates. When Hagens Berman switched from supporting that team to funding Axel Merckx's Axeon squad, they gave him a chance and he was determined to prove his mettle.
He started out the season winning a couple small races in his native California on his own, and then in his first race with Axeon finished in third overall in the San Dimas Stage Race, which was just a sign of things to come.
"That was an impressive result for me, but my form kept getting better and better as the racing went on. At Redlands I pulled out the TT win, that blew me away," he said. "I didn't think I had that in me. It was really exciting, and from then on it's been about telling myself I can be in the mix, and being confident about being at the front with guys I've been intimidated by in the past."
His newly found confidence paid off at Joe Martin. After the time trial, he was fourth, 11 seconds off the lead of Jamis' Janier Acevedo. On stage 3, he slipped into the time bonuses at the finish and narrowed the margin to 7 seconds. Winning the overall was a tall order, but Powless was willing to give it a try.
"It was pretty crazy. The last stage I was down 7 seconds, and there were two sprints during the race that I went for. I got first in the second one and got a three second bonus, and got two seconds and needed another two seconds. I needed to be on the podium at the finish to get the time bonus, and I ended up getting second in the uphill sprint at the finish. After that, I got all the jerseys, because no one had a clear lead in the sprint classification either. Because I was going for the time bonuses, and had a decent sprint finish the day before, that put me in the green jersey and yellow jersey. That was pretty incredible. I never thought that could actually happen."
With some strong results behind him, finding a good position in the peloton has become easier, and provides a launching pad for even more results.
"It keeps you more calm, as the race gets hard I know I'll probably be strong enough to hang in there with the selection, because of the TT's I've done," he said. "It was my first time racing San Dimas, Redlands, Joe Martin and my first time in Tour of the Gila. It's been really good so far.”