Neilson Powless is starting the Tour of Utah in some of the same clothes he ended the 2017 race in. Well, not exactly the same garment, but the 21-year-old LottoNL-Jumbo rider on Monday earned the jersey for best young rider with fourth place in the opening prologue time trial after having won the category overall last year.
"I'm really happy to be back in the best young rider jersey," he said at the post-stage press conference, which was also attended by stage winner Tejay van Garderen, runner-up Joey Rosskopf and third-placed Tom Bohli, all of BMC Racing.
"My spring was sort of up and down, so it's nice to be coming back into some good fitness again," said Powless.
The 21-year-old from California started his first year with LottoNL-Jumbo in February at the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, where he finished 21st overall. A steady diet of Italian and Spanish races led to the Tour of California, where Powless finished 15th after cracking the top 10 in 2016 with Axeon. Since then he's raced the Critérium du Dauphiné and the US championships.
Powless finished fourth overall in Utah last year, and came into this year's race fresh, and it showed in Monday's performance.
"It got a bit warmer throughout the day. I started a bit earlier so it was a little bit cooler, but it certainly didn't stop these guys from setting insanely fast times,” he said of Van Garderen, Rosskopf and Bohli, the prologue specialist.
Bohli started the stage early as well, but Rosskopf started near the end of the stage and Van Garderen was last off the start ramp.
Both Van Garderen and Rosskopf have found success in Utah before. Van Garderen won the time trial stage the last time he competed in the race in 2007, and Rosskopf won the mountains jersey and finished second to BMC's Cadel Evans on the 'queen stage' in 2014 with the Hincapie Sportswear team.
Now they're back at the front of the race, with a strong team backing them that also includes Brent Bookwalter, who won a stage last year and finished fifth overall. Although Powless and his teammate Pascal Eenkhoorn, who finished the stage in fifth, are just a few seconds back – as are many of the overall contenders at this early stage – they've got a hard row to hoe if they want to knock off the BMC juggernaut.
"For sure, the guys who are in front of me right now are really strong," Powless said. "But, honestly, we'll just have to see how the week plays out, because, like Tejay said, the climbs as we get further north are going to be the real deciding factors, so it's just going to be really whoever has the strongest ride on those uphill finishes and stays around in Park City."
There's an immense amount of mountains yet to come in the race, and as Van Garderen mentioned in the press conference, the gaps coming out of the prologue are small and can disappear quickly if a rider has a bad day in the mountains.
Saturday's queen stage to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort is a brutal day, with 3,040m of climbing up Guardsman Pass and Little Cottonwood Canyon, and the next day takes on the equally daunting ascent up Empire Pass before a final screaming descent into Park City and the finish.
Powless and his relatively young LottoNL-Jumbo squad, which also features Sepp Kuss, who was ninth overall here last year, will have plenty of opportunities to take it to BMC and the rest of the peloton.
"We definitely have a pretty young team here, but everybody is pretty eager," he said. "We're always on the lookout for an opportunity to make the race harder, or to attack and just be aggressive."
If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to be part of a top-level cycling team, and to be on the ground, inside the barriers, at the Tour de France, then RUNNING WITH WOLVES will take you there. It is available to rent for $3.99 USD or buy for $6.99 USD.