The Volta ao Algarve is a test site for established riders targeting bigger objectives later in the season, but also for young men whose grander ambitions are a little further down the line. Neilson Powless (Jumbo-Visma) has opened the second season of his professional career in Portugal this week with a free role that might best be defined as an investment in his future.
The Jumbo-Visma squad in Algarve is built primarily around the sprinting prowess of Dylan Groenewegen, but the 22-year-old Powless has been tasked with leading the squad’s general classification challenge. With Sunday’s haul up the Alto do Malhão to come, Powless is defending a place in the top ten, though at this early juncture in his career, the emphasis is on the process as much as the result.
"The team wasn’t putting any pressure on me, it was more about coming to this race and giving me the opportunity to race how I want because we didn’t bring any other climbers here," Powless told Cyclingnews in Albufeira on Saturday. "The main focus for the team coming here was Dylan, but I've also been able to get more used to being in a general classification role and try to do everything right in terms of nutrition, positioning, conserving energy. All that’s going to be money in the bank for the future.
"At the end of the day, they didn’t really care what my result was, it’s more about getting things right, and then it will be easier to execute in the future when I have a bit of a better physical state."
Powless admitted to disappointment with his showing on Thursday's mountaintop finish on the Alto do Fóia, where the forcing of Team Sky – and, in particular, his former Axeon teammate Tao Geoghegan Hart – whittled the leading group down to an elite cadre long before the summit. The American limited his losses as best he could after losing contact with a little over 4 kilometres to go.
"It was definitely below what I was capable of, based on what I was doing in training, so I'm not quite sure what happened. We'll work it out after the race," said Powless. "For the last two hours before the climb, the race was on pretty much all the time, and I think that's what took it out of me. There was still a lot of sprinting out of corners and it was just a bit of a shock, really.
By the time I got to the last climb I wasn't so confident that my legs were really strong, and when Tao started ripping on the front, that was the exact moment I got shelled. I probably could have hung on a little longer but I would have blown really badly, so I figured I should just stay at my own tempo."
Powless conceded 1:46 to stage winner Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates) at Fóia, but he steadied the ship somewhat with a smoother showing in Friday's 20.3km time trial around Lagoa. 11th place there moved the Californian up to 8th on GC, 2:13 behind the youthful Pogacar.
"Luckily, I had a bit of a turnaround in the time trial," Powless said. "I was pretty confident going into it because I was working on my time trialling quite a bit this winter. Mu performance was pretty good, so hopefully I blew out the cobwebs and I’ll be good again on the climb on the last stage."
On Saturday, meanwhile, he avoided a late scare after puncturing in the side the final 10 kilometres. It was fortunate, perhaps, that Groenewegen endured mechanical mishap at the same point. Jumbo-Visma dropped back en masse, eventually delivering Groenewegen to stage victory and preserving Powless' place in the top 10.
The Volta ao Algarve is Powless' first race of the 2019 campaign and, as was the case in his debut season, his diet of stage racing is carefully spaced out through the spring. In March, his lone outings will come at Strade Bianche and Milan-San Remo, where he made an eye-catching cameo on the Cipressa in 2018.
"I'm pretty excited about both of those races," Powless said. "After that I have a bit of a gap until the Tour of the Basque Country, then Romandie and after that I’ll go to altitude. I won't do the Tour of California this year, but I've got plenty of super solid races on the calendar."
Powless added that his stint at altitude in May is not an indication that he is in line for a ride at the Tour de France and, at this early juncture, it is unclear if his Grand Tour debut will come this season. "I’m not really counting on going to the Tour," he said. "Obviously anything can happen, but I'm not planning on it. I've just got to make it through the spring, stay fresh between each race, and avoid going over my limit like I did last year."
In the immediate term, an explosive effort on the short but vicious Alto do Malhão awaits. Whatever the result, the experience should eventually pay a dividend. "Overall it's been a good race," Powless said. "Hopefully I can finish it off well tomorrow."