Neilson Powless (Axeon Hagens Berman) was a busy man in 2016. In a single season, the 20-year-old mountain-biker-turned-roadie established himself as a top rider in both the US and the international U23 peloton, winning national calendar races and California's best young rider jersey in the States, then soloing to the queen stage win at the Tour de l'Avenir in France later in the year.
Before the 2016 season, most of the international cycling world knew little about Powless, who won't turn 21 until September, but the Northern Californian's rising star has actually been ascending for some time. Although 2016 saw Powless take control of the spotlight, he'd already been winning races for a decade.
An early start, a first win
Both of Powless' Parents were triathletes, and competition was an early part of his lifestyle growing up in Roseville, California. His first official USA Cycling result came in 2007. Then-10-year-old Neilson beat two other riders to claim victory in the junior 10-12 category at the Nevada City Bicycle Classic, a race he would win three more times as he aged through the junior ranks.
Powless didn't follow fellow Nevada City winner Greg Lemond's direct route to road racing success, however. He raced mostly mountain bikes with a few road events mixed in as he competed through his teens, and he briefly got into triathlon, where he also excelled. Mountain biking was his main focus, however, and he was a top rider junior on the US circuit, finding success in races including Bonelli Park, Sea Otter and nationals, and representing the US in Europe.
He introduced stage racing into his 2014 road program and started the season in February at the Valley of the Sun stage race in Arizona. He finished second overall in the junior race, and USA Cycling noticed. The USA Cycling development Program invited Powless to compete in the junior Paris-Roubaix race, where his introduction to European road racing was harsh.
"I showed some promise and USA Cycling brought me to Europe and put me in Paris-Roubaix and it was a bit of a shock," Powless admitted, describing how he crashed before the first cobblestone section. "It was a rough experience."
Powless persisted, however, and he added more road racing to his schedule that year as he continued to find success on the mountain bike. A surprise fourth-place finish in the junior time trial at the national championships was further proof of his talent on the road.
Finding a rough road in Europe
In 2015, Powless turned his focus 100 percent toward road racing, signing with the Hagens Berman domestic elite U23 team and spending a year learning the ropes while mostly riding in service of teammates.
"It was a rough season, but it really prepared me for the 2016 season by showing me how hard bike racing is," Powless said. "You really have to work hard to win almost any race, so it really pushed me that next off-season, because I kept thinking back to how much I was hurting."
The suffering in 2015 drove Powless to increase his focus and dial in every aspect of his training.
"I think that definitely had a lot to do with my successes last year, just the season before that being so hard physically, it really pushed me to focus solely on cycling and work on every aspect, in terms of like form and stretching, making sure that I was prepared for every race," he said. "It turned out pretty good."
Putting it all together in 2016
Characterizing Powless' 2016 season as "pretty good" is sublimely understated, of course. When Axel Merckx's Axeon development team merged with the Hagens Berman and California-Giant development teams in the off-season, Powless found himself on one of the most successful development programs in the world. Almost immediately, he started proving his mettle in 2016 as a top performer.
He performed well in several California regional races, including a third-place overall in the San Dimas Stage Race, an early-season event that draws multiple pro teams. After that, he headed to Redlands and churned out a time trial win that upset the domestic circuit apple cart, beating established time trial specialists like Tom Zirbel and Evan Huffman. Suddenly, everyone wanted to know about this new Axeon rider.
"It was kind crazy," Powless said, "because in December the year before I was talking with my coach about goals, and we were like, 'Yeah, let's go to San Dimas and try and then Redlands, and if we can win a stage at Redlands that would be great, then see what happens at Joe Martin.' It was kind of unexpected. It was a really awesome thing to be able to hit all those goals and continue with it."
It continued next at Joe Martin, where Powless rode consistently well enough to leave himself just seven seconds shy of the overall lead going into the last day. Time bonuses during the final criterium and a second-place finish there pushed him into the overall win.
Next up at the Tour of the Gila, Powless made it on the podium during two stages, including third in the time trial, finishing 12th overall in the hilly race in New Mexico. The race proved to be the perfect set up for what Powless was able to accomplish in California, where he animated the Queen stage with a daring early attack on Mt. Gibraltar to finish fifth there. Powless held his top five GC position until the final day, when a slight bobble near the end of the stage cost him 49 seconds and dropped him to ninth overall, still an amazing result that earned the best young rider jersey for the then-19-year-old.
"So me and my coach – not flying blind – but we weren't really sure how long we could keep it going," he said. "So we just kept rolling with it and kept the momentum rolling as long as we could. It was a great year, and Redlands was the big one that kind of kick-started the whole thing."
The results continued for Powless at the USA Cycling U23 National Championships, where he finished second to teammate Geoffrey Curran in both the road race and time trial as part of Axeon's dominating performance at the events. Another time trial win at the Tour de Beauce led into a short break before Powless attacked the Tour of Utah and then had a chance to take his newfound form and knowledge back to Europe.
While teammate Adrien Costa was chewing up the roads in Utah on his way to finishing second overall, Powless eased back into racing and started rebuilding his form. The climbing-heavy race at altitude was the perfect jump start, and a couple of Italian one-day races helped put some speed back in Powless' legs before the Tour de l'Avenir.
Powless finished second in the time trial at l'Avenir and then dropped everyone on his way to a solo win on the summit finish of the final stage. He followed it with a USA Cycling team time trial win at the Olympia's Tour and sixth in the World Championships time trial in Doha.
"Me and my coach worked well together, and he laid out a plan and made it happen," Powless said. "It was a really awesome season."
More European racing in 2017
Having firmly established himself as one of the top U23 racers in the peloton, Powless is eager to keep testing himself and challenging his abilities as he prepares for the next level. He knows he needs more European experience to really push himself and grow, and his 2017 program will reflect that. He expects to spend the majority of the spring overseas.
"Last year I spent almost all the spring in America, so I think next year I'll probably do some races to experiment and see what kind of rider I can be," he said.
"I'm really looking forward to the one-day races, doing Flanders, Wevelgem and Liege," Powless said, remembering that there was a particular race he'd like to try again. "If it works out, I'd like to do Paris-Roubaix. I'd really like to go back and put a stamp on that race.
"It's an amazing event, and to finish on the velodrome is almost nostalgic from watching that race on TV. Racing across the cobbles, I think it would be a really awesome race to do and it would help with the experience moving forward, just doing a race like that, doing the most difficult races I can find. I think that will be good for me in the long run."
Although the team's ability to compete at the Tour of California is still up in the air as the UCI and race organisers work out the rules for the handful of new WorldTour events, Powless counts the US's biggest race among his top goals.
"Obviously, if we go to California that will be one of my biggest goals of the season," he said. "Anytime you get to show yourself against WorldTour riders, that's a big opportunity and you need to take advantage of that. But that being said, California is still up in the air for our team. I have a schedule laid out right now that doesn't include California in case we don't go go."
No matter what happens with the race schedule, Powless' goal will be to expand his palate and prove he's ready to compete at the top level.
"The biggest pressure I'm putting on myself is being able to show everybody that I can put out results in Europe and ride well in Europe," he said. "I showed I can be really strong domestically and I had some good races in Europe as well, like l'Avenir. That was an amazing race as well with the results I was getting early on.
"I think this year is going to be really exciting for me, to learn about myself and learn how to race better – just have fun with it right now, keep racing as much as I can in Europe."