A week before the Tour de France (opens in new tab) began Neilson Powless (opens in new tab) thought that he was heading towards Tirreno-Adriatico and a possible tilt at the Giro d'Italia a few weeks later. However, the American, who admits he was 'overwhelmed' by his Tour de France selection, has been one of the successes for EF Pro Cycling (opens in new tab) since the race left Nice.
Ten days into the Tour de France and the 24-year-old has been in two significant breakaways and netted two top-five stage results. What has made those results even more impressive is that they have come after spending the rest of the first week riding in support of team leader and top-ten contender Rigoberto Urán.
"For the most part the feelings of fatigue don't come into play until I get on my bike and ride around a bit, but overall my energy levels are surprisingly high after how hard the first week has been," Powless told Cyclingnews on the evening of the race's first rest day.
His two days in the break came on stages 6 and 8, with the race heading into the mountains and some of the most rugged terrain that the Tour de France has to offer.
"I thought that there might be an opportunity later in the race once the GC was established, and depending on what our position was in the overall classification. Having the opportunity was amazing, but my main expectation was that I would be riding in a support role for others."
In fact, after completing the Tour de Pologne back in early August, Powless expected to pin his next race numbers on at Tirrreno-Adriactico rather than the Tour. He was on EF Pro Cycling's longlist for the Tour de France, but with such a truncated season placed upon professional cycling, earning a spot on any WorldTour squad for cycling's marquee event was always going to be especially hard in 2020.
"I knew I was going to the Tour about three days before we drove to Nice," he said. "I was in Andorra with the rest of the long list team and we were doing a pre-race quarantine there so we could start the bubble together. The team wasn't 100 per cent established until a week before the start but everyone on the longlist was preparing like they would be racing the Tour.
"If I didn't [get selected] then I'd be racing Tirreno right now and maybe the Giro d'Italia - luckily right now there's so much racing in such a tight timespan.
"I was assuming I was going to Tirreno. I knew that there was still a chance but I wasn't 100 per cent, I don't think everyone was, but when Charly Wegelius called me I was overwhelmed with emotion. I didn't want to assume that I was going until I got that call and when it came it was an incredible feeling."
Powless only made the switch to EF Pro Cycling in the off-season after two years at Jumbo Visma. He made steady but not spectacular steps on the Dutch team and made his Grand Tour debut at the Vuelta a España towards the tail end of 2019.
When the offer came to ride for EF, however, he jumped at the chance and he hasn't looked back since. His Tour de France progression might surprise some but it's down to a combination of development, the environment in which he has found himself in, and hard work.
"Being on EF feels so comfortable to me and already from the first team camp, it's felt like a home and a family. It's an amazing team and the effort that the riders and the staff put into everything that they do is inspiring. I want to repay their hard work," he said.
"Having raced a Grand Tour last year helps me keep things in perspective and it means I won't stress out about one stage and that I'll think more about the long-term. When you do have your opportunity you have to give it all that you have. After every year in the WorldTour, you get a bit more durable and a bit stronger and I think that's starting to come through this year."
"I think that's possible," he admits when asked if Jumbo-Visma's stacked Tour team would have provided him with limited options in the short term had he stayed on the Dutch team.
"Especially with the team that Jumbo has brought to this race. Each of those riders has as incredible palmares and it would have been a very difficult team to have made it on but anything could have happened. I'm a strong rider and I bring a lot of value to a team that's going for a general classification in a Grand Tour. I'm just happy that EF thought that I would add value to the team that they were bringing to the Tour."
Powless, just like EF Pro Cycling, have plenty of ambition and objectives left within this year's Tour de France. Urán looks capable of another top-ten at the very least, while several of their climbers, including Powless, look like options for breakaways in the second half of the race.
The squad sit second within the teams classification too, but knowing Wegelius he will be setting manageable but meaningful targets for of the team's Tour roster for the remaining two weeks.
"We'll have to see how the race pans out," Powless says when asked if he'll be in more mountain breaks.
"It depends on what the directors call for. If they want me to go for the break, I'll go for the break, and if they tell me to support Rigo, I'll just try and stay by his side as much as I can. Whenever I'm given a task I just try and do it to the best of my abilities."
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