For a few seconds at the end of a dramatic day of racing on the cobbles borrowed from Paris-Roubaix, it seemed Neilson Powless was about to become the first American to pull on the Tour de France yellow jersey since 2006.
For just a few seconds Powless missed out and the jersey stayed on Wout van Aert’s (Jumbo-Visma) shoulders but the winner of the 2021 Clasica San Sebastian again showed his multitude of talents and sheer class.
The EF Education-EasyPost team enjoyed a superb race out front in the breakaway as the chaos and crashes reigned behind.
Powless and teammate Magnus Cort with him, gave his all for the cause. They held off the peloton and even a chase by Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) and Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo), but then the final kilometre was a heartbreak moment for the 25-year-old American.
He made an attack to try to win the stage but was caught and finished fourth, four seconds behind stage winner Simon Clarke (Israel-Premier Tech).
Powless watched the clock tick second by second from beyond the finish line with team staff and a media pack.
“It’s within a few seconds. Nobody knows for sure. If I’m not in yellow, then I’m one or two seconds out of yellow,” he suggested.
“I can’t really imagine those emotions until it happens. I don’t know. I can’t really believe it until it happens. Right now I’m just assuming I don’t have it so I don’t let myself down.”
Sadly, the clock stopped a minute after Powless finished and so hopes turned to disappointment. He had started the stage 1:13 down on Wout van Aert and so the Belgian kept yellow by 13 seconds.
Instead of being the first American in yellow since Floyd Landis in 2006, Powless was left tantalisingly close. But he and EF Education-EasyPost can have few regrets after taking on the race.
“Despite missing out on yellow, I’m very, very happy. I accomplished my goal of getting into the breakaway ahead of all the mess. I was able to move up a few spots on GC which was a bonus. In the end I was just happy to be up there and safe,” Powless explained with more composure after the emotions of caressing yellow had passed.
“I thought I was just out there to get caught by the group in the last 10k but in the end we stayed away, so happy days.
“If we had just kept it steady all the way to the line, I definitely would have had yellow if we all finished together and on the line but with two kilometres to go, the other three guys started playing games and they didn’t want to work anymore.
“Eventually I found a moment to attack, with one kilometre to go, just to get as much speed to the finish as possible. But I think Boasson-Hagen was thinking of yellow too, so all he cared about was closing me down. Then he blew up around 300 to go, so in the end I think we might be tied or within a couple of seconds of yellow."
When the dust settled on the cobbled stage, Powless was second overall, just 13 second behind Van Aert. Boasson-Hagen was third at 14 seconds and Pogačar fourth at 19 seconds.
Powless went tantalisingly close to taking yellow but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen on Thursday on the uphill finish to Longwy. He is closer than ever.
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Stephen is the most experienced member of the Cyclingnews team, having reported on professional cycling since 1994. He has held the position of European editor since 2012 and previously worked for Reuters, Shift Active Media, and Cycling Weekly, among other publications.