Paris-Nice’s time trial stage in Gien could hardly have gone better for EF Education-Nippo, who claimed the day’s spoils thanks to 22-year-old flying Swiss sensation Stefan Bissegger and saw their main hope for the GC, Neilson Powless, record a time that underlined his strong start to the season. Fifth in the recent UAE Tour, which opened the WorldTour calendar a couple of weeks ago, the 24-year-old American is well placed to repeat that impressive performance as “the race to the sun” reaches his favoured terrain in the hills.
“After last year, when I started training again I felt like I took a pretty big step up, so I just hope that I can keep the momentum rolling from UAE,” Powless said prior to Paris-Nice’s opening stage in Saint-Cyr-L’École.
“It was awesome to have the guys so committed to supporting me there, it gave me a lot of confidence. It was also good to see Stefan win the time trial there, that boosted the whole team, and I’m super happy to have him here as well, so I’ve got some big engines for the week.”
The Gien time trial showed both Bissegger and Powless’ engines are turning over nicely, the American clearly delighted with his showing in the 14.4km test. “I feel great, really fresh right now. It was hard time trial, a lot of explosive climbs and corners. I think it went really well,” he said immediately after he’d finished.
“It’s always tough in a time trial like this because you’re constantly changing your pace. In the beginning you get up to speed for a [kilometre] and a half, then all of a sudden you hit this crazy steep climb for a minute, and then it’s down, up, left, right. It was pretty technical. But I think I paced it as well as I could have. Maybe I could have saved a little bit more for the final climb to the finish line. That was a lot harder than I was anticipating. I guess after racing this course, it just hurt a lot more than on the pre-ride.”
Powless explained that hearing EF directeur sportif Juanma Garate telling him that he was just four seconds down at the intermediate checkpoint on former world TT Rohan Dennis had given him an extra boost. “That gave me some confidence,” he said. “But I think at the end of the day, he’s a level above me in a time trial. I think I did as well as I could have done on the day and I’m just super happy with that.”
Powless ended the stage 27th on GC, but the more salient statistic is that he’s just 26 seconds down race favourite Primoz Roglic. “I think it bodes really well. Hopefully, the climbing legs are there. I’ve been feeling good in training and UAE was really good preparation. So I’ve already got a bit of race speed in the legs, which is really nice,” he said.
He acknowledged, though, that this is a race where a good situation can take a turn for the worse at any moment. “This is a very different race than UAE. It’s much more tactical and harder overall. But today was a really good confirmation of where I thought I was, so I’m really excited for the days ahead,” he explained.
While the remaining stages should suit the American climber, who had two top five finishes in the mountains on his Tour de France debut last year, he’s well aware of the dangers that are still lurking. “You never really know in a race like Paris-Nice. Even a flat stage can completely shift the GC, so you have to treat every day like it’s essentially the last day, as a day that can make or break your race. On paper, tomorrow [stage four] doesn’t look as difficult as the climbing stages to come, but we’re definitely gonna be prepared for some full-on racing.”
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