Young riders tend to get handed their share of harsh lessons in their debut season at WorldTour level, but Neilson Powless had all the appearances of a very quick learner when he emerged at the head of the peloton on the Cipressa at Milan-San Remo in March.
Just three races into his professional career – and more than six hours into his first-ever Monument Classic – the American cut an assured figure as he piloted LottoNL-Jumbo teammate Danny van Poppel towards the front. A puncture on the Poggio would see Powless come home almost three minutes down on lone winner Vincenzo Nibali, but it was an auspicious start nonetheless.
A neo-professional will invariably face peaks and troughs over the course of the year, but moments like that cameo on the Riviera would sustain Powless over the course of his first season with LottoNL-Jumbo, which he brought to a close at the Tour of Guangxi last month.
"I think it had some ups and downs. I got sick in the middle of the year and had some issues coming back from that. I didn't feel the same after that. I was just trying to push it a little hard," Powless told Cyclingnews in China. "I had some good races and my form was good on occasion. But I think that I was making a lot of mistakes even when my form was good.
"It was mainly the tactics in races, just not really conserving energy properly, not being in position at the right time, just minor things like that. They can add up quite a bit towards the end of a race and especially in a stage race."
One such example came in the immediate aftermath of Milan-San Remo, when the youngster was handed his freedom at the Settimana Coppi e Bartali. Sixth place in the concluding time trial helped to lift him to a final position of ninth overall, but he came away realising that he could have achieved more.
"Coppi e Bartali was really good but I think I also made the biggest tactical mistakes I've ever made at a race; every day there was something that would just set me back," Powless said. "Some of them were my fault, some of them were just luck. But at the end of the day it was a really good race for me and I think that my fitness was very good. It was really fun to be able to race for myself and get that opportunity."
Like his compatriot Sepp Kuss, Powless was weaned on a steady diet of WorldTour stage racing in 2018, with appearances at the Tour of the Basque Country, Tour of California and the Critérium du Dauphiné in the opening half of the season. In the latter part of the year, he played a key supporting role as Kuss claimed three stage wins and the overall victory at the Tour of Utah, before helping himself to seventh overall at the Tour of Britain in September.
Comparisons with Kuss' remarkable progress are as irrelevant as they are inevitable. For one thing, Kuss is two years Powless' senior, but, in any case, no two riders' trajectories are ever the same. Powless picks his second place behind Kuss at Mount Nebo in August as a highlight of his 2018 season and, having only turned 22 in September, he feels under no immediate pressure to score a first professional win of his own.
"It will take some time and you never really know when you'll have a good result or a break-out moment," Powless said. "You just have to keep building on your current position and then hopefully eventually it will pay off. I'm looking pretty far into the future as well. I wasn't too concerned about getting results this year, it's been about getting to know the races and getting to know the team."
2019 and beyond
Although Powless' current contract with LottoNL-Jumbo expires at the end of the 2019 season, the squad – which will be known as Team Jumbo from January 1 – has already intimated that it is taking a long-term view of the Californian's progress, with plans for his development as a Grand Tour rider that extend far beyond his existing deal.
"The team is in a pretty unique situation where they have a committed sponsor for the foreseeable future, at least the next four or five years, so they can invest in riders like that and talk about four years down the road," Powless said. "At a lot of others teams, they may talk about four or five years down the road, but they have a sponsor that's only got a contract with the team for another year or two.
"I think they're really trying to take advantage of that, to develop riders and hopefully develop GC riders, which is what I'm hoping to be because of my ability to time trial and climb on occasion."
Returning to races like the Tour of the Basque Country – where he helped Primoz Roglic to overall victory this year – and the Tour of California would be a useful gauge of Powless' progress next season, though his 2019 racing schedule is yet to be mapped out in full.
"I'll just trust what the team have in mind for me, because they've been doing a pretty good job about my development so far," said Powless, who acknowledged that a debut Grand Tour could be on the cards in 2019.
"Being able to go back to America to have reset periods is also good mentally, but I think I'm definitely riding a full year in Europe next year. If I'm doing a Grand Tour in the beginning of the year, then I won't be doing California. California would always be a nice race to go back to, it's WorldTour and it's a race in America, but if I'm not going, then that's probably a good sign that I'd be doing a big race, so I'll take whatever I can get."