There was a little bit of all of us in Nielson Powless’s reaction to finishing fifth place in the Tour of Flanders yesterday. He crossed the finish line in Oudenaarde in a state of emotional excitement and shock, laced with a sort of madness that only De Ronde can instil in people. Reporters scrambled to get quotes from the American rider whose eyes glistened despite his inevitable exhaustion and mud-stained face.
“Growing up I loved watching the Tour of Flanders, but I never thought I would be one of the riders suited for this race,” Powless gushed. “I just love cycling so much. When you're racing at the front of a Monument, and especially when it's as beautiful as Flanders, man, that gives me chills.”
It was the sort of emotion that comes after an adrenaline-filled day of bike racing, perhaps one of the craziest and most hectic of the season so far. Powless didn’t have a smooth, perfect race, but the American seemed enamoured with the atmosphere of Flanders. It is, in part, the mishaps and bad luck which make this race such an incredible spectacle.
“I crashed twice, lost my computer and was just relying on what I could get from the radio. I wasn't sure how far into the race we were or when the climbs were coming,” the 26-year-old continued. “I just had to take them as they came and just ask Andreas [Klier, EF Education-EasyPost sports director] constantly what was coming up and even the riders around me how far into the race we were. I was a bit lost sometimes, but maybe it's best to race on instinct like that.”
“So often I thought the race was over for me but I just kept getting back into it and fought back.”
Powless found himself in a 10-rider strong group that went clear with around 100km of the Tour of Flanders remaining, alongside the likes of Kasper Asgreen, Fred Wright and Stefan Küng. “I just had to take some risks if I wanted to try to win today. I did that from quite early out on the Molenberg,” Powless explained after the race.
This group built a lead of over three minutes, until the battle between The Big Three ignited behind and things started coming back together. Powless put an impressive fight up on the Kwaremont, only being reeled in by the chase group on the descent a few kilometres later. In the final sprint for the line, the American had enough reserves to finish in fifth place overall, behind Mads Pedersen and Wout van Aert.
“[The sports directors] just said to save everything for the final Kwaremont and the Paterberg, so that's what I tried to do,” Powless explained after the race. “I knew I had to still do my turn when I had to but I really tried to save everything for the Kwaremont because I knew they were coming up with fresher legs than I did. I did my best and in the end I think I came away with more than I could have expected coming into today.”
When it came to that final, tense run-in to the line with both Van der Poel and Pogačar up the road and Powless in the chasing group behind, the EF Education-EasyPost rider decided to bank on himself for a strong sprint finish.
“Everyone was trying to decide if we were close enough to catch Van der Poel or not. We were all working together fairly well. I felt like I was on the limit after the Paterberg, I just gave it everything over the top of that climb and they caught me on the descent. I was trying to rest as much as I could because I knew it was just going to be coming down to a sprint with the group that we had,” Powless explained. “Every pull that you did was going to take away from your sprint so I just tried to save as much as I could. It’s a shame the guys in front were too far in front but I was just proud to be there.”
Powless has every right to be proud and his performance was a breathtakingly impressive one for a Flanders debutant, but may not have come as a surprise to those who have followed his career so far. Just a few weeks ago, he finished third in Dwars door Vlaanderen (the first cobbled Classic he’d ever done) and before that seventh in Milan-Sanremo. His 2021 win in Donostia San Sebastian Klasikoa sits at the very top of Powless’s glistening palmarès and it’s not just in the one-day races that he is excelling. The EF Education-EasyPost rider also took victory at Etoile de Bessèges, a five-stage race, earlier this season.
Most riders get better at the Tour of Flanders with more race experience – it’s important to know when the climbs are coming and how to finesse the slippery cobbles. If Powless can bag a top-five on debut, it’s a promising show for the rest of the season. Currently, all talk is about cycling’s Big Three, but Powless doesn’t seem far off making this a big four the way things are going.
“I hope I can just stay on this momentum. I’m so proud to be where I am today. I'm loving the sport right now,” he said. “The guys in front were too strong for me today but I feel like I'm making steady progress every year. Hopefully one day I can be there.”