Neilson Powless felt stung on Thursday morning, but it wasn’t from the controversial tactics of teammate Alberto Bettiol, rather a bee that hit the back of the American’s leg as he spoke to Rouleur at the Tour de France.
The peloton had wiped the literal dust off, following Wednesday’s chaotic stage of cobbles and carnage, but the figurative dust was still settling outside of Powless’ EF Education-EasyPost team bus at the start of stage six.
There, several journalists gathered, wanting answers from both Bettiol and manager Jonathan Vaughters as to the team’s strategy the day prior, specifically why the Italian, with teammates Powless and Magnus Cort Nielsen in the breakaway, set a rigorous tempo at the front of the peloton, with defending champion Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) on his wheel.
Former Australian sprinter turned commentator Robbie McEwen cried foul during a live broadcast, and the op-eds that followed weren’t complimentary either.
“Is he going to UAE next year, Bettiol? Because that’s not done, that’s so off. That stinks,” McEwen said.
Powless when he attacked the remnants of the escape with one kilometre remaining wasn’t aware he was in contention to take the yellow jersey, but rival Edvald Boasson Hagen (TotalEnergies), also in the frame for the maillot jaune, was and chased the 25-year-old down, ultimately spoiling his shot at a victory that Simon Clarke (Israel- Premier Tech) claimed in a photo finish from Taco van der Hoorn (Intermache-Wanty-Gobert).
“I felt really strong, and I thought I would have the legs to hold it all the way to the line because I knew that whoever was going to go after me was going to have to give up the stage win to do it, and nobody had a teammate there, so I assumed that I was going to take it,” Powless said.
“But yeah, Edvald ended up giving up the stage win for it so that was unfortunate.
“I knew what he was doing as soon as I looked back like 5-600m to go I could see him burying his head, going as hard as he could with the other two guys riding his wheel, and then I knew it wasn’t going to be my day, but I raced all the way to the line and pulled as much time as I could out. I gave it my best shot, so I was happy with my ride still.”
EF Education – EasyPost put on a united front outside the team bus on Thursday, with Vaughters admitting the debrief after stage five was longer than usual but that Bettiol had apologised, and everyone was moving forward.
“It was interesting,” Vaughters said of the debrief.
“I’m not going to disclose what we talk about in a debrief because that’s why it’s a private debrief, but listen, end of the day, it took longer than a normal debrief would and at the end of it we came to a good conclusion and came out of it in a good place as a unified team. It took a while to get there but we got there.
“Alberto won the most prestigious one-day race in the world a few years ago [2019 Tour of Flanders] and he has had to deal with some incredibly difficult health issues since then, some health issues that for a lot of people would have ended their career,” Vaughters continued.
“He hasn’t been really at the front of a race for a while, and he hasn’t had really good legs for a long time. He got into a situation where he was overly excited and forgot himself a little bit.”
The stage through flat rural plains, interrupted by jarring cobblestone sectors where dust and dirt reduced visibility and caked riders, was so hectic that Powless said fans watching on television probably had a better idea of what was going on than the competitors did.
“I couldn’t hear anything. My radio was really muffled and there were so many people screaming that I think maybe once or twice I got a few time-gap updates but apart from that I was just racing off of what I could see, not what I could hear,” he said.
“A lot of guys were in the same position. It was just a super hectic day, I think everybody who was watching on TV, they knew more about what was happening in the race than we did.”
Powless didn’t show any sign of aggrievance toward Bettiol at the start of stage six, not weighing into whether he could or could not have potentially taken the yellow jersey from Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) or dwelling on his near miss.
“We talked about it in the team meeting, but I mean he didn’t know I was racing for yellow, I didn’t know I was racing for yellow, our radios weren’t working properly and as soon as Alberto heard that he needed to stop pulling he stopped,” Powless said.
“His legs were super good, and I think he could have gotten a result as well if he was in the front, or in the very front group.
“It was a bit unfortunate but, in the end, it didn’t really cost me much and there’s no bad blood. We’re still moving on and celebrated a birthday last night, so it was a nice evening.”
Bettiol asked journalists to be professional when they queried if he had a greater allegiance to than his own teammates and rebuffed McEwen’s comments.
“McEwen is not a rider anymore, he’s a journalist and it’s part of his game,” he said.
“I was feeling really good, and I actually didn’t know Neilson was contesting the yellow.
“I just give it one go, to try to destroy the peloton because then I have the opportunity not to pull because I’ve got Neilson and Magnus in the front.
“But in the end, it doesn’t affect a lot the GC race and Neilson was still in the front. Today, especially tomorrow, is still a good day for us to try to get the yellow jersey.
“We have a plan, and we try to stick to the plan.”
Bettiol highlighted the team’s strong start to the Tour, noting Magnus Cort wearing the polka dot jersey, Rigoberto Uran’s general classification aims and how active the squad has been in breakaways.