Neilson Powless (United States of America) turned in the best ride by an American male in the elite road race of the UCI Road World Championships since 1999 with a fifth place in Flanders on Sunday. The EF Education-Nippo rider was ever-present in every key move during the gruelling race and formed a key four-rider chase when Julian Alaphilippe (France) attacked with just over 17km to go.
The Frenchman went on to retain his rainbow jersey but Powless put in a determined ride to take fifth. The last American to finish that high was Chan McRae in 1999.
“I’m super happy. I was really happy to be there. I didn’t have the punch in the end but I knew that going into the sprint. I played my cards to the best of my abilities and I’m very satisfied with the way that I rode today,” Powless said at the finish.
When Alaphilippe put in his winning attack, the race for the rainbow jersey proved to be over but Powless and his chase companions did manage to bring the Frenchman to within just eight seconds inside the final 10km.
The American even managed to put in his own attacks in the final but he came up short in the sprint for silver and bronze with Dylan van Baarle (Netherlands) taking second and Michael Valgren (Denmark) completing the podium.
“There was no chance,” Powless said when asked about whether Alaphilippe was catchable.
“We wanted to bring him back but we all knew how strong he was when he went. It was hard to stay cohesive for the whole race so chapeau to him, and I’m just super satisfied with my ride.”
The US men’s team came into the elite road race with outside chances of a strong result and their hopes took a knock when Quinn Simmons crashed out and two more riders also hit the deck. However, Lawson Craddock was able to support Powless deep into the race and the San Sebastian winner highlighted the collective strength that the Americans now have within their ranks.
“For the guys coming up, I’m super excited with what we can do over the next few years. I was pretty disappointed to lose some teammates but in the end, we rode a pretty brave race and I’m so happy,” he said.
“I can see USA’s rise coming for a while with guys like Quinn, Brandon [McNulty], myself, and Sepp Kuss. We’re entering a generation of quite a few athletes who can win races on any different type of terrain. Quinn is a very impressive one-day racer. A crash took him out today but we were hoping that he was going to be one of the strongest guys. Brandon wore the yellow jersey in the Basque Country which is one of the hardest one-day races in the World and then Sepp Kuss has shown his climbing prowess this year. I’m really happy to be part of this group and really excited for the coming years.”
Powless, 25, did admit that he wasn’t on a great day during the race but he was present in several key splits even before helping to form the chase group behind Alaphilippe. At one point, with well over 60km to race, Powless was in a group that contained Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) before the main favourites brought them back.
“No matter how you’re feeling you have to keep putting yourself in the race. Even today I never felt amazing but I kept putting myself in there and eventually you realise you’re with the best guys. It’s about never giving up and keep putting yourself in the race.”
With the season almost over, Powless will soon have a chance to reflect on a breakout year that has included his San Sebastian win as well as several other key one-day results. The American hopes that next year the Ardeness Classics will form the bedrock to the first half of his season and that he firmly believes that a large part of his development and future could be in the one-day Classics.
“Personally I think that I’m starting to develop into more of a one-day rider that can do well on courses that are super taxing. I think that I’d like to focus on the Ardennes Classics next year and try to do well in those races. I’ve not spoken to my team about my schedule but that would be the idea. It was the plan last year but I got sick and wasn’t able to ride the Ardennes. Hopefully, I can continue to get stronger and go into these races with the goal of winning or being on the podium,” he said.
“Ever since I’ve re-signed with EF I’ve felt zero pressure from the team. I feel like it’s given me a lot of freedom to do well in these races and perform at the level that I thought I’d get to one day. It’s a super tough sport and nothing is ever certain I’m just very happy to have gone to a level and doing well in races of that size. I’m hoping that I can continue that trajectory and build off these races.”