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A highly touted American prospect, bursting with talent, went to a WorldTour team known for its ability to develop promising youngsters just like him. Riding alongside some of the sport’s biggest names, he trained as the team told him to and ate as they told him to – but he didn’t get any faster.
Neilson Powless is proof that systems, however well designed, don’t work for everyone. After two seasons with Jumbo-Visma, the 23-year-old found himself looking to make a move. This transfer season, he signed a deal to join a team with a wholly different feel, EF Education First.
Powless says that for much of his time with Jumbo-Visma, his numbers were actually “quite a bit worse” than they were before his WorldTour jump. He ultimately came to the conclusion that the training protocols set for him by the team were not working for him.
“I needed to make a change and EF was the obvious choice for me. It was a team I felt like I could be at home at,” Powless told CyclingTips at EF’s California training camp last week. “When I made the decision to switch it was a pretty big weight off my shoulders.”
Powless started his WorldTour career with the glittering résumé of a top prospect. He had won the Joe Martin Stage Race, delivered a top 10 at the Amgen Tour of California, and nabbed stages at the Tour de Beauce and the Tour de l’Avenir in 2016 all while he was still a teenager. At the end of 2017, after two years with the Axeon Hagens Berman team, he signed on to join Jumbo-Visma, a team with a strong recent track record of developing talents.
Powless’s stint with his first WorldTour team was a mixed bag. He earned valuable WorldTour experience with the Dutch squad, making his Grand Tour debut this spring at the Vuelta a España, and he did pick up a handful of GC top 10s along the way. His development, however, did not progress the way he had hoped.
“Some of it could have been mental fatigue of moving to Europe and spending a lot more time there, the outside stressors of getting visas, racing for a foreign team, whatever. But at the end of the day, the one thing I could measure was the training,” Powless said. “I was doing less intensity, less volume, and just overall training philosophies are different. For a year and a half I was not getting any better.”
Jumbo-Visma eventually agreed to let Powless take his training plan into his own hands. Switching things up delivered promising returns.
“They allowed me to take control over [my training]. When I did that things started to click a lot more,” he said. “Towards the end of last season I started setting power records that I hadn’t come close to in three years. It was nice to finish the season on a pretty high note of like, ‘I’m getting better and I think I know why I wasn’t performing.'”
That renewed confidence should come in handy as Powless transitions to a new squad. He decided this season to make the transfer to a team that had already had him on its radar for a while.
“After this spring it wasn’t going super well with my old team so I started to look around. EF always had interest from when I was originally looking for a team to look for in the WorldTour,” Powless said.
He has high hopes for the change of scenery. For starters, he will be riding for an American squad, with several riders he already knows as new teammates.
“I think with this team I mesh with the guys a little bit more,” he said. “I feel more comfortable, I feel more relaxed.”
He is also looking forward to having “the freedom to train harder” at his new squad.
“I think that was a huge factor in why I was wanting to switch, that I wouldn’t have that micromanaging of food, diet, training protocols,” he said. “I have the freedom [at EF] to do what I know works and has worked in the past and build off of that.”
As Powless looks to continue developing in his third WorldTour season, Powless acknowledges that he’s glad to be armed with plenty of knowledge after his two years with Jumbo-Visma. However well the team’s regimented approach to training may have worked for him personally, he learned a lot from his time in the organization.
“Fueling in races was big. Jumbo-Visma has this food coach app where you get exactly how many grams of rice and chicken or whatever to have every night. That opened my eyes up a bit,” he said. “It taught me a lot about how to fuel over a race. Especially at the Vuelta [a España], over three weeks. I think that’s all super valuable information.”
Powless’s two seasons gave him several opportunities to play a support role in teams that picked up some big results. He helped teammate Primoz Roglic take the overall title at the Vuelta, garnering experience along the way.
At EF, Powless expects to have a few more opportunities to fight for his own victories. He points to the team’s confidence in his ability to progress as a draw to signing with the squad.
“Throughout the last few years it was very much a role of domestique, just trying to help Primoz, Stevie [Kruijswijk], Wout [van Aert], Dylan [Groenewegen],” he said.
“Ideally it would be nice to move on from that and try to go from a guy who is young and has potential to a guy who is young and is doing something and has results. It’s trying to take that next step into moving on from just potential. I think that’s the goal this year and over the next couple of years.”
Powless is keen to open his 2020 account early, and he will have his chances soon. He is set to begin his EF racing career in Australia next month with planned starts at the Tour Down Under, the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, and the Herald Sun Tour.
He’s making the trip with results in mind.
“I’m planning on showing up in Australia with peak fitness and trying to do something there,” he said. “Right now thats the main focus and then I’ll take a short break and then rebuild for the rest of the spring.”