The last time he checked, Neilson Powless had stamps from 14 countries in his passport. Three cycling disciplines have taken him around the world, and he’s excelled from Germany to Norway, Spain to the Czech Republic.
But five months into his second year as professional road cyclist, the former Roseville High School runner is about to expand his worldly competitive ways – in his home state.
Powless, 19, has four wins and eight other top-three finishes this season. But Powless will compete against international cycling’s best for the first time when the Amgen Tour of California begins on Sunday in San Diego.
The 11th men’s edition will advance 872 miles for 18 teams and conclude next Sunday in Sacramento after four days in Northern California.
The corresponding women’s four-day event, also featuring 18 teams, will begin Thursday in South Lake Tahoe and end Sunday in downtown Sacramento just before the men’s race.
While the Tour of Italy, cycling’s second-biggest event, simultaneously enters its second week, the Tour of California has attracted its strongest field for its most difficult route since the race’s 2006 debut.
Defending champion Peter Sagan, the reigning world road titlist from Slovakia, and Bradley Wiggins, the 2014 race winner and 2012 Tour de France titlist from Great Britain, will return. Mark Cavendish, Wiggins’ countryman who’s won 26 Tour de France stages and nine Tour of California stages, also is in the field that includes 10 eight-rider squads from the ProTour, cycling’s highest level.
“Of course, the first time I’m next to them or see them in the race, it’s going to finally hit me that I’m competing against these guys who I’ve watched on TV since I was pretty young,” said Powless, a former junior world titlist in XTERRA, an off-road triathlon circuit. “I remember just sitting in my living room thinking, those guys are insane.
“It’s going to be pretty unreal being in the same event as them. And I guess I will kind of deal with it when the time comes. I think it would be pretty awesome to just to attempt to have a chat with one of them if they’ll allow it.”
Despite admiration for his older peers, Powless is quickly building his own stature, albeit in less-prestigious events. This season, he’s won regional road races in Merced and Copperopolis and followed with a time trial stage victory in the Redlands Classic in early April.
Of course, the first time I’m next to them or see them in the race, it’s going to finally hit me that I’m competing against these guys who I’ve watched on TV since I was pretty young. I remember just sitting in my living room thinking, those guys are insane.
Neilson Powless, 19
Two weeks later, Powless claimed the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas. He was the youngest winner in the event’s 38 editions.
“It’s been a steady progression, so it’s not like it’s been a huge jump. The biggest jump for me was winning the time trial at Redlands against riders I had put on a pedestal,” said Powless, who competes for Axeon Hagens Berman, comprised of 16 riders younger than 23 and co-sponsored by an asphalt manufacturer and a law firm. “I’ve been boosting my confidence at each race, knowing that I’m still on the up. I hope it can continue.”
Axel Merckx, a former pro and the son of cycling icon Eddy Merckx, owns and directs the team with former pro Jeff Louder. Many of the squad’s former riders now have top-level contracts.
“Axel has been running a team for a good amount of years now,” said Powless. “He has quite a bit of experience keeping guys in check. He offers advice when he can. The team definitely allows for just about anybody to get a (top) result.
“But at the end of the day, he’s going to make sure the guys are working for the rider who has the best chance of getting a result. I think everybody understands that and everybody listens 100 percent to what he has to say. When Axel says something, you listen.”
Like many pro cyclists, Powless first competed in stick-and-ball sports. But he discovered his best athletic skill set matched his parents’. Both are accomplished endurance athletes, and his mother, Jeanette Allfred-Powless, competed in the 1992 Olympic marathon for Guam. She’s the cross country and track and field coach at American River College.
Powless fared well in age-group mountain biking before he was a teenager. But he was also a gifted runner and swimmer. A seventh-place finish at the cross country state meet prompted collegiate interest from several universities, including UCLA, Brown and Navy.
Powless opted to focus on cycling, and less than two years later decided to devote himself to road racing.
65,000Feet of climbing in this year’s Tour of California, the most in race history
“In my last year as a junior, I just decided to switch to the road,” said Powless. “I just thought it was more appealing. I could travel a lot more. I could race a lot more than I could on the mountain bike.”
The eight-day men’s race will include about 65,000 feet of climbing, the most in race history. After Stages 1 and 2, both likely sprinters’ days, the field will face a 6-mile ascent and an 8 percent average gradient to the Gibraltar Road finish just outside of Santa Barbara.
Stages 4 and 5 will combine for 265 miles. Stage 4 will start in Morro Bay and end after more than 133 miles along the Pacific Coast Highway and a final 16 percent grade to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in Salinas.
Stage 5 will take the peloton from Lodi to South Lake Tahoe and will include nearly 20,000 feet of climbing. The slightly amended individual time trial Stage 6 in Folsom will be followed by a road stage starting and finishing in Santa Rosa. The Sacramento Stage 8 finish next Sunday will cover 84.8 miles, concluding with circuits around the State Capitol.
- When: Monday-May 22
- Where: The men’s race opens with a 106-mile stage in San Diego.
- Local stages: The 132.4-mile fifth stage takes riders from Lodi to South Lake Tahoe, the sixth stage is a time trial in Folsom and the 109-mile seventh stage is in Santa Rosa.
- Finish: The final stage starts and finishes in Sacramento near the State Capitol. The 84.8-mile stage takes riders through the Delta and twice across the Tower Bridge.
- Women’s race: Starts in South Lake Tahoe on May 19, continues with stages in Folsom and Santa Rosa and ends with a 41-mile stage in Sacramento.
RIDERS TO WATCH IN THE AMGEN TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
Second overall last year in the Tour of California. … Second this year in La Flèche Wallonne, a one-day classic in Belgium. … Should be in the lead group in climbing stages, particularly in Stage 3 near Santa Barbara.
Has 26 Tour de France and nine Tour of California stage wins among his 136 career titles. … Now in 12th pro season and still among the sport’s best sprinters.
Won the now-defunct USA Pro Challenge last August in Colorado. … Strong time trialist and climber just returning to competition after a lingering sinus infection. … Reigning Australian national time trial champion.
El Dorado Hills
Won the regional Chico Stage Race overall title in February. ... Finished fifth overall in early April at the Redlands Classic. … Placed 13th overall last week at the Tour of the Gila in New Mexico. A strong climber and time trialist now in his second year away from Astana, cycling’s former top-ranked team. … Former Elk Grove High School athlete still seeking a breakout result at a top-level race. … Finished 50th overall in the ATOC last year.
Won 2015 Tour of Flanders and 2014 Milan San-Remo, two of sport’s biggest one-day races. … Among cycling’s most prolific sprinters with a career-best 20 wins last season and seven to date in 2016.
Colorado Springs, Colo.
After eight seasons on the WorldTour as a domestique now riding for a U.S. Continental team. Has hopes of strong individual results as his career winds down … A pro since 2000 but without an individual win since the 2007 Tour of Missouri.
Axeon Hagens Berman
First-year road pro with an extraordinary spring season, including a time trial win at the Redlands Classic and overall title at the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas three weeks later. … Has four win this season and finished 12th overall last week at the Tour of the Gila.
Defending ATOC titlist with a record 13 career stage wins. … Won the Tour of Flanders and Gent-Wevelgem this year. … Claimed the sprinters’ points classification at the Tour de France the past four years. … Don’t count him out of any ATOC stage, either to win or animate.
Back racing after suffering multiple injuries in a crash in Europe that nearly ended his career. Didn’t walk for four months. … Finished sixth in 2014 Tour of California. ... Has 32 race days this season, all in support roles. Seeking a return to top form with hopes of returning to Tour de France.
Won 2014 ATOC and 2012 Tour de France. … Concentrating on track cycling for Summer Olympics, his fifth, in his last professional season . … Dominated time trial stage two years ago in Folsom.
Has four wins this season, including two stages and the overall title at the Tour of the Gila. ... Had seven wins last year and eight wins in 2014 … Among the best female climbers in the sport.
The most decorated active U.S. female cyclist … A two-time Olympic time trial gold medalist and two-time world time trial titlist seeking to lead U.S. team in Rio de Janeiro, her fourth Olympics. ... Has five wins this season, including the time trial at the Tour of the Gila and the overall title this year at the Redlands Classic.
Reigning and two-time national road titlist. … Won a race in Portugal in mid-April for her fifth top-level international victory. Placed third in the women’s road race at the World Championships last September in Richmond, Va.
Won the Joe Martin Stage Race on April 24 and the Charlotte Criterium on May 1. The best female sprinter in the United States and quickly advancing globally at the sport’s top level. Began racing as a young teenager and now has 71 career national titles in multiple disciplines. If there’s a pack sprint, she’ll be in it.
Won the 2013 ATOC women’s time trial and set the women’s one-hour record in Colorado Springs, Colo., in February. Finished 24th in the 2012 Summer Olympic road race in London. … Was second this season at La Flèche Wallonne.