Just call him the Tour de France “breakaway king.”
Not a bad moniker to take home in the pinnacle of professional cycling.
Oneida cyclist and first time Tour de France rider Neilson Powless is the first Native American to compete in race history. Powless was one of nearly 200 cyclists to participate in September’s punishing three-week cycling sprint of the most challenging stages that the French have to offer. The race finished up Sunday in Paris and Powless’ overall place was 56th.
Powless certainly left his mark as a member of the Education First Pro Cycling team and as one of the few Americans on the team. He finished in the top 5 twice, including a fourth place finish in stage 4 on Sept. 3, the same day as his 24th birthday. His teammate, Jens Keukeleire, referred to Powless as this year’s breakaway king.
A breakaway is essentially a cyclist speeding up, usually in small groups, and away from the peloton, or main group of riders.
“Neilson so far is the only rider with a 100 percent success rate when it comes to picking winning breaks at the 2020 Tour which has impressed his teammates, spectators and director sportifs alike,” read an Education First post highlighting Powless’ break away technique.
The future is bright for Neilson Powless.
His main job at this Tour has been to ride in support of his team leader, veteran Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran. But Powless has also shown off his own strengths, particularly on arduous climbs.
Word of Powless’ feats in France has already filtered back to the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin. The tribal chairman, Tehassi Hill, says the cyclist is blazing “a trail of journey, hope and inspiration.”
“Whenever one of our own, from the Oneida community, are in the spotlight, it definitely does not go unnoticed. Neilson’s journey and accomplishments I’m sure are spoken of at many gatherings here in Oneida,” Hill said.
His dad, Jack Powless, noticed his son’s breakaways watching him race on TV. Neilson has been featured multiple times in NBC Sports’ coverage of the race. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jack and his wife Jen weren’t able to visit France to cheer on their son.
They have cheered from their California home in the Sacramento area where Neilson Powless grew up. Cheering began early in the Powless residences as the race often started around 4 a.m. local time because of the time difference.
“It’s been really incredible watching him and how he’s been able to judge the right breakaway,” Jack Powless said.
Powless splits time between Spain and California. He was home back earlier this year just as coronavirus cases began to climb. Usually, he spends the racing season in Europe. In August, he was back in Europe for training camp when he learned he was selected to race in the Tour de France.
“We were so proud that he got picked because it's every cyclist's dream,” Jack Powless said. “Just him being there is a lifelong accomplishment for a professional cyclist. We are so happy for him.”
Powless has been getting better each year. He raced in the Vuelta e España, a three-week Grand Tour European cycling race, in 2019 and caught the attention of Education First and was signed. He has competed in the UCI WorldTour since 2018.
The cyclist comes from a family of athletes. His sister, Shayna, is also a professional cyclist. Jack was a known triathlete and Jen was a 1992 Olympic marathoner for Guam.
Due to their demanding cycling schedule, Neilson and Shayna are rarely ever in the same place. Both have competed across the world. They might see each other once or twice a year, Shayna said.
Shayna said she has watched her brother race in France daily from her Ohio home.
“This is the first time that I’ve ever really paid attention this closely and watched the Tour de France religiosity just because Neilson has been racing, and it’s such an honor for him and I’m so excited for him,” she said.
Shayna is two years older than Neilson and the two siblings have been riding bicycles as far back as she can remember. They are both competitive and have competed against each other in cycling and in other sports growing up. When in high school, both started to focus on cycling realizing it could lead to a professional career.
“We were both super competitive growing up,” Shayna Powless said. “I think that competitiveness between us and others made us into who we are today, especially as athletes.”
In June, Shayna was back in California and got to hangout with her brother. They rode together for the first time in months. One day they did 100 miles, or a “fun ride” as Shayna remembers it. Neilson showed his strength on that day as Shayna kept up for the most part before riding in her brother’s slipstream.
“We are fortunate to be in the position we’re in today,” Shayna Powless said. “I know it’s important to us to inspire and help others, especially young kids and especially other Native people competing in cycling. I mean if we could inspire at least one person to get into cycling, I mean, at the end of the day, that’s just so rewarding for us both.”
Neilson Powless said that he hopes crossing the finish line in Paris on Sunday resonates with people on reservations.
“My main hope is that I can be a positive role model for young Indigenous kids who have a lot going against them,” Powless said. “I think finishing the Tour de France is a testament to years of hard work and dedication to a lifelong dream. Hopefully I can help drive kids to setting their mind to a goal and going after it.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.
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The Associated Press contributed to this report.