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Dan Ninham
Special to Indian Country Today

The two fastest Native cyclists are Oneida, and brother and sister.

Shayna and Neilson Powless have been excelling as elite professional cyclists for more than a few years and continue to climb to their own pinnacles. Their multi-athletic journeys took them to being high level performers on the roads and trails. And perhaps, the best is yet to come.

A third Oneida cyclist, Cole House, made similar noise starting nearly two decades ago.

Professional cycling siblings Neilson and Shayna Powless. (Photo courtesy of Frances Chae Photography)

Shayna Powless

Shayna’s journey started as a competitive runner and triathlete in elementary school that continued into high school, according to her website.

In 2012, she focused on mountain biking and in 2013 won the U23 Mountain Bike National Championship. She moved to road racing in 2017 and followed with Zwift virtual and gravel course racing. She is supported by Team TWENTY24.

Team TWENTY24 has placed a number of gravel events on their 2021 calendar. Shayna has excelled at this new genre of off-road racing that has been called “one of the most unique cycling challenges in the world.”

Shayna and her fiancé Eli Ankou, Dokis First Nation Ojibwe, started the non-profit organization, Dreamcatcher Foundation that is dedicated to empower Native youth in football and cycling camps.

(Related: Bright future for Oneida cyclist)

Ankou has been an NFL football player for the past few years and last played on the practice squad of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Shayna is also an advocate bringing awareness to the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls crisis.

Shayne is climbing the rankings as a national level cyclist. Her top performances are listed here. She has diversified her profession to also be a coach in Powless Performance.

Shayna was a guest of the Red Lake Nation and Bemidji schools in northern Minnesota a few years ago. She spoke during physical education classes and at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club.. She also went on rides with the youth.

The third and final Southeast Gravel race of the year was in North Carolina on Sept. 4. It was a 77-mile route that consisted of a mix of pavement, dirt, gravel, and about 6,500 feet of climbing. 

Shayna described her race day: “The race started out at a fairly mellow pace but as soon as we hit the first climb, it was all-out. I managed to stay in contact with the front group even when things started getting hectic and held on until we hit one of the longer climbs on course about midway through where everyone got strung out and I fell off the front.”

“After that climb, myself and a few other stragglers managed to get back on, and I continued to stick with the front group until we hit the long Pinnacle Mountain climb and I fell off again. From then on, it was only about another hour of racing and as hard as I tried, I couldn't regain contact with the front.”

Shayna crossed the finish line 12th overall and was the first woman.

The Hemi Memorial gravel race was in memory of Craig Henwood of Three Feet Cycling and was held on Oct. 2. The course included 109 miles in the rolling Kansas hills and a cow scare.

“From the start, I found myself in the front group of about 15 people which felt a lot like a steady group ride with the occasional attack that didn't succeed,” she said. “However, at about 35-40 miles in, a couple guys put in some huge attacks, which finally split the group up. This was also when we got caught up with a scared herd of cows that started running right in front of us when they saw us coming towards them. I made sure to follow the attacks and thankfully avoid the cows, and eventually a few of us got a good distance off the front.”

She finished third overall.

“I’m also super happy I was able to finish first in the women’s field and third overall. It was also really cool to share the podium with my teammate Charlotte (third place), and see our juniors sweep the podium as well.”

Her next race is Into the Lion's Den criterium in her hometown Sacramento, California, on Oct. 30 that will have the largest prize purse in U.S. criterium racing history.

Professional cyclist Neilson Powless, Oneida. (Photo courtesy of Jared and Ashley Gruber)

Shayna’s younger brother has also made a name for himself, and the world has noticed.

Neilson Powless

Neilson Powless had an electrifying year as a road racer in Europe including the last two Tour de France’s and a recent fifth place finish in the elite men’s road race at the 2021 World Championships.

Dane Cash of cyclingnews.com in his Oct. 8 article wrote: “As Neilson Powless (EF Education-Nippo) rolls up to the start line in Como, Italy, on Saturday for Il Lombardia, he’ll be taking on the final WorldTour race of a season that has seen him achieve the biggest results of his young career.

“Two of those results stand out among the strongest one-day results by an American pro in a decade or more. In August, Powless stormed to victory at the Clásica San Sebastián, the first men’s WorldTour one-day win for an American pro since Tyler Farrar’s win at the Vattenfall Cyclassics in 2010. Then, in September, he finished fifth in the elite men’s road race at Flanders Worlds, the best result for an American in that race since Chann McRae’s fifth-place finish at Worlds back in 1999.”

Neilson was highlighted on a VeloNews Podcast on Oct. 7.

The empowering influence the siblings have with Native youth is limitless. Shayna talked about Neilson in one of the first stories to come out to highlight him being in his first Tour de France lineup. She said, "I can't imagine how many Native American kids I talked to at the reservation are going to watch Neilson -- just from this past week at the Tour de France -- and be excited to take up cycling.”

Cole House

One of the Oneida’s traditions, and perhaps among several Indigenous people, is to acknowledge the ones who came before them. The first fastest Native American cyclist in the world was Cole House, Oneida and distant relative of the Powless’.

House was featured in Indian Country Today in 2011 in an article titled “Cole House Is the Fastest American Indian on Two Wheels.”

House started competing in the mountain bike circuit and then switched to road racing. He won the Wisconsin Road Racing Championship in 2005, 2006 and 2007. At age 18 he was invited to the US U23 Cycling Team to compete in Europe and was a member of that team for the next three years. At age 21, he was the first U.S. citizen to win the U23 GP Waregem in Belgium.

When House was 22, he was featured in a story in VeloNews in his role as a stagiaire for the BMC Racing Team. A stagiaire gets a try-out with the professional team by competing in the pro peloton for the first time.

House transitioned into fat bike racing in 2016 and a year later he won the 2017 National Fat Bike Championship. His story continued to unfold in the media from Peloton magazine to the fat bike news sources. Here are a few:

In the Peloton story, House talked about Shayna and Neilson, respectively U23 national mountain bike and road racing champions.

“Once I got to know them, we discovered that we’re actually relatives,” House notes. “Their grandfather is related to my grandparents—how weird is that?!”

Indigenous athletes are often defined by how they express their core values in their preparation to perform at an optimum level in practice, competition and live their lives.

Siblings Shayna and Neilson Powless during their youth years. Both are now professional cyclists and Oneida citizens. (Photo courtesy of Shayna Powless)

At the heart of the Oneida’s core values is the “Good Mind” as expressed by being Onʌyoteˀa·ká, the people of the standing stone, and Haudenosaunee, the people of the longhouse.

Shayna and Neilson told Indian Country Today how the Oneida core values apply to them.

  • Kahletsyalúsla (the heartfelt encouragement of the best in each of us) –
  • Shayna: “My family and friends have always been encouraging and supportive of me and my dreams, specifically my dream of being a professional cyclist. Part of their support and encouragement included them pushing me to be my best both as an athlete and person. In return, I support them by encouraging them to be their best selves. Truthfully, I wouldn't be where I'm at today as an athlete if it weren't for their constant encouragement.”
  • Neilson: “Being encouraging to those around us, and in particular, those who look up to us is a major part of being a professional athlete. This can help aspiring athletes find the confidence they need to chase after their goals.”
  • Kanolukhwásla (compassion, caring, identity, and joy of being)
  • Shayna: “Knowing my identity as a person, living happily, and acknowledging my voice and platform gives me the tools needed to love and give back to others. As a professional athlete, I feel that I have a strong voice and presence in my community that I must use to help encourage, uplift, and inspire others. By doing this I know I'll be playing my part in making the world better for the next generations, and by acknowledging my joy of being, I'm able to confidently live and perform better as an athlete.”
  • Neilson: “Being compassionate, caring, and joyful are attributes everyone should do their best to strive for. As athletes, we are constantly in a position to help others. Even if it’s simply offering advice for young athletes or giving a team water bottle to a fan, you can see the joy it can give people. Moments like these are often overlooked, but are an essential part of the life we live as professional athletes.”
  • Kaˀnikuhl·yó (the openness of the good spirit and mind)
  • Shayna: “Keeping an open spirit and mind is essential when adapting to new situations and growing overall as a person, and we can only do this if we prioritize our spiritual and mental health. Mental and spiritual health is just as important as physical health, which is why I spend just as much time caring for my mind and spirit as I do my physical body. To perform my best as an athlete, I need to be healthy in my mind, spirit, and body. When all these areas are healthy, it brings harmony and unison to one's self, it opens our eyes, and we can transform ourselves into the best versions of ourselves possible.”
  • Neilson: “Having an open spirit and mind can help you to understand someone else’s perspective. This is important when trying to improve any aspect of your life, but even more so when you want to help someone else. Once you have established that there are no lines between people, you can learn something new from anyone you meet.”
  • Kaˀtshatstʌ́sla (the strength of belief and vision as a People)
  • Shayna: “In order to succeed as an athlete, I have to have a vision of that success and believe in myself. I also have to surround myself with others who understand that vision and believe in me as well. When you surround yourself with people who have confidence in you and support you, your chances of making your vision a reality will be much higher. For example, my friends and family are my biggest supporters who believe in me even when I don't believe in myself, which is what keeps me going through the rough times when I feel like giving up. Ultimately, when you surround yourself with people who believe in you and share your vision, anything is possible.”
  • Neilson: “Holding strong to my beliefs is very important to me. My beliefs have always shaped the course of my career, and my life. It is not always the easiest path to take, but it will be the most rewarding in the end.”
  • Kalihwi·yó (the use of the good words about ourselves, our Nation, and our future)
  • Shayna: “As an athlete, I go through many ups and downs with training and racing. Whenever I'm having a tough time, I always think positive thoughts and encourage myself to keep going. When I'm on the verge of giving up, I remind myself of my vision and goals. In other words, I look toward the future and tell myself that I'm capable and strong enough to accomplish anything. Once I remind myself that getting through the tough times will be worth it for the sake of the outcome, it always makes it easier to power through whatever challenge I'm faced with.”
  • Neilson: “Someone should never speak badly about themselves. Having pride for where you have come from gives you strength and helps you through the toughest moments in life. It is all a part of your identity, and vital to success.”
  • Twahwahtsílayʌ (all of us are family) –
  • Shayna: “The cycling community is like one big family. Whether it be my teammates, race competitors, fellow cycling friends, cycling acquaintances, or random cyclists on a group ride, we are all connected by our love for riding. Despite different backgrounds, beliefs, and socioeconomic statuses within the community, cycling brings us together like we're family. This is one of the things that first drew me to the sport, and one of the main reasons why I became a cyclist. Cycling has allowed me to meet the most amazing people and create the most wonderful friendships with people who I would consider family. I don't think I'd be a professional cyclist today or still competing at the pro level if it weren't for that.”
  • Neilson: “Treating others as family creates a strong bond with others. In any professional team, the most successful often have the best connection with each other. If you have a strong connection with those around you, everyone works harder for the ‘family’. If the family succeeds, then everyone succeeds.”
Cole House continues to train and race competitively. (Photo courtesy of Alex Hinman, The Noob Cyclist)

Cole House shared his perspective of the Oneida core values and how they apply to him as a professional racer.

  • He told Indian Country Today, “As racers there's a lot that goes through our minds. I feel like some racers are their own ball and chain. I would say the peace of mind actually comes and goes during both training and racing.”
  • “Most races a rider does best in are the ones when the athlete is actually in a rhythm, more so in the moment, reacting only on instinctual actions. I guess I'd say to go as far as surviving. These actions often only come from experience, or a lot of imagining situations in training.”
  • “Hunting a lot growing up as a kid really transpired a lot of what I see racing. Just watching and taking it all in. Being patient and making your best effort at the exact moment. Sometimes you can only be patient and survive.”
  • “Cycling as a career is never really comfortable, there's a constant struggle much like hunting in the cold. To be successful hunting is nearly the same as winning a bike race. It's never going to be easy. You're always going to push yourself to the limits. To race professionally is the same as hunters were to our people. Hunters had to be successful to provide, the same as a professional cyclist.”
  • “This in itself is an identity being able to provide based off our own success with the help of others, to either take care of our people and inspire others to do the same.” 
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