Powless heads to Big Sugar

American makes his “alternative calendar” debut

Neilson Powless will finally get his chance to do some alternative racing this weekend. After winning the Clásica de San Sebastián, finishing fifth at the Road Race World Championships, and making a massive effort for the team this season, he is back in the States and looking forward to racing this Saturday at the Big Sugar Gravel Race in Bentonville, Arkansas.


It will be a change of scenery for the young American. As a junior, he raced World Cup mountain-bike races against the likes of Egan Bernal and Sean Bennett. He got his start in cycling just a few years earlier via XTerra triathlons and California’s high-school mountain-bike races. But it’s been years since he has raced off-road. While he loves the high-stakes atmosphere of European road racing, he sometimes misses the more laid-back vibe that he used to find at American off-road events.


“I think there are two aspects to why I love cycling,” he says. “Being able to balance both of them with our team is so unique. I can race the Tour de France and be at the pinnacle of professional road cycling—be the most methodical, thought-out, peak-form athlete I can be—and then a few months later show up at a gravel race that starts before the sun rises and carry all of my own repair kit and just sort of feel like a kid and enjoy being outside.”

Neilson knows that Big Sugar is not going to be an easy spin. The 160-kilometre course, which traverses the woods of the Ozark mountains, includes almost 2,000 metres of climbing. And there will be little respite once the flag drops. If you let off the pedals on the course’s loose gravel roads, you will soon be dropped.


“I want to win, definitely,” Neilson says. “I’m just competitive no matter what I am doing. But, I’m going to be honest; I’m going into this pretty naively. It sounds like typically toward the end of these races, people are just absolutely running on fumes, trying to race on what they have left in the tank, because you really have to be stomping on it all day. That just makes me excited to go. It will be an honest race.”


At Big Sugar, Neilson will be relying on the form he has left over from Italy’s autumn classics. After Il Lombardia, he didn’t touch his bike for a week. He travelled home to California and enjoyed some much needed rest with his wife. He then had a week to spare before the race. He has been using it to get used to his new Cannondale Supersix Evo SE on some fun rides on the dirt roads around his home in California.

“Having cool equipment is going to make the race pretty fun too,” he says. “I’m planning on showing up and spending the early parts of the race just figuring out the rhythm. I feel like I’ll be ready for just about anything. If it starts out hard, I’ll roll with that. If it starts out easy, I’ll roll with that, and then maybe just try to attack or do something toward the end, but overall I really have no idea what to expect.”


Lachlan Morton has been sending him tips to help him figure out which tyres to use and how to manage his effort. Fitting enough food in his pockets for the whole race is going to be the first challenge. Making sure he doesn’t get a flat will be another. There won’t be any mechanics out there in the backwoods to offer him a spare wheel, so he would have to change it himself, which would make it almost impossible to get back to the front of the race.

“I want to win, definitely. I’m competitive no matter what I am doing."

Nevertheless, Neilson is taking a relaxed approach to the weekend.


“I’m not overthinking it too much,” he says. “I’ve ridden my road bike on some pretty questionable gravel roads, so I think having wide tyres and a bike that is built for it is going to make things a lot easier. More or less, I am going to just roll with things as they come. I’m kind of going into it a little bit blind, but I think that is all a part of the experience and part of the fun.”


Neilson can’t wait to see Arkansas again. He hasn’t had the chance to go back to the state since he won the Joe Martin Stage Race there when he was 19. A few years back, Alex Howes and Tejay van Garderen did a training camp in Bentonville and have been telling him about all of the beautiful autumn riding they enjoyed there under canopies of red and yellow leaves.


“Everybody who has been there says how fun of a city it is and how awesome it is to ride a bike in that area,” he says. “So yeah. It makes me excited to go.”


We’re excited to see what Neilson can do at Big Sugar.