Fayetteville, Arkansas - Neilson Powless scored his first UCI stage race victory Sunday in dramatic fashion for the Axeon Hagens Berman Cycling Team.
The 19-year-old from Roseville, California, made up a seven-second deficit on the last day of the Joe Martin Stage Race by earning a pair of time bonuses during the 85-minute criterium before sprinting to a runner-up finish. Those results delivered Powless to a four-second victory over Nigel Ellsay (Silber Pro Cycling) while Janier Acevedo, who had held the overall lead for Team Jamis since winning Thursday's opening time trial, finished third, five seconds back.
"This is awesome," Powless said. "It pretty much all came down to the time bonuses. I knew going into the last lap that I didn't have enough seconds to take the win. So Geoffrey Curran gave me a full lap lead out to the base of the climb. I was going back and forth all the way to the line with Travis McCabe (Holowesko-Citadel Racing Team) and Carlos Alzate (UnitedHealthcare Pro Cycling Team). It came down to a bike length between the three of us as we all threw our bikes at the line."
Powless said Curran acted as road captain all day, coordinating the efforts of teammates Jonny Brown, Phil O'Donnell, Justin Oien and Chad Young. All six riders had been part of Axeon Hagens Berman's victory in the team classification at the Redlands Bicycle Classic two weeks ago.
"Geoffrey was keeping track of the sprint laps for me," Powless said. "I actually went a lap early on the first one but Geoffrey and I had pretty much gone off the front. So I took a gamble and stuck it out there for another lap. Luckily, I had enough in the tank to win that one and take three seconds."
A breakaway group nabbed the second of the three time bonus sprints before Curran again set up Powless. This time by overtaking UnitedHealthcare's sprint train to finish second to Robin Carpenter (Holowesko-Citadel Racing Team) and earn two more seconds. Curran said he and Powless also avoided a last-lap crash as Powless rode away with the "best young rider" white jersey and the green jersey for the sprint classification.
"Today was about improving on everything we had done at Redlands and making it happen here," Curran said. "We are a team with solid sprinters but we aren't 180-pound monsters who can win everything. So for us to do that takes a lot of opportunism and teamwork to make it happen."
Axeon Hagens Berman Sport Director Jeff Louder, who stood by proudly as Powless donned each of the jerseys on the stage in downtown Fayetteville, saluted the team's effort.
"I am super proud of all the guys," Louder said. "It is a great result and Neilson needed all of this teammates today to make it happen. We discussed that before the race. On Saturday, they all saw what could come from working together when they contributed to Neilson's third-place finish. That was a big confidence booster. I don't want to call it a practice run, but it was an opportunity for them to see the fruits of their labor and to see that it was possible."
The month of April has been nothing short of remarkable for Powless, who raced mountain bikes internationally until last year. He won the individual time trial when he was runner-up at Redlands two weeks ago and placed third overall at the San Dimas Stage Race the week before that. He started off the season with wins in individual races in California, the UC Merced Road Race and the Copper Town Square Circuit Race.
"I can tell that I have had a steady progression with my form," Powless said. "My coach, Todd Herriott, talks with me every day and we figure out where we are going and make sure I am fully recovered and improving my form for each race. These races may not be long, but with the heat, they really do take a lot out of you. So I have been taking care of my body and keeping a positive attitude."
Next up for Axeon Hagens Berman is another UCI and USA Cycling Pro Road Tour event, the Tour of the Gila in Silver City, New Mexico, May 4-8.