Neilson Powless riding for Axeon Hagens Berman races to 10th place in the individual time trial as he defended the best young rider white jersey at the 2016 Amgen Tour of California on May 20, 2016 in Folsom, Calif.
As the first Native American cyclist to ride in the Tour de France, Neilson Powless bears the achievement with pride.
Battling in the heart of the peloton, churning up the steep, winding mountain stages in the storied French Alps in cycling’s race of races in August and September, Powless was well aware he was representing a large extended family of the Oneida and Cherokee nations, whose blood runs in his veins.
That family was with him all the way, making themselves heard amongst the messages of encouragement that he received every day.
You’re inspiring us, they said. We’re so proud of you.
“It is a pretty special thing, especially when you start to feel the support of Native American communities back in the States while racing in France,” said Powless, who grew up in northern California but visited his paternal grandparents — grandfather Matthew, a member of the Oneida Nation, and grandmother Ann, who is of Cherokee descent — on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation northwest of Green Bay, Wisconsin, during the summers.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and that carries special meaning for Powless. As energetic, fast-moving children, he and his older sister Shayna, also a professional cyclist, would soak up life on the reservation during those visits. Powless remembers being awed by the heart of Oneida people, inspired by their respect for the land, their values and their way of life.
“It was just really incredible how their heritage is still rooted in their culture, with their powwows and different various ceremonies, blessing each other before a trip or entering into a new stage of life and whatnot,” he said. “On the reservation, everyone seems to help each other and look out for each other, and growing up witnessing such a loving community like that is really special, and also just shapes you into a person who looks out for your neighbors and those close to you.”
The son of two serious runners — his mother, Jeanette Allred, was an Olympic marathoner for Guam and finished 36th at the 1992 Games in Barcelona; his father Jack competed in Ironman triathlons — Powless was always athletic. He grew up doing triathlons, but made the switch to cycling as a teenager and never looked back.
After excellent results in smaller races, Powless had a breakout season in 2019, which culminated in his signing with EF Pro Cycling earlier this year. He was one of only three Americans riding in this summer’s tour, which came after a multi-stage odyssey of trying to get from the U.S. back to his training base in Girona, Spain, after the pandemic hit.
Powless returned to Europe by way of Great Britain, where he and EF Pro teammates Sean Bennett and Alex Howes quarantined for two weeks at Ashridge House, a country estate of Downton Abbey-style splendor in Hertfordshire that also houses Hult International Business School, leading Powless to dub the lodgings a “castle-university.” He spent much of the time training indoors, talking to family and “trying not to watch the news too too much,” he said.
The trek paid off when he was selected to ride in the tour in August. His highlights included two top-five finishes in the early stages of the race, the first coming on his 24th birthday on Sept 3.
The experience broadened his horizons. Even though he’d been expecting it, the simmering energy of the peloton blew him away.
“It was my first real taste of how strong the competition is at this level,” Powless said. “It was much different from any other race I’ve been a part of. Every single athlete there was just physically peaked and ready to go. It’s crazy. Everybody was like a racehorse, just ready to break out of the gate and show the world the effects of all the training they’d put in to be there.”
Toward the end, fatigue set in.
“Definitely by the third week it felt like the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life, but I was super proud of the way that I raced,” he added. “I laid all my cards out on the table and tried to race as well as I could.”
In 2020, Powless became the first Native American to ride in the Tour de France, but in years to come, he’d hopes to become the first Native American to win a stage, or even the whole thing.
“Being able to race at the front with a group like that was pretty motivating and satisfying, especially with my family being able to see,” he said.
He’d like to impress them all, to give something back to the Native American community that has imparted so much to him.
“Having the community of it is really incredible,” he said. “That’s the biggest, best part of it to me: if I hear that kids are being inspired to get on their bikes and ride, or anybody being inspired to get on their bikes and ride … cycling is just good for the world.”