It was a manic day at the Tour de France today for a Roubaix stage that will surely be remembered.
With narrow roads, tight and loose corners, nervous riders and 11 cobbled sectors, Stage 5 was a stress- and carnage-filled day for the peloton. And one that would see a shakeup in the General Classification.
Even cyclocross expert and yellow jersey wearer, Wout van Aert, said in a post-race interview that he was uncomfortable and on the back foot all day long. He surprised even himself when he managed to hold onto his yellow jersey, albeit by just 13 seconds.
As he waited for the news about where he ended up, so was American Neilson Powless (EF Education-Easypost). The 25-year-old Californian got his first taste of racing on the cobbled roads today, and had never expected to be in the running for yellow.
Powless was a late addition to EF’s Tour roster. But after an impressive fourth place overall at the Tour de Suisse where he narrowly missed out on a stage win on stage five, and an incredible victory at the punchy monument, Classica San Sebastian, in 2021, Powless is a proven allrounder.
His remit going into the Tour was to get in some breakaways and support his team’s GC leader, Rigoberto Uran.
Today, he did just that. He got himself into the wining breakaway when, with 140 kilometers of racing and all the cobbles still to go, he, Alexis Gougeard (B&B Hotels) and eventual race winner, Simon Clarke (Israel-PremierTech) caught and merged the three-person lead group, which included his teammate Magnus Cort.
The now six-man breakaway managed to extend their lead to nearly three minutes with 115km left to go. And with Wout van Aert suffering a crash and trailing behind, this put Powless into the virtual yellow jersey.
The breakaway dwindled down to just four men but despite the fierce chasing from behind, managed to stay ahead, passing the 5k mark with enough of a lead that the stage winner would come from among those four men: Taco Van der Hoorn (Intermarché–Wanty–Gobert Matériaux) Clarke, Edvald Boasson (TotalEnergies) and Powless.
What exactly was happening in the fight for the yellow jersey, Powless couldn't say. His radio was muddled and he couldn't hear much all day, he said post-race.
"I only heard just now that I may be in yellow," Powelss said just after crossing the finish line.
"I was just racing for the stage win, I didn't really know about yellow."
And so, as the breakaway riders went under the flamme rouge, Powless took his chance and opened up a powerful sprint. But after a day spent in the breakaway, his move was early and the legs couldn't sustain such a long effort.
The sprint came down to the Clarke and van der Hoorn, who threw their bikes at the line in a final push for the win. A photo finish declared Clarke the winner, giving the veteran Australian rider his biggest victory of his career.
Powless finished in fourth, learning only after all the results were in, that while he jumped up an impressive 23 places in the overall classification, but did miss out on the yellow jersey by just 13 seconds.
"I definitely would have had yellow, if we had finished together and on the line," said Powless. "But 2k to go, the other three guys they all started playing games and din't want to work anymore."
Still, the young American was pleased with his ride and his first taste of the cobbles.
"I'm very, very happy with today's stage. I accomplished my goal of being in the breakaway," he commented.
While yellow may not have been his goal, it would have excited American fans who haven't seen a compatriot in the yellow jersey since the aughts. Of course, Floyd Landis, David Zabriskie, George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong have since all been stripped of their Tour achievements due to doping, and so the last American to have worn the yellow jersey would have been Greg LeMond in 1991.
Of course, with just 13 seconds separating Powless from Van Aert and 16 stages yet to go, anything can happen, especially if the EF team were to decide to ride in favor of Powless.
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