How Neilson Powless Ended a US Classics Drought at San Sebastián
The American overcame brutal Basque Country conditions to deliver the biggest American one-day result in over a decade
The USA’s Neilson Powless ended a decade-long drought for American riders in one-day Classics by winning this weekend’s Clásica de San Sebastián, the extremely difficult and historically prestigious one-day classic races on the calendar. Powless won Spain’s biggest one-day race in a three-up sprint ahead of Slovenia’s Matej Mohorič and Denmark’s Mikkel Frølich Honoré after the lead group used the typical Basque Country cold and rainy weather to their advantage by riding clear of the peloton on a difficult climb and ensuring technical descent, in the race’s final 40-kilometers.
When the eventual podium, plus Lorenzo Rota, hit the final descent, everyone watching expected Mohorič, one of the sport’s fastest descenders, to rip away for a solo win. But instead, Mohorič misread a corner, sent Honoré into a barrier, and Rota onto the pavement, and essentially sealed the chances of a sprint finish against Powless. Honoré impressively clawed his way back to the leading duo before Mohorič opened up the sprint from a long way out. While he appeared to have the better of the other two at first, he ultimately couldn’t hold off Powless, who displayed an impressive surge of speed to come around the two-time Tour de France stage winner to take one of the biggest American one-day victories in decades.
62km: As far as 60km out, the breakaway is being held on a short leash as the peloton races through the brutal rain and cold. Ineos is heading to the front en force for Bernal and to be at the front for the upcoming descent, which is almost sure to break up the peloton.
50.3km: And sure enough, the cold and technical descent has splintered the field and anyone not in these two front groups is likely out of the race at this point. Notice Mohorič has made the front group, which shows he must be feeling confident on these sketchy descents.
45km: As what is left of the peloton starts the penultimate climb, only a second rider is left from the breakaway and is dangling 7-seconds off the front of the group. Mikel Landa attacks and Simon Carr on EF goes with him.
44.9km: Landa is pushing the pace as the duo blows past the remaining breakaway rider.
44.3km: However, the return of Landismo is short-lived, as the basque rider is dropped by Carr just a few moments later. Carr keeps going clear and gives EF a great tactical card to play later.
36-33km: Over the top of the climb, the riders have to navigate technical descent on wet pavement. This yet again breaks up the peloton and we get a group off the front which includes three Trek riders, Bernal and, of course, Mohorič.
24.1km: Just 9kms later, our chase group has been chopped down to just four riders and all three Trek-Segafredo riders shelled.
22-17km: The elite chase group catches Carr, which gives Powless a massive advantage of having a teammate with him in a small, select front group.
9.2-8.2km: Powless attacks on the final climb, a steep 2km-long kicker, and while he initially gets an impressive gap, it will be incredibly difficult to get enough daylight to win solo from here.
8km: Mohorič, Rota, and Honoré reel Powless in before the top of the climb.
4.9km: Mohorič is an incredibly fast descender, and he was likely attempting to ride away from the others for a solo victory, but he underestimated a corner, overshot it and while he is able to course-correct, Honoré goes straight into the barriers and his bike shoots out into the road and hits Rota.
750m: Mohorič starts to panic slightly about the prospect of sprinting against a pair of riders with two total career victories. He lays down a powerful attack as they hit the final kilometer in a last-ditch attempt to get away solo, but can’t quite snap the elastic and is reeled in by his companions.
Finish: Mohorič, already depleted from his recent attack, opens his sprint up incredibly early. This opens the door for Powless to come right off his wheel for a massive win. Honoré, likely hurting from his hard crash just 5km ago, can’t come around either and has to settle for third.
1) Neilson Powless gets the biggest, and first, win of his pro career, and at 24-years-old, he starts to emerge as the biggest US talent in the peloton after starting his career with two lost years at Jumbo-Visma.
In my opinion, this is a particularly impressive win since Powless couldn’t just rely on his pure strength but had to navigate an incredibly difficult course, which is where most US riders struggle.
With this win, Powless became the first American to win this race since Lance Armstrong in 1995.
Powless’ win here, together with Brandon McNulty’s 6th place at the Olympic Road Race, starts to build a case for one-day US Men’s cycling finally being competitive again after essentially a decade in the wilderness.
2) EF didn’t have a five-star favorite but won the biggest Spanish one-day race of the year.
The team rode a great race by getting Simon Carr off the front with around 45km-to-go, which put pressure on the other teams and riders and meant Powless had a teammate inside the final 20kms when his breakaway companions were isolated.
EF picked up Carr from the second-division Nippo-Delko squad before the season after Nippo came over to sponsor the team, and this low-key pickup is just looking better and better as the season progresses.
Carr is emerging as one of the biggest talents on the team and the 22-year-old could very well be one of the team’s major assets going forward.
3) Matej Mohorič rode a great race and was a picture of technical class when he used his superior descending skills to break the race up, but, instead of riding away from the rest on the final descent for a beautiful solo win, he biffed it in a corner, and while he didn’t go down himself, he has to be incredibly disappointed to miss out on this win.
After a great season so far, he is straight-up beaten by a rider who before the day, didn’t have a single professional win on his Palmeres.
Mohorič’s is a solo win specialist, but as recently as 2018, he was winning big races out of reduced sprints (Giro stage 10, Slovenian National Champs, Tour of Austria stage 1). It seems like either he has fallen in love with winning alone, or lost confidence in his sprint, because something about either Powless or Honoré got into his head and caused him to be far too aggressive in the final 2kms, which is slightly odd since neither is a proven race winner and Mohorič was one of the strongest riders at the Tour.
He threw down a brutal acceleration with roughly 1.2km-to-go in an attempt to win solo, but failed to distance either Powless or Frølich Honoré.
This attack certainly blunted his sprint, but he still opened his sprint from a long way out, which allowed Powless to come around him as he faded in the final few meters.
Also, the way he overcooked the corner on the final descent was reminiscent of how he crashed out of the Giro d’Italia earlier this year.
4) Once again, the Trek-Segafredo team had numbers in the finale but failed to walk away with the victory.
Like we’ve seen before, it seemed like the three-headed monster of Bauke Mollema, Giulio Ciccone, and Gianluca Brambilla had trouble consolidating behind a single leader.
This continues a recent trend of the Trek squad seeming to be less than the sum of their individually impressive parts.
5) Mikel Landa made his comeback to racing after his brutal crash early in the Giro d’Italia. However, he was dropped by Carr a kilometer after forging clear of the peloton with him on a climb, which tells us the Basque rider has a long way to go before he can recapture the form he had heading into the Giro.
Landa has always been a hot and cold rider, but he might have hit peak Landa by attacking, riding away, and being dropped all within the same kilometer.
6) Deceuninck - QuickStep gets a podium position with Mikkel Frølich Honoré, but in my opinion, their tactics left something to be desired.
They headed into the race with the five-star favorite, Julian Alaphilippe, yet chose to back a relatively untested rider in Honoré after he got up the road instead.
I’m having a hard time wrapping my mind around the decision to not chase down a breakaway with a journeyman teammate instead of pegging it back to allow your superstar one-day rider to attempt to win the race.
Perhaps Alaphilippe, who has struggled in the cold in the past, simply wasn’t feeling up to the task on the cold and rainy day.
And it is possible Honoré could have won the sprint had he not crashed on the descent with 5km-to-go.
7) It may seem like a nitpick, but this lackluster race from Alaphilippe continues a downward trend since he won the opening stage of the Tour de France.
This would be an absurd criticism for nearly any other rider, but we have become accustomed to seeing such brilliance from the current World Champion in recent years that a season with only three victories and a single day in Yellow is a ‘down’ year.
It won’t be remembered as such due to his spectator win in the World Championship Road Race, but his 2020 season, where he only won three races, was also a major regression from his form in 2019, where he won a total of 12 races and held Yellow at the Tour of 11 stages en route to a stunning fifth place overall.
This regression, as absurd as that sounds, is something to keep an eye on as this season winds down and 2022 begins.
8) It is hard to overstate how big this win was for American cycling. While it will barely register with US-based cycling fans, let alone the general public, by my tally, this is the first one-day Classic win for an American since Tyler Farrer won Scheldeprijs in 2010, and the first ‘major’ one-day win since Tyler Hamilton won Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2003.
This ends an absolutely dismal run for US Cycling in one-day Classics, and hopefully, marks the beginning of an era where American riders can more regularly compete with the best outside of stage races.
9) Egan Bernal gets 16th place in his first racing appearance since winning the Giro d’Italia and while he clearly didn’t have the one-day fitness he showed at this Spring’s Strade-Bianche, he looks to be building form for what could be an epic Vuelta Espana showdown against Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic.
10) The Basque Country is a beautiful region with immense cycling passion, and this race offers great parcours and almost always serves up an interesting race, but it suffers from a highly forgettable timeslot, which was made even worse this year by the Olympic Games Road Race occurring in its normal time slot.
This meant the race suffered from a slightly disappointing start list and featured a diluted field that lacked a ton of major names.
This could cause Powless’s win to be quickly forgotten and cause him to be underrated in future races that suit his wide range of abilities.