But while unable to carry the symbols of the Oneida tribe with him, the Tour rookie has become a powerful symbol himself as the first recognized Native American to have participated in the 117-year-old event.
Not only did Powless survive cycling’s biggest and most grueling race, he stood out among a host of exciting young talents who helped set this Tour on fire. Crossing the arrival in Paris on Sunday will, he hopes, resonate with bookings back to the United States.
“It has to make things a lot easier when you can see someone else doing it or who has done it,” he adds.
“Whenever one of us, from the Oneida community, is in the spotlight, it sure doesn’t go unnoticed. Neilson’s journey and accomplishments are certainly talked about at many gatherings here at Oneida, ”Hill told the AP.
“Even during a pandemic, he did not weaken or give up his dreams,” added the leader of Oneida. “This is an important message not only for our youth here at Oneida, but for all members of our community.”
Powless traces his Oneida legacy to his grandfather, Matthew Powless. The former US Army paratrooper lived on the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation in Wisconsin. He trained boxing and sometimes showed his talents as a tribal dancer to his grandson. He died at age 80 in 2015.
“I saw him dance a couple of times when I was younger, but I wish I had watched him more,” says Powless, who grew up in Roseville, Calif. “He tried to get me to practice boxing for a few years and I would train at the gym where he coached sometimes when we went.
The good news for American cycling is that Powless saw his future on a bike instead. His main job during this Tour was to support his team leader, the Colombian veteran Rigoberto Uran. But Powless has also shown his own strengths, especially on the tough climbs. During stage 6, his birthday, he was part of a small group that propelled themselves to the front of the race in a fight on the slopes of Mont Aigoual, with a breathtaking view of the south of France. He placed fourth at the top.
“An incredible experience,” he says. “The victory would have been nice.”
He stood out again two days later, placing fifth on the brutal stage 8 of climbing in the Pyrenees.
“This Tour will be a huge growth point for him,” Jonathan Vaughters, his EF Pro Cycling team boss, told the AP. “Where that leads him is still unknown. But he certainly comes out of the Tour a much better driver than he entered.
The Tour confirms that it is its first Native American competitor. The cyclist has made no fuss about his heritage. Vaughters says he only found out Powless was a Oneida quarterback to the rider’s father just days before he took the Tour start on August 29.
Yet in a hurry, Powless proudly points out that he has a tribal ID card recognizing him as one of 16,500 Oneida members.
“The tribe helped me financially to go to school. I have family on the reserve, ”he says. “It’s not that I just had a blood test one day and decided, ‘Oh, I guess I’m Native American.’ It’s something that I sort of grew up with and it’s been a part of my entire life and the tribe recognizes that as well.
Stated just days before the Tour that he was part of the team, Powless said he didn’t have time to discreetly decorate his bike or find a replacement for the turtle collar he had broken last year.
Yet based on his performance, he will surely be back and able to resolve this issue in future Tours.
“Normally I would have a painting of the Oneida bead belt, the wampum belt, somewhere on my bike, my clothes, my shoe,” he says. “Just something really small, most people wouldn’t even really see it. It’s just something that I’ve always tried to keep close to me.
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