Neilson Powless: The Tour de France’s First Native North American Cyclist

Tara O’Donnell , Scarlet Staff

Neilson Powless, a 24 year-old from Roseville, CA, has become the first tribally-recognized Native North American competitor in Tour de France history. A member of the Oneida Nation, Powless is one-quarter Native American. He first gained recognition on the professional cycling stage, after placing ninth in the Amgen Tour of California and establishing himself as a rising star. 

Powless officially transitioned from national racing to the WorldTour circuit in 2017 at the young age of 21, signing a 2018-2019 contract with the Dutch LottoNL-Jumbo team. Powless’ impressive record in this two year period and his performance at the Vuelte a España, attracted the interest of Education First (EF) Pro Cycling. He began riding for EF shortly after this competition. 

Powless received word of his qualification for the Tour de France in August of 2020. Entering the tournament, he is one of only two Americans selected to represent the EF team. Powless comes from an accomplished family of athletes. His mother, Jeannette Allred, ran in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics for Guam, and was later dubbed the Guamanian “Athlete of the Century.” Shayna Powless, Neilson’s sister, is a professional cyclist who has raced for the US National team and currently for the UCI Sho-air TWENTY20 team. The Powless siblings were the first brother-sister duo to compete at the Amgen Tour of California in the race’s history. Powless’ father, Jack, is a U.S. Air Force veteran who was once a nationally-ranked triathlete. 

Neilson Powless attributed his early desire to compete in the Tour de France to his father’s long-time tradition of watching the race. Jen and Jack Powless encouraged their children to lean into their athletic interests, signing them up for multiple triathlons. The two young triathletes soon found themselves captivated by the cycling portion of these races, thus motivating them to launch both of their incredible careers. 

Powless’ grandfather, Matthew, was a boxer, coach, and owner of a gym prior to his death in 2015. He was a strong supporter of his grandson’s cycling career. The family made frequent trips from California to Green Bay, Wisconsin, where they visited the Powless patriarch on the Oneida Reservation. It was here, where Neilson was exposed to the Oneida language. A language that is central to his family’s culture and heritage. 

Powless honors his tribe during races by wearing a turtle charm (the clan animal of the Oneida) and by painting a discrete Wampum belt on his bicycles. Powless’ team was completely unaware of his indigenous background until a few days prior to the Tour de France. Jack Powless texted his son’s manager inquiring about whether there had been a previous Native competitor. A whirlwind of media attention and global recognition ultimately answered Mr. Powless’ question. 

Throughout the Tour, Powless participated in over 19 hours of breakaways. As a breakaway rider, Powless’ duty was to push ahead of the peloton or main group to ultimately secure a leading position for his team. Powless placed 4th in Stage 6 and 5th in Stage 8. He celebrated his 24th birthday on May 3rd, the day of Stage 6, tweeting “Best. Birthday. EVER.” 

Due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, Powless’ family could not join him in France. They did, however, drape their entire family home in the hot pink of their son’s EF uniform. A colorful banner hung outside the Roseville residence, signed by neighbors and extended family, expressing their pride and support for the young cyclist. Each morning of the race, the family huddled around the TV at 4:00am to watch Neilson’s progress. 

Powless had a remarkable Tour de France debut. He not only distinguished himself as one of the most accomplished cyclists of this generation, but also as a role model for indigenous youth. On June 11, 2020, USA Cycling announced that Powless will compete in the upcoming Olympics on the Men’s Road Long Team.