Neilsen and Shayna Powless helped each other get from Roseville to the nation’s biggest cycling event
Shayna Powless says her memory is generally vague. But she can recall details from her athletic youth with clarity as if it were more recent than a decade ago, when she and her younger brother grew up playing and competing in the rolling foothills around Folsom Lake.
They swam, ran, pedaled mountain bikes and hiked in the recreation area, and they began winning short-distance youth triathlons. One day, Neilson, 2 and-a-half years younger and then maybe age 12, beat his sister.
Fast-forward to this week, and the Powless siblings, graduates of Roseville High School and both professional cyclists, who often now live on the road and only periodically return to Roseville, remain each other’s biggest fans. The siblings’ early life rivalry proved supportive rather than problematic.
They’ve won national titles and junior world championships and traveled the globe. But the Powless kin will establish a first this week as the first brother and sister competing in the same edition of the Amgen Tour of California
The men’s division of the 13th annual event, cycling’s largest U.S. race, began May 13 in Long Beach and completes a 645-mile, south-to-north trek on Saturday in downtown Sacramento. The three-day women’s race begins Thursday, May 17 in Elk Grove, continues Friday in South Lake Tahoe and will also finish in the same downtown location after a high-speed circuit race. The women are scheduled to finish less than an hour before the men’s concluding road race.
Shayna, 24, is a second-year rider for Sho-Air TWENTY20, an American-based team. Neilson, 21, is a third-year pro in his first of a two-year contract with the Dutch team, LottoNL-Jumbo, on the UCI World Tour, the sport’s highest level.
“I honestly never saw myself as a pro road cyclist,” says Shayna, who graduated from UCLA in 2016 after considerable success racing on a mountain bike. “Ever since I stopped doing triathlons and running after high school, I was a pro mountain bike racer. But I then put all my focus into school at UCLA and pretty much stopped bike racing.”
Shayna also briefly pursued modeling. But then had a “change of heart” and decided to try road racing, a team-based component of the sport to which she was unfamiliar.
“I thought, ’Why not?’ I had never really done this before,” she says. “It seems really fun. I really like the team aspect of it. I’ve never really had that before. It’s a whole different sport. But seeing my brother also start off in mountain bike racing and then move into road racing, it was motivation for me, too.
“Seeing him do so well at it, he was actually one of the main reasons why I wanted to change from mountain bike racing. It was inspiring. He was one of the main people encouraging me to make the switch, and I’m glad I did.”
Early this season, Shayna has fared well. She began in January racing in Australia and has two top-10 stage finishes in U.S. events while continuing to learning the nuances of road racing.
“I don’t really have one specialty like a lot of pros; I am kind of like more an all-arounder,” she says. “I am really good with bike-handling skills.”
The younger Powless first competed in stick-and-ball sports. But he discovered his best athletic skill set matched his parents’ talents. Like his sister, fared well in age-group mountain biking before he was a teenager. But he was also a gifted runner and swimmer. A seventh-place finish at the cross country state meet prompted collegiate interest from several universities, including UCLA, Brown and Navy.
Powless opted to focus on cycling, and less than two years later he devoted himself to road racing. His skills were quickly known throughout the cycling community. But two years ago, at age 19, he surprised himself and others, finishing ninth overall in the Tour of California. He specifically showcased his climbing skills against some of cycling’s best veteran pros, finishing fifth in the mountainous third stage, 30 seconds behind eventual race winner Julian Alaphilippe of France.
Neilson was immediately in demand by several of the sport’s top teams, but he competed for one additional season for Axeon Hagen Berman, the development squad owned by Axel Merckx, the son of Eddy Merckx, often cited as the sport’s greatest rider.
Neilson, who had four wins last season, has raced 17 days this season with a European itinerary in Italy and Spain.
He remembers adults commenting when he passed them in races when he was age 10, but he can’t recall first beating his sister.
“I don’t want to say my sister is shy, but she is so nonchalant about everything and so easy going,” he says. “She doesn’t really open up too much, but she followed me onto the road [cycling], which was really cool. She’s a super, incredible athlete. I think if she really commits herself, she can be one of the best female cyclists in the world.”
The Powless brother-and-sister act appeared set to compete in the event last year, but Neilson’s team wasn’t selected based on a controversial discretionary team selection. Shayna finished 43rd overall in the women’s four-day race.
Neilson and Shayna were raised in an athletic family. Father Jack, retired from the Air Force, is a many-time finisher of Ironman-distance triathlons. Mother Jeanette, track and field coach at American River College, is a long-distance runner who competed in the marathon in the 1992 Olympics.
“Jen and I both being pretty competitive, we kind of realized when we had kids, we wanted to make sure we kept it fun,” says Jack. “The most important thing was that they develop a love for sport, and then the competitive aspect of sport. That was the approach we took. Because the important thing for us is that they lead a healthy lifestyle and sport provides that. And whatever happened after that, just happened after that. We just didn’t want to provide a lot of pressure.”
Jack and Jen Powless did have requirements for their children “The one thing we always told them is that you always have to be involved in a sport,” Jack says. “Whatever sport that is, is just fine. But if you pick a sport, you have to stick with through the end of the season. You can’t let your teammates down. That was always the standing rule.”
Shayna recalls her parents incorporating games into workouts.
“They were awesome with us; even though they were coaching us and some other kids on the triathlon team, they always found a way to make it fun,” recalls Shayna.
“Too many kids were just getting pushed. You’re so young; I don’t think it’s so good. You’re just starting to find where you fit and what’s your favorite sport. I think our parents were perfect. Even when you had a bad day or a bad race, they were never too hard on us. Oh, maybe there were a couple of times, here and there but with good reason and it was good.”
Siblings competing in pro cycling at the same time and even on the same team isn’t new to cycling. Peter Sagan of Slovakia, cycling’s No. 1-ranked rider with 16 Tour of California stage wins including the overall title in 2015, competes on the German team, Bora–Hansgrohe. His brother Juraj, one year older, is also on the squad.
In recent years, retired twins Andy and Ben Jacques-Maynes of Santa Cruz competed in the Tour of California for three straight years beginning in 2009 for Bissell, a U.S-based Continental team. Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg, also retired and former Tour of California competitors, respectively finished second and fourth in the 2009 Tour de France while teammates for CSC.
Young Canadian brother and sister Nigel and Gillian Ellsay, are respectively on the men’s and women’s rosters of Rally, the squad of returning 2017 Tour of California double stage winner Evan Huffman of Sacramento. But neither of the Ellsay siblings will compete in this year’s event.
But the Powless siblings understand the importance racing together this week in the area in which their enjoyment of sport began and near where they started racing against each other for the fun of it.
“It’s going to be an exciting day at the finish; my whole family is going to be out there,” Shayna says. “My parents will be there and we will have a lot of family flying in. My grandma, my aunt, maybe a cousin or two. We’ll see.”