Photo credit — A.S.O. Pauline Ballet
It has been 117 years since the first running of the legendary Tour de France, back in 1903. With racers riding from Nice to Paris on a course that extends almost 3,500 kilometres, the Tour de France not only represents the pinnacle of cycling excellence, but is also one of the most grueling sporting events in the world.
With Neilson Powless making an impressive debut in this race, the Tour de France can now be counted among the international sporting events to feature a young, upcoming Indigenous star. A proud member of the Oneida Nation in Wisconsin, Powless claimed the distinction of being the first tribally recognized Native North American to take part in the Tour de France when he hit the road in August.
An avid cyclist from a young age, competing in the Tour de France had been Powless’ childhood dream. The 24-year-old turned heads in his debut in “La Grande Boucle”, finishing among the top five in two of the race’s 21 stages, and closing out the competition ninth among young riders, and a respectable 56th overall out of a field of 176 cyclists.
“It was so exotic and powerful that even before I turned 10, I dreamed of one day competing in the Tour de France,” Neilson said in an interview with ESPN during this year’s race.
While Powless had no Indigenous cycling role model, there has been no shortage of athletic influences in his life. A resident of the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation in Wisconsin until his death in 2015, Powless’ grandfather Matthew was a champion boxer during his time as a US Army paratrooper, and later owned a gym, where he trained young pugilists, including his talented young grandson.
The elder Powless played a huge role in introducing his grandson to Oneida traditions, including how to make the wampum bead belts that often grace the frame of his bike. But for Neilson, who grew up half a continent away in Roseville, California, it is the memory of spending time with his grandfather, listening to him speak in his Native language, and learning Native dancing and smudging that sticks out in his mind.
“One of the reasons I loved visiting my grandfather was to watch him crush a smoke dance,” explained Neilson.
“Normally I would have a painting of the Oneida bead belt, the wampum belt, somewhere on my bike, my garment, my shoe,” he added, when asked by reporters about his heritage during the Tour de France.
“Just something really small, most people wouldn’t even really see it. It’s something that I have always tried to keep close to me.”
Powless’ parents are also accomplished athletes. His father Jack is a former nationally ranked triathlete, who passed along to his son some hard lessons on the importance of dedication and discipline to achieving not only athletic goals, but life goals.
His mother Jen, who is non-Native, is also an accomplished athlete. She competed for Guam as a marathon runner in the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Jen also played a lead role in getting Neilson and his sister Shayna involved in a variety of organized sports at a young age, including soccer, track & field, and the triathlon.
With his successful debut at the Tour de France as a member of the EF Pro Cycling team, Neilson
has now participated in two of the cycling world’s “Grand Tours”. Neilson powered to a 31st-place finish in his debut at the Vuelta a España in 2019. While he won’t be participating in this year’s race, a debut in the Giro d’Italia is likely just around the corner. In addition, the 2017 US National Under-23 Road Championship winner has tallied eight top 10 finishes since placing his focus on the cycling world’s biggest events in Europe.
Neilson’s career is being closely followed by Indigenous people across the US and has captured the imagination of many Oneidan youth. And the opportunity to make change is not lost on Neilson or his family.
Neilson’s focus on becoming one of the world’s top cyclists has not distracted him from his goal to spend more time working with young athletes in the Oneida Nation once his days as a top racer are done. Both Neilson and his sister, also an accomplished cyclist, look forward to spending more time among the Oneida Nation, getting youngsters involved with cycling, and passing along the lessons of perseverance that have served them both so well.
“I can’t imagine how many Native American kids I’ve talked to at the reservation are going to watch Neilson – just from this past week at the Tour de France – and be excited to take up cycling,” said Shayna in recent conversation with ESPN.
“The impact one big tournament can have is incredible.”
His father Jack agrees, adding that his dream for his son “is to make a difference in young tribal members’ lives – to make them better and to give them something to hope for and aspire to.”
“To be Native American is something I am very proud of,” Neilson explained. “If someone asks what my ethnicity is, I usually say Native American first. I always try to highlight the fact that I am Native. I think it’s important.”