Neilson Powless makes history as the first Native American cyclist to ride in the Tour de France

Neilson Powless finished in the top 5 twice on the first weekend of the Tour de France. Marco Bertorello / AFP

As soon as U.S. cyclist Neilson Powless heard the words "You're going to race in the Tour de France -- you're in" from his team manager, Charly Wegelius, he removed the phone from his ear and looked at it for a solid two minutes, opening and closing his mouth, tears pricking the backs of his eyes.

Say thank you, his brain said. But his mouth hung open, unable to form words.

Powless, 24, sat on that couch in his training camp in Andorra for a long time, a rush of emotions overtaking him. All the fundraising his community had done to get him to European races, all the times he had to make do with old equipment, all the small mountain races in California where he had to push past his screaming calves to make one final climb -- the memories came rushing back.

Before the call came, he had convinced himself he hadn't made the cut. He was on the long list, but the tour was coming up, and he hadn't heard anything. He'd even mapped out the other small races where he could compete in Europe.

When he was ready, he called his parents to let them know.

He had just become the first Native American to make it to the Tour de France.

Now, a few weeks later, Powless is not only a participant in one of the sport's biggest events but a key member of his team. He has ridden into two winning breakaways -- going on an attack on the Col d'Eze on the first weekend and helping teammate Rigoberto Uran avoid losses in the crosswinds. He finished in the top five twice on the first weekend.

Powless didn't have a Native American cyclist to model his life after, but his father, Jack, a former nationally ranked triathlete, has always loved the Tour de France. Growing up in Roseville, California, Neilson would wake up to the smell of coffee, followed by the last 50K of the tour's uphill climbs every day in the month of July.

"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.

His mother, Jen, a 1992 Olympic marathoner for Guam, enrolled Neilson and his sister, Shayna, into triathlon, soccer and track and field as soon as they could walk. The siblings especially loved triathlon, particularly looking forward to the cycling part of the race. The energy, the strategy and the challenging nature of the sport stuck out to Neilson from a young age. Even though his sister was two years older, he started beating her in cycling races -- sometimes upsetting her enough to make her stop talking to him for days.

Neilson's paternal grandfather, Matthew, is of the Oneida tribe, and his grandmother, Ann, is of Cherokee ancestry. Matthew loved working with Neilson in boxing, giving him punching combinations that Neilson would throw flawlessly. Matt would then look at Jack with pride and say, "Holy smokes, he's the real deal!"

Every year, when the Tour of California -- the annual stage race -- passed Sacramento, Jack would take Neilson and Shayna out of school so they could watch in person. As a kid, Neilson was a naturally gifted cyclist, Jack said. And he didn't get bogged down by competition. During local races, he'd stop midway through the race, pick up a stick and start sword fighting, just for giggles. Then he'd get back onto his bike and fly through the rest of the route and win.

"He just loved life -- he was silly and competitive at the same time," Jack said.

By the time Neilson started high school, he had an unwavering vision -- to compete and win a stage race at the Tour de France. But it didn't come easily. Cycling, still a predominantly white and rich sport, constantly required upgraded bikes, helmets and the ability to travel to races. With the help of his community, Neilson fundraised, using bake sales and bike raffles to make just enough money to buy a bike and a plane ticket for races.

In 2016, at age 20, he finished first in the Joe Martin Stage Race in Arkansas and started getting attention. His results kept coming -- with a top-three finish in several national road races in the U.S. and a first-place finish in the Gram Premio Palio del Recioto, a one-day cycling race in Italy. His big breakthrough came in 2019, when he was named on the start list of the Vuelta e España, a three-week Grand Tour European cycling race. His consistent results put him on the radar of EF Education First -- one of the most diverse teams in cycling. The team signed him, and in August 2020 came the call that made his dream come true.

For the past two weeks, his parents in California have woken up at 4 a.m. to watch the start of the race, usually glued to the TV to make sure they don't miss their son's every move. "They're busier than me, it seems like, with all the local news crews approaching them for interviews," Neilson told ESPN on Monday, his first rest day. When Neilson was involved in a small crash on Stage 10 of the race, Jen nearly passed out, Jack said.

"Watching everything unfold in real time -- it's quite surreal," Jack added.

Powless' participation -- and success -- at the Tour de France is a far bigger story than just one athlete making it to the big leagues. It's a story of visibility for the Native American community, which has been disenfranchised from sports like cycling because of the lack of access and opportunities.

Powless is acutely aware of the influence he can have. "I can't imagine how many Native American kids I 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," Shayna, who is also a pro cyclist, said. "The impact just one big tournament can have -- it's incredible."

Neilson makes it a point to accept every interview request because he knows the value of exposure, he said. Once cycling is done, he wants to go to reservations with his sister and talk to Native American youth about cycling and dreaming big.

Endurance sports are a great way to help kids in the reservation stay on the right track, Jack added. "My dream for Neilson 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."

Now that he's at the Tour de France, he has already moved on to even bigger goals. Said Shayna: "The rate at which he is going -- I won't be surprised if he wins a stage race -- and then even the entire tour -- sometime soon."