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Two local cyclists take the start line at this year’s Tour of California, which visits Elk Grove, Folsom and Sacramento in its seven-day run. One of them might even win.
Several years before they began competing against each other on two wheels in different countries around the world, Evan Huffman and Neilson Powless were acquaintances in local youth sports.
Football, basketball, baseball and soccer were the passions of friends, but Huffman and Powless realized stick-and-ball pursuits were best for the other kids. For them, endurance sports had more appeal. The two athletes had a knack for triathlon, the combination of multiple endurance sports in one race, and it catapulted them into their now-thriving careers as professional cyclists.
When the 13th annual Amgen Tour of California returns to Northern California this month, Huffman, 28, of Elk Grove, and Powless, 21, of Roseville, will be among the favorites in the seven-day men's race that begins May 13 in Long Beach. Stage 5 will progress from Stockton to Elk Grove, and Stage 6 will advance from Folsom to South Lake Tahoe. The road race finale will start and end May 19 near the State Capitol.
The corresponding three-day women’s race will begin May 17 with a road stage beginning and ending in Elk Grove. (Powless’ sister, Shayna, will race as well, on Team Sho-Air Twenty20.) The Stage 2 road race in the Lake Tahoe region will be followed by the concluding route with multiple circuits around the State Capitol.
"I would say Evan and I are friends, but not super close," says Powless, who returns to Roseville when he's not racing internationally for LottoNL-Jumbo, a Dutch-based team sponsored by the national lottery and a supermarket chain. "I mean, when we end up at the same race together in another country, it’s really cool because we are both from the same area and grew up training on a lot of the same roads."
Huffman and Powless share the best-known training areas with the Sacramento cycling community at large: the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail along the American River Parkway, the Sierra Nevada foothills near Auburn, Placerville and Cool, and the long, flat stretches that run deep into the San Joaquin Delta.
Huffman and Powless return to their training routes during season breaks. Coming home also allows the riders to enjoy the area’s lifestyle, albeit sporadically.
Recently married, Huffman and his wife, Heather, live in East Sacramento. They began dating at concerts at Ace of Spades, the downtown Sacramento music venue where they enjoy Christian-based rock ’n’ roll. They like visiting Orphan, a cafe near McKinley Park.
Powless, whose racing schedule this season is based primarily in Europe, has his favorites, too. He frequents Shady Coffee & Tea, a few blocks from his family’s home in Roseville, where he enjoys open-mic nights. He’s also dined at Blue Nami, the sushi haven in Roseville, since he was a sophomore in high school.
A skilled runner and mountain biker, Powless was pursued by several universities. But as a junior at Roseville High School, he decided to focus on road cycling because it offered him more chances to compete and travel. As a teenager, he had stamps from 14 countries in his passport. He now has more than three dozen.
With multiple victories and advancing skills as an individual time trialist and climber, Powless debuted at the Tour of California at age 19 in 2016 and finished ninth overall, less than two minutes behind titlist Julian Alaphilippe of France. Powless was upset last year when his former team wasn't selected to compete, but he's focusing on the country's most prestigious event this season with his new team. It competes on Union Cycliste Internationale’s WorldTour, the sport's highest level.
"Even though Evan is a friend, and it’s super awesome that we can be in some races together, I’ve still got to keep an eye on him," says Powless. "At the end of the day, during those four to five hours of racing, I have a job to do, and I know how capable Evan can be when he is on good form. Nevertheless, it is always super fun to have another dude from Nor Cal in the bunch."
Like Powless, Huffman saw his cycling career improve rapidly—possibly too quickly. After graduating from Elk Grove High School, where he was a runner and swimmer, Huffman competed in cycling in his freshman year at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. He won the junior national championship and was invited to a training camp in Europe. He quickly embraced cycling as a career and left college.
With limited international experience, he surprisingly joined Astana, then the sport's No. 1-ranked team, headquartered in Kazakhstan, in 2013. The team was sponsored by Specialized, the bicycle component manufacturer based in Morgan Hill. It wanted one American on its lengthy roster, and Huffman enthusiastically signed for two seasons. But he was largely forgotten, raced infrequently and had few notable results. He returned to California dejected and without a contract for 2015.
Huffman eventually raced the season for SmartStop, an entry-level pro team from Southern California that couldn’t meet its payroll and folded. He’s now in his third season with Rally. It’s in its first season as a Pro Continental team, one notch below the WorldTour and well-funded by a national digital health company. The team reinstilled Huffman’s confidence on the bike, and he’s now a team leader. His often-quiet demeanor prompts his preferred style: leading by example.
"I kind of knew him (Powless) before cycling when he was doing triathlon stuff,” says Huffman, who won seven races last year, including two Tour of California stages. "He did some mountain bike triathlons and being in the area, I'd heard about him a little bit. He’s younger than me, but we’re racing against each other a lot now."
Huffman, whose midseason focus is also the Tour of California, and Powless raced against each earlier this season in Spain. They’ll likely compete against each in a few races more races leading into a hometown reunion of sorts at the Tour of California.
Both riders watched the event when they were younger. Huffman was 16 when the race debuted in San Francisco in 2006; Powless was 9. Both cyclists are also fully aware that pedaling their respective bicycles has allowed them to come full circle.