Editor’s note: This story on up-and-coming American cyclocross racer Logan Owen first appeared in the March issue of Velo magazine.
It’s only after the final run-up that he can start to believe it’s going to happen. After trading attacks with five of the best junior racers in the world for more than 40 minutes, in a tough tactical contest played out on the tarmac and sandy slopes of Belgium’s Zolder Formula One track, the race suddenly snaps into focus and Logan Owen makes the move that checkmates his three remaining opponents and ensures him a spot on the podium.
Leading out of a short but steep climb toward the course’s highest elevation, Belgian Nicolas Cleppe remounts his bike a moment too soon. Perhaps he’s in the wrong gear, or perhaps his tire slips in the sloping, sandy soil. Whatever the reason, Cleppe falters for a fraction of a second and Owen simply runs past him and away from the competition. Not even a minute later, he’s on the track, blowing kisses as he rolls over the line and into second place, one of the best World Cup finishes ever by an American male at any level.
At 17, this kid — despite all his poise and success, there’s no hiding his youth — from Bremerton, Washington, an hour’s ferry from Seattle, may become the first American to earn a gold medal at the world cyclocross championships since Matt Kelly stunned the world by winning the junior race in 1999.
The differences between Kelly’s race in Poprad, Slovakia, and the race Owen will ride in Louisville are considerable. For one, Kelly’s main competition was Belgian Sven Vanthourenhout, a rider who has gone on to a successful, but relatively undistinguished, professional career. To wear the rainbow stripes, Owen will have to defeat one of the sport’s true rising stars, the Netherlands’ Mathieu van der Poel, a defending junior world champion and son of former ’cross world champion Adrie van der Poel. As a rival, he is formidable; in Zolder he rolled over the line nearly two minutes ahead of Owen, riding a pace that would have put him ahead of both Niels Albert and Sven Nys after six laps of that afternoon’s elite race.
In his favor, however, Owen has a long list of his own accomplishments. During the 2011 Kerstperiode in Belgium, he never finished worse than eighth, an impressive result on its own. In 2012 he improved on that, finishing second or better during his four-race Belgian tour with the EuroCrossCamp, including a win on one of the most demanding courses in cyclocross at Namur. He has not finished outside of the top-five in five World Cup races this season. He earned an eighth national title in Madison, Wisconsin, in January.
“Logan is one of the most talented American riders I’ve worked with in international cyclocross,” says Geoff Proctor, director of the EuroCrossCamp and a U.S. national team coach. “He has met several benchmarks by which I measure talent, both in cyclocross and on the road. He has seized opportunities and delivered. Chapeau to him.”
Owen’s biggest gift, says Proctor, one that might make the difference for him in Louisville, is that he simply cannot be discouraged. He is a tenacious racer, and, as he showed in Zolder, an excellent tactician.
Owen found his way to cyclocross from BMX, winning his first national title in the 10-12 age group in 2004 — before he had turned 10. The path from BMX to cyclocross has been well trod, especially in Europe; former world champions Sven Nys and Zdenek Stybar both walked it. BMX helped Owen develop some of those critical skills and character traits, and set him up with what has become a nearly lifelong relationship with Redline, makers of both BMX and cyclocross bikes.
Owen eventually decided to focus exclusively on a cyclocross career, and last season made his first trip to race in Europe. The experience was transformative.
“I was super excited last year, but I had no idea what it was going to be like,” he told Velo during his most recent trip to Europe. “It was eye opening. I was getting top-10s, but I wasn’t really doing as well as I had in the U.S., where I was winning or battling for first. It felt like I was getting killed. I realized that I needed to step up my game, and it helped me focus. I’ve lost 10 pounds since last year at this time; I’m really focusing down on my eating and my training, and it’s starting to come together. I’m glad I’m starting to reap some rewards for all the hard work I’ve been putting in.”
Owen’s newfound focus has indeed paid off, and the evidence collected in the past few months underscores his potential to continue to grow. He believes he can unseat the favorite, van der Poel, in Louisville, but, imbued with a strong sense of sportsmanship, he has said more than once that he hopes the defending champion will be at his best for the race.
“I think going into Louisville, with the jet lag, me knowing the course, I think I definitely have a home-field advantage,” he told Velo. “I mean, I want [van der Poel] to show up and be the best he can, so if I beat him I know that I beat him at his best, and it’s not just because he had some issue. I just want it to really show who is the best in the world. Hopefully I can challenge him and have a really good race, but a podium should be in reach, I just have to stay focused and keep my head straight at worlds and not get too flustered just because it’s the world championships. As long as I have a good start, I think I can do something great.”