BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Will 2014 be the year Logan Owen’s streak of eight national cyclocross titles finally ends?
Or, in his first year in the under-23 category, will the 18-year-old Cal Giant rider extend his streak to a ninth stars and stripes jersey?
This is the question that will define the U23 national championship race, held Saturday, one day before the elite men’s race. (After Zach McDonald placed fourth at the 2012 national championship, as a U23 rider, USA Cycling changed its rules in 2013, forcing U23 riders to choose between the U23 and elite national championships; U23 riders cannot participate in both. More on this below.)
Owen, who hails from Bremerton, Washington, is one of three favorites for the U23 race; his Cal Giant teammate and reigning U23 champion Yannick Eckmann is the other big favorite, along with Curtis White (Cannondale-Cyclocrossworld.com), also a first-year U23 rider.
Owen registered a pair of impressive fourth-place finishes in 2013 at a pair of world junior championships: in Louisville, Kentucky, in cyclocross, and again in Florence, Italy, on the road. During last year’s 2012-2013 cyclocross season, Owen won in Namur and finished runner-up to the unbeaten junior Mathieu van der Poel in cyclocross meccas such as Diegem, Loenhout, and Zolder.
His best result of the 2013-2014 ’cross season, thus far, was second at the Cross After Dark race in Los Angeles on November 30, behind Ryan Trebon, but ahead of names like Tim Johnson, Danny Summerhill, Jamey Driscoll, and Ben Berden.
Racing as a first-year U23 in Europe hasn’t been quite as fruitful; his top result was 13th, in Loenhout, on December 28.
The difference between the elite category in the U.S. and the U23 category in Europe, Owen said, came down to aggression.
“The speed on the first lap is so much faster [in Europe],” he said. “Here [in the U.S.], you’re going hard, but there, I’m at my limit, and they’re riding away. In European races, if there’s a gap, it’s so hard to close it down. Racing here is so much more relaxed, and more tactical. I think some of the guys in the U.S. want to save themselves for later in the season, but even later in the season, they’re still not going full gas, they’re still messing around a bit. In Europe, it’s just full gas from the beginning, and it never stops.”
Racing domestically, Owen has been criticized for aggressive racing. He’s borne the brunt of complaints of top riders such as Jeremy Powers, after a tussle over positioning at the front of the Boulder Cup in October. Owen said he and Powers have worked out their differences, but he was adamant that he wouldn’t be easily handing over his position to anyone.
“I’m not just giving up my wheel to anyone, just because of his name,” he said. “I’m going to fight for the wheel I want.”
It’s not likely Owen will be fighting for wheels at the U23 championship on Saturday. He predicts a three-way battle for the jersey, and expects it will ultimately come down to a battle between himself and Eckmann, his close friend.
As Cal Giant teammates, both on the road and in cyclocross, Owen and Eckmann have grown so close that the Washington native has been staying at the Eckmann family’s home in Boulder, for over a week, in preparation for the national championship. Come Saturday, they’ll put their friendship aside and battle for the title.
Owen wasn’t shy when asked about his chances for victory.
“I’m confident in my abilities,” he said. “I’m not too nervous about it. I don’t want to jinx myself, but I tend to have one extra gear when I really want to go, and that can make a difference in the race.
“My big goal was to win all during my junior years, which I did. If I don’t win this year, I won’t be pissed. If I’m gonna lose, I’d be okay losing to Yannick. I would not be as mad as if I lost last year, in my final year as a junior.”
After nationals, Owen and Eckmann will return to Europe together and will be based in Germany, with the Eckmann family’s relatives, as they prepare for the world cyclocross championship.
Later this year Owen will race on the road for the Bissell (former Bontrager) development team, run by Axel Merckx. The year he took off after graduating high school is halfway over, and in the fall he’ll start taking classes at Marian University, in Indianapolis, where he will race in the collegiate ranks as well.
Ultimately, Owen said he’ll likely pursue a pro career in road racing.
“I will still try to race cyclocross and road, but I will be going to school during the cyclocross season,” he said. “If I can ‘t handle it, I just won’t do cyclocross. I like both equally, but I expect I’d be making more money racing on the road. You have to realize that, while both are fun, but to make a living you have to go to the road unless you are top 10 in the World Cups.”
As for the nationals course at Valmont, Owen said he hoped that some of the snow that fell on Boulder last weekend would stick around until Saturday.
“It’s a fun course. The off-camber section up top is pretty technical,” he said. “It’s not a traditional American course, and it’s not a European-style course, either. It’s a mix.
“I’m hoping it will be muddy,” he added. “I’m hoping for light mud, so it will be fast and slick. Once it gets technical, I can pull away, but it will be harder for me to win if it’s dry. It’s just harder to separate yourself on a fast course. I did well in L.A., and that was dry and fast, but I just don’t want it to be so tactical. Whoever is the strongest, best rider should win the national championship. It could be an epic battle. It will be fun. It will be good for the fans. They’ll get to see a good battle.”
An explanation from Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling’s Cyclocross program director, on the rule change regarding U23s at nationals:
“In the past there were instances where U23 cyclocross riders had doubled up at nationals — they raced in both the U23 and elite race. In those cases the rider did not place well enough in the elite race to take any UCI points, but when Zach McDonald doubled up [in 2012], winning the U23 race and then taking fourth in the elite race, he essentially double-dipped on UCI points. The UCI then made it clear to [USA Cycling] that U23-aged male riders could only race the U23 or the elite event at the national championships. With this rule clarification from the UCI we strictly mandate that if a U23-aged rider wants to race with the elite riders, they will be allowed to do that, but they cannot race the U23 race as well. Conversely, if they choose to race in the U23 race they cannot then also race the elite race.”