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On Sunday, the best cyclists in the sport will race Liège-Bastogne-Liège, cycling’s oldest classic and one of its five Monuments.
There are no American favorites to win the hilly Belgian race, but in the years to come, that may change.
Last weekend, 21-year-old American Logan Owen soloed to victory in the rain at the under-23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège to take the biggest win of his young career.
It’s a career that has deep roots in cyclocross, where Owen won 10 straight national titles, including a U23 title on his first attempt, at age 18. In January, at his first elite national championship, he finished third behind Jeremy Powers and Stephen Hyde.
But it’s on the road where Owen will likely prosper as a professional bike racer.
The Bremerton, Washington, native is into this third season with the U.S. Continental program run by Axel Merckx, known alternately as Bissell Development (in 2014), Axeon (in 2015), and now Axeon Hagens Berman.
Typical of many cyclocross racers, Owen excels in classics-style one-day races. He took fourth at the 2013 junior world road championship in Florence, missing the podium by half a bike length in a true hardman’s race won by Mathieu Van Der Poel. Owen placed eighth at the U23 Paris-Roubaix in 2014, and, more recently, 11th at the espoirs Ronde van Vlaanderen on April 9, one week before his Liège win.
Last Sunday, Owen rode into a a breakaway of a dozen riders 10km just into the race. With all the major teams represented, the group was gone for good. From there, the group split on the climb of La Redoute, with just four riders remaining. Owen attacked on Côte de Saint-Nicolas, the penultimate climb of the 178.6-km race. He soloed in from the top — which is 15km from the finish, rather than the quick run into Ans used at the WorldTour classic. Instead, from the top of Saint-Nicolas, the U23 route loops out and back, finishing in the Ans velodrome.
“I had really good legs,” Owen said. “My power for the race was really high — it was the hardest race I’ve ever done. All the big teams had their guys in the break. We were working well together, just rolling really good. There was just not a lot of horsepower behind, and I had amazing legs — the best I’ve ever had in a race.”
Pavel Sivakov (BMC Development Team) finished second, 44 seconds down, while Owen’s Axeon teammate Ruben Guerreiro, of Portugal, joined Owen on the podium in third place.
“He told me that he felt really good, but I didn’t know how good the other guys were,” Merckx said. “I knew Logan was one of the fastest guys in the group. In the end, he just rode them off his wheel, dropped them and went solo — which is always a nice way to win.”
Asked if he should be considered a breakaway specialist, Owen laughed. “I’ve always been good at short climbs, like Liège or Amstel. I’m not a pure sprinter, but I can go up shorter climbs well and sprint well out of small groups. I’m not a breakaway guy at all, I guess I’m more of an all-arounder. I love doing races like Flanders and Liège — the hillier, harder races, where it comes down to who is strongest, and a small group towards the end. That’s what I like.”
Owen’s Liège win was his biggest road victory thus far, but it wasn’t his first. Last summer, he won a tough road stage at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, out-sprinting WorldTour riders like Brent Bookwalter (BMC Racing) and Kiel Reijnen (then with UnitedHealthcare, now with Trek-Segafredo).
Owen is but one talent on a star-studded 2016 Axeon Hagens Berman development team that has become an incubator for the sport’s biggest stars. Graduates from the program include Taylor Phinney, Lawson Craddock, Ian Boswell, and Jasper Stuyven.
In future years, the 2016 Axeon team photo may just end up being circulated as the greatest collection of young talent in a generation to all wear the same jersey. Among those names: Great Britain’s Tao Geoghegan Hart, winner at Trofeo Piva on April 3 and a two-time podium finisher at Liège-Bastogne-Liège; Irish climber Eddie Dunbar, winner of the junior tours of both Ireland and Wales; and young Americans Adrien Costa, who finished seventh at the U23 Ronde van Vlaanderen, and Nielson Powless, the 20-year-old former mountain-bike racer who won the time trial at the Redlands Bicycle Classic on April 8.
“We have a pretty stacked squad,” Owen said. “We can show up to any race, and we know we have five or six guys who could win, depending on how the race plays out. That’s a great thing to have, it creates a lot more confidence in one another, and that leads to better results.”
Since he was 13, Owen has been coached by Joe Holmes, owner of Tête de la Course Cycling. Holmes tweaked Owen’s training coming into the 2016 season, targeting the spring classics. Unlike in 2015, when Owen took a break after the cyclocross season but then got sick for Flanders and Liège, this time around, he trained straight through from ’cross to the classics. It seems to have worked, as Owen stayed healthy, finished 11th and Flanders, and won Liège.
“The very first ride I did with Logan when he was 13, he attacked up one of the hardest climbs in the area, which immediately made me realize this was a kid with a fire inside,” Holmes said. “Now, seven years later, as I’ve worked with him and watched him develop and mature as a rider and a person, too see him get such a huge win at Liège, it’s been really special.”
Owen isn’t just one of many talents on his team — he’s one of many talents in his relationship. He’s engaged to Chloe Dygert, the world road and time-trial championship winner in Richmond; they met at a SRAM cyclocross clinic at Marian University, in Indianapolis, where she studies.
Owen and Dygert don’t see each other much during the race season; both have full travel schedules. She’s headed to the Rio Olympics in August to try to win a team pursuit gold medal, to match Team USA’s world championship title in March. They’ll marry in October, following the world road championships.
He says they’re not competitive with one another — “We actually don’t even ride together very often” — but concedes that her three rainbow jerseys outweigh his 10 national ’cross championships and wins at Utah and Liège. In this instance, three of a kind outweighs a full house.
Owen’s 2016 season will consist of the Tour of the Gila, the Amgen Tour of California, U23 Paris-Roubaix, U23 road nationals, the Larry H. Miller Utah, Tour de Beauce, Tour de l’Avenir, and road worlds in Qatar.
As for another go at cyclocross — and a first elite national title — it will all hinge on whether or not he signs a WorldTour contract for 2017.
“I’m still debating,” he said. “It all depends on what happens with the road. I can’t make any decisions until I know what I’m going to do for road. I want to race cyclocross, of course. But if I move up to WorldTour, that would be the priority.”
For the moment, however, Owen’s phone isn’t lighting up.
“No calls yet, nothing like that,” he said. “I’m hoping someone might call, and that this result might play a big factor in moving to the pros, but I also know I can’t just expect to move up after one result.
“But I am hoping it will help me go pro after this year. That’s been my goal. I’m feeling stronger every year, and I feel like I’m ready for the WorldTour. It’s a massive step, and I know it would be hard, but I feel like I’m ready for that step. I’m hoping that this result will get some teams to look at me a little more seriously.”