Like so many young American talents, Justin Oien began his journey to the top ranks of elite competitive cycling with the Hagens Berman Axeon franchise. Unlike most of his compatriots, however, Owen stepped up to the Pro Continental levels with Caja Rural-Seguros RGA. As of 2018, he is the only American on the Spanish team.
Why did Oien take the road less traveled? Why not?
“Whatever opportunities are floating my way, I’ll try to capitalize on them,” he told VeloNews at the Tour of Oman.
During Oien’s time at Axeon, a few different factors aligned to create his opportunity to race in Europe. When the offer came, he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.
Caja Rural “was on Fuji last year. Fuji had talked about getting some Americans on the team, to represent,” he said. “They came to Axeon looking to get some young Americans. There were some other guys that were offered and they wanted to wait, but I was like, ‘This is a good opportunity. Why not? Nothing to lose. Let’s go to Spain!'”
For Oien, a European Pro Continental team was an ideal next step for his cycling career. The 22-year-old California native credits his days racing for Axeon with prepping him for the bigger leagues.
“For racing, I don’t want to say that I didn’t learn anything [jumping up to Caja Rural], but it’s kind of a continuation of all the stuff we’d been brought up doing. I think that shows a lot for Axeon as well,” he said. “They treat us like pro bike racers. They expect you to be a pro bike racer. I think coming from there, I was prepared to handle my sh—t.”
Oien found success quickly last season, winning a stage at the UCI 2.2 Rhône-Alpes Isère Tour in May. Still, the transition from the American peloton to the European scene was not without its challenges. There was a language barrier. Although Oien’s mother is from Mexico, his Spanish skills were not quite up to snuff when he first arrived.
Instead of opting to live in Girona, Spain, where many other English-speaking pros reside, Oien makes his European home base in Pamplona, where Caja Rural has a team house. That has forced him to forge his own path in a foreign place without many familiar faces around beyond those of his teammates.
Those challenges, however, have proven rewarding in the end. Indeed, they are a major part of what Oien likes about racing for Caja Rural.
“For the long run, Spanish and living and racing in Europe is something that needs to be learned at some point if you want to do it. This is something like a trial by fire, but I’m enjoying it,” he said.
“Most people go to Girona because there were a lot of connections there and you can make it work as an English-speaking person. But for me, that was part of integrating into the scene. If I can speak Spanish, being in a place that pretty much entirely speaks Spanish, that’s going to help me integrate into the team.”
In facing those challenges, Oien says he’s been able to learn and develop as a pro and a person in ways that might not have happened had he stuck with U.S.-based teams in the early goings of his pro career.
Now that Oien has sharpened his Spanish skills, he is much less of a fish out of water living in Spain and racing with Caja Rural. With that in mind, he can focus on sharpening his racing skills and hunting results.
Oien may be one of youngest riders on the team, but he’s been very happy with the fact that the squad gives him a few chances to ride for himself. His initial two-year deal runs its course at the end of this season, however. That means Oien will be facing another decision sooner or later on what his future holds.
Is he hoping to continue his Spanish Pro Continental adventure or looking to try something new again?
As was the case when he signed on with Caja Rural, Oien is keeping himself open to whatever possibilities present themselves. It’s a philosophy that’s worked out well so far.
“If I see an opportunity, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to do it,” he said. “If I see something that I like and think I would be interested in doing, I’m going to jump on it.”