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Mathieu Van Der Poel v. Logan Owen: A tale of two juniors whose ending has yet to be written

Both young men are strong and determined. On Saturday, fortune smiled on one of them

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LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (VN) — Two for two. 25 for 25. Either way you measure it, Mathieu Van Der Poel is perfect. The Dutchman captured each of the two world championships he contested at the junior level, including Saturday’s race in Louisville. On the season, he stacked up 25 straight victories.

Perfect dominance.

He now graduates to the under-23 ranks. Could he possibly be as successful next year?

“I think that I can expect a lot. I’ve been comparing some lap times and I can see that I’m able to follow [the U23 riders],” Van Der Poel told VeloNews. “But the circumstances are always different, and we’re going to see next year what I can do.

“There are some guys that are leaving to the pro ranks, like Wietse Bosmans (this year’s silver medalist in the U23 world championship on Saturday), so I won’t be riding against them. We shall see where it goes.”

If results and pedigree mean anything, this Van Der Poel will follow in his father’s footsteps.

For the last 30 years, the name Van Der Poel meant Adri, the father of both Mathieu and older son David. Adri Van Der Poel was a force on both the road and in cyclocross in the 1980s and ’90s.

He proved his talent by becoming one of the most victorious ’cross racers ever. A seven-time national champion, he won the world title in 1996 in Montreuil, France, and finished second at worlds five times. A fourth-place finish at the 2000 world cyclocross championship marked his final ride.

Then, in 2008, the name Van Der Poel started to ring out again. This time it was David. By 2010, only his second year of competition in the junior division, David began — yes — dominating races. At one point in the season he captured 15 of the 16 UCI calendar events, including 10 victories.

So it should be no surprise that the youngest son has gone one step further, taking his second title in two attempts, and 25 victories without a hitch.

The world championship was another shining example of how the convergence of talent and good fortune can yield perfection. Van Der Poel simply rode away from the field. He never followed a wheel; he rarely made a mistake on the treacherous course. He suffered no mechanicals, and only the soles of his feet touched the ground.

Nevertheless American fans were hopeful going into the race. Logan Owen represented a credible and serious threat to Van Der Poel’s reign. Owen had taken second to the Dutchman in the fourth round of the World Cup in Zolder , and rode through the entire field in the second World Cup in Pilsen after a problem at the start saw him lose more than a minute to the leaders; he finished third. Racing on American soil would only motivate him to a higher level.

But the pressure was also palpable, with chants of “Logan! Logan!” rising from the throngs that filtered past the Team USA compound, where the riders were warming up, as they entered the venue. Owen is a star: young, but full of potential, talent, and confidence. A newborn star.

“I feel better than I have all year,” Owen said the day before the race. “I’ve never felt this good.”

But it would not be Owen’s day. Perhaps feeling the nerves that only high expectations can place on young shoulders, he lunged ahead prematurely at the start, then paused momentarily as he realized his mistake, only to see the green light flash and the field swarm around him.

It went from bad to worse when German Marco König tried to dive inside of Owen on the first sweeping corner, crashing both of them. Riding from behind on the snow-covered ruts, where in many places only a single clean line had developed, proved challenging. But Owen did it, steadily and impressively riding through the field — much like he did in Pilsen — and into third place.

Still, he had not faced all of the day’s misfortunes. In the icy conditions, Owen’s chain fell from his drivetrain repeatedly, and he had to dismount to put it back on. He dropped to eighth. This final setback only allowed Owen to prove he was one of the two strongest and most technically skilled riders in the field. He surged a final time, nearly reaching the podium, placing fourth, four seconds behind Adam Toupalik of the Czech Republic.

“I know I was easily the second strongest guy out there. If I just could have had a good start, I know I could have battled with [Martijn] Budding for second,” Owen told VeloNews just after the race.

“It was just bad timing with my chain falling off when it did. If it had fallen off earlier, it would have been fine. I could have caught [Adam]. I was so much better on this course then [Adam and Martijn]. It’s really disappointing because I know I’m so much better than that.

“I wish I had a redo. It could go so much better. Things just weren’t going well for me out there. It just wasn’t my day.”

It was a tale told a thousand times at every cyclocross race. Perfection versus misfortune. But if the victory by 36-year-old Sven Nys in the elite world championship proves anything, it’s that Van Der Poel and Owen could have 18 more years to prove themselves at the highest level of the sport.

Van Der Poel hopes to carry the family tradition forward by winning an elite world championship title; Owen hopes to carry the pressures of American cyclocross stardom and do the same. It seems they’ll meet again in the mud, ruts, snow, and slop of ’cross courses around the world.

Does Van Der Poel expect to see Owen again, and battle with him for years to come? He does. In fact, he hopes so.