Chloé Dygert Owen did not mince words when asked about her return to Women’s WorldTour racing at the Amgen Tour of California.
“I’m struggling,” Dygert Owen, the reigning Olympic silver medalist, told VeloNews prior to Saturday’s stage in Santa Clarita. “I feel like it’s something that should be so simple to get over, but it’s not. Being back with the Europeans—I’m definitely struggling with keeping my position and stuff like that.”
This year’s California race marked the one-year anniversary of the scary crash that left Dygert Owen with a head injury that lingered for much of 2018. In the final kilometers of the opening stage of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California Women’s Race empowered with SRAM, Dygert Owen was tucked into the middle of the women’s bunch as it thundered toward the finish line in Elk Grove, just south of Sacramento. The group bunched together just as Dygert Owen drifted back, and another rider nudged her handlebars and front wheel.
In a violent moment that was caught on camera, Dygert Owen lost control, swerved across the road, and then landed hard on her left side. Her head hit the asphalt.
A year after that fateful day, Dygert Owen returned to California with her Sho Air-Twenty20 teammates, and the memories of the crash came back.
“The first day I was really drained and just worried so much about not crashing that it took a lot out of me,” Dygert Owen said. “The second day I had some back and hip issues and wasn’t feeling too well, but we had some super rides from Emma [Grant] and Jasmine [Duehring] right up there, which was great.”
It’s easy to understand Dygert Owen’s nerves in her first Women’s WorldTour race back. The crash in 2018 completely derailed her road and track racing campaign in 2018, as she struggled to overcome the symptoms related to traumatic brain injury. As the weeks wore on, Dygert Owen was unable to return to competition. She missed the U.S. national road championships in June before returning to competition in July to compete in the Kristin Armstrong Chrono Classic.
But symptoms from the head injury lingered through July and August. After attending an altitude camp in Colorado Springs, Dygert Owen again took a break from racing and training. She cancelled her plans to compete in the UCI world road championships in Innsbruck.
“I was un-cleared to ride,” Dygert Owen told VeloNews in April. “I still was struggling a bit with my vision. I wasn’t able to focus right. They took me off the bike. Then I had a bit of a knee injury. With everything that happened, it wasn’t smart for me to go to the worlds.”
Dygert Owen took an extended break from racing and riding outside. She relied on her coach, Armstrong, and U.S. national track coach, Gary Sutton, among others, for support as she recovered from the fall. She returned to high-volume training in January, and returned to road racing in February with a bang. In March she won three stages and the overall at California’s Chico Stage Race, and then took two stages and the overall at the Joe Martin Stage Race in April. Dygert Owen showed her improved climbing skills at New Mexico’s Tour of the Gila in May, where she won two stages and finished a close second place in the overall.
The flurry of victories provided a boost of confidence.
“I didn’t think anything of it when I was racing the American field,” Dygert Owen said. “And then being here, the first day I just struggled.”
Struggles aside, the result in California was promising. Dygert Owen finished fourth place on the final stage in a wild sprint alongside the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The result—and the race—mark an important stepping stone in her journey toward the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Dygert Owen said she now hopes to win the U.S. national road championships in the individual time trial, and then battle for the win in the world championships in that discipline in September in Yorkshire, before embarking on the track World Cup season in the fall.
In a perfect scenario, she would win world titles on the road and track in the next year, before taking on the Olympics.
It’s an ambitious set of 2019 goals, and Dygert Owen showed in California that, despite the challenges, she had returned to her successful racing regimen.
“It feels good to be back in racing mode. On race day, it’s still a totally different Chloe,” she said. “The day before a race I’m my normal goofy and loud and obnoxious self. And then on race day I don’t want to talk to anybody or look at anybody and it’s a totally different ballgame.
“I really love race days,” she said.