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HARROGATE (VN) – Drizzle fell on the crowds lining the finish line of the women’s time trial on Tuesday afternoon as the huddled masses awaited the heroes of professional women’s road racing to appear. Fan expectations were understandably high for defending champion Annemiek van Vleuten and her countrywoman Anna van der Breggen, widely regarded as the two strongest riders in the pro women’s peloton.
And then, the frenzied voice of the race announcer kept repeating one name: Chloé Dygert Owen.
Having set off in the middle of the field, the 22-year-old from Indiana had torn past several riders that set off in front of her, and at the first time check had set by far the fastest time. Van Vlueten came through the same time check several minutes later. The announcer blurted out the news: van Vleuten, the reigning TT world champion, was already 1:09 behind young American after just a few kilometers of racing.
Dygert Owen sprinted up the final grinding climb to the finish line and collapsed, taking the provisional lead by three minutes. Van Vleuten continued to lose time over the second half of the course, and the commentator struggled to express his astonishment at the performance he had just witnessed from the American. Van Vlueten finished disappointed in third place, and the rainbow jersey moved onto new shoulders: those of Chloé Dygert Owen.
Fans were shocked. The commentators sounded astonished. Dygert Owen had crushed the women’s field, besting van der Breggen, the Olympic road champion, by more than a minute and a half. It was a victory of seismic proportion. And it was emphatic confirmation that Dygert Owen is every bit as strong—if not much stronger—than the racers who have dominated pro cycling over the past few seasons.
And yet, for those teammates, coaches, and fans who have closely followed Dygert Owen over these past few years, the win did not feel so earth shattering. Rather, the victory was confirmation of the raw talent and hard work that had propelled her to the peak of women’s track racing. It’s just that international road racing world had yet to see, up close, Dygert Owen’s full potential.
There are many reasons for Dygert Owen’s stealth, and we have covered several of them here at VeloNews. After winning both the junior road race and time trial at the 2015 worlds, Dygert Owen moved to the track, away from the bustle of the peloton. She competed in domestic events, but never ventured overseas to bang bars on the Oude Kwaremont or La Redoute. Dygert Owen blossomed into one of the world’s best away from Marianne Vos or Lizzie Deignan.
Then, there was the injury. Having had her 2018 season wiped out after a heavy crash and concussion in May at the Tour of California, Dygert Owen had only returned to racing this April. Thus, nearly four years after she took her first rainbow stripes, Dygert Owen had never, as they say, “turned a pedal in anger” in Europe until the very day she became the individual time trial world champion.
“I had no idea what to expect,” she said after the race. “This is my first time racing against these girls in Europe in two years, so it’s a really special moment.”
Other riders weren’t completely blind to Dygert Owen’s potential, of course. Huge rides in endurance track races often speak to a rider’s later success on the road. And Dygert Owen also made enormous strides in road racing. In August she tore the field apart at the Colorado Classic, where she won four stages and the overall.
German rider Lisa Klein, who finished fifth, sensed it coming. ”We all know she’s strong after the world record on the track [at the Individual Pursuit World Record in Apeldoorn, 2018]. And at Colorado she was really strong, winning everything.”
Similarly, second place Van der Breggen was wary of the American. “I knew that Chloe was very good on the track. She’s a good time triallist – she was on my list of favorites,” the Dutchwoman said.
The victory is confirmation of Dygert Owen’s place amongst the best in international road racing. It’s also the happy end result of a yearlong plan. The 2019 season was a slow burn for Dygert Owen, who had a light racing schedule early in the year as she worked on regaining confidence on the bike and power in the legs. But a lack of racing starts early in the season meant a total focus on the bigger goal of the world championships.
“This race was what we trained for all this year,” a rainbow jersey-clad Dygert Owen told VeloNews. “We took the beginning of the season very slow, and of course that was very frustrating for me to not be at that top level I wanted to be at. But having Kristin [Armstrong, triple Olympic Gold Medallist] as a coach, she knew what I had to do all year to be prepared for this race, and I totally trusted her.”
Although that lack of race days may not have given Dygert Owen the shot of confidence she required before her trip to Harrogate, it meant she was totally prepared, and totally focussed. After so long having to sit on the sidelines, the 22-year-old was ready to fully unleash the jets that had been simmering for so long.
“Kristin said to me last night on the phone that ‘one thing I think about when I’m racing is ‘am I hurting as hard as everybody else?’. That really stuck with me today,” she said. “Every time I was going up that hill and started thinking ‘just let me back it off a bit’ I thought, no I’m not going hard enough, I need to go harder.”
“This was huge, coming back from injuries. It as a special moment and a special day, so I’m really looking forward to the Tokyo now,” said the 22-year-old talking of her plan to race on the track at the 2020 Olympics.
But before the games in Tokyo comes Saturday’s road race. After fellow American Amber Neben placed fourth and Leah Thomas place seventh in Tuesday’s time trial, there will be a sense of optimism in the U.S. team hotel after the impressive rides.
As Dygert Owen told journalists, her biggest advice to aspiring female riders was to “never tell yourself you can’t do something.” After Tuesday’s win, Dygert Owen appears capable of doing whatever she wants on two wheels.