In the concluding laps of the women’s team pursuit world championship finals in Hong Kong, the American squad of Chloé Dygert Owen, Kim Geist, Kelly Catlin, and Jennifer Valente trailed Australia by nearly half a second. The team looked destined to again finish second, eight months after a disappointing defeat at the hands of Team Great Britain at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Dygert Owen then rode to the front and upped the pace. As the Australians cycled through two riders, Dygert Owen held her position, making a final surge for the line. The final outcome: USA gold, Australia silver by nearly half a second.
The ride penned the latest chapter in the short but growing book of Dygert Owen’s exploits. Over the past three seasons, the 20-year-old has won two world championships on the road, three world titles on the track, and Olympic silver. In the summer of 2015, Dygert Owen was a high school basketball player who also raced bikes. Today, she’s the heir apparent to Kristin Armstrong, winner of three Olympic gold medals in the individual time trial.
“Whenever I do something, if it’s basketball or running or racing, I have always needed to be the best,” Dygert Owen says. “I can’t do something and not be the best. I can’t play board games, even with kids — I can’t do it if I’m going to lose. That’s what motivates me to put everything into what I’m doing.”
The answer is hardly a cliché. Those who know Dygert Owen recount stories of an incredible work ethic and desire to win; they also tell stories of her frustration and anger in the aftermath of a loss. When a teammate is faster in training, Dygert Owen ramps up the pace for the ensuing effort. On rides, she sprints for landmarks. In Rio, she needed to collect more Olympic souvenir pins than anyone on the U.S. track team.
“She always has to win,” says husband Logan Owen, who races for the Axeon-Hagens Berman development squad. “Every time we finish a ride together I have to let her win going up the hill to the house.”
After a mediocre showing at junior cyclocross nationals one season, Dygert’s Team Sho-Air Twenty20 director Nicola Cranmer said Dygert Owen was despondent. Cranmer liked the reaction.
“For a rider that young to care that much was special,” Cranmer says. “She acts giddy sometimes, but don’t be fooled by that. She is focused.”
That competitive attitude, when matched with Dygert Owen’s natural talent, is a combination that could make her America’s next great cyclist.
DYGERT OWEN SPRUNG ONTO the national scene in 2013 when she won junior titles in the individual time trial and criterium at the USA National Championships. Then just 15, Dygert Owen had only raced for several months prior to the championships; her father purchased her a racing bicycle to aid her rehab from a basketball injury. She sat out much of 2014 after tearing her ACL playing basketball. In 2015, Dygert Owen focused solely on cycling. She won junior world titles in both the road race and individual time trial; during the latter effort she averaged 279 watts for 20 minutes.
That performance caught the attention of USA Cycling, which was in the final planning phases for the 2016 Olympics. Dygert Owen lacked the results in elite time trials to make the long list for the road event, so USA Cycling invited her to train on the track for the team pursuit.
Adapting to the rigors of velodrome racing presents a challenge for experienced road riders, let alone novices like Dygert Owen. During her first ride on the Los Angeles velodrome, Dygert Owen said the steep banked turns made her nervous. After only a few rides, though, she became accustomed to the fixed-gear bicycle and steep track.
“People were like, ‘You’re going to forget what bike you’re on and backpedal and crash!’” Dygert Owen says. “I never forgot. I wanted to rub it in everybody’s face.”
USA Cycling’s Jim Miller says Dygert Owen adapted to velodrome racing with otherworldly speed. Before the Indiana native joined the squad, the Americans were perhaps the fourth best pursuit team in the world, he says. At the 2016 UCI world championships, the Americans won gold. Four months later, the U.S. team won silver in Rio in a tight battle with Great Britain.
“You insert Chloé and we win two world championships and an Olympic silver medal,” Miller says. “Would we have medaled without Chloé? Maybe. Would we have set a new world record and challenged the British? No chance.”
DYGERT OWEN MADE FEW PUBLIC comments after the silver medal in Rio. She was upset by the loss. In her eyes, the team hadn’t won silver but rather lost gold. Eight months later, the loss still stings.
“It’s hard when you expect to win and you know you can win,” Dygert Owen says. “I don’t know how we could have gone any faster.”
In the offseason, Dygert Owen got married and moved to Washington State. She inked a new contract with her Sho-Air Twenty20 team and prepared for a domestic road racing calendar, hiring Kristin Armstrong to be her coach. She channeled her Olympic frustration into a 2017 spring campaign, which culminated with the track world championships in Hong Kong.
Dygert Owen nearly dropped out of the team pursuit squad when USA Cycling fired national track coach Andy Sparks after two anonymous complaints were filed against him after the Olympics. Dygert Owen declined to comment on the Sparks firing, but said she supported the deposed coach.
In Hong Kong, Dygert Owen faced another personal setback. Great Britain’s squad contained none of the riders from its Olympic championship squad. The Americans were able to topple Australia, yet Dygert Owen desperately wanted another shot at the Brits. She may have to wait four years for the rematch.
“Winning [the team pursuit] didn’t mean as much as it would have against [Great Britain],” Dygert Owen says. “It would have been cool to go against them.”
In the individual pursuit, Dygert Owen nearly broke the world record on her way to a dominating win.
DYGERT OWEN HAS THE natural talent to accomplish almost anything in pro cycling, be it Olympic medals, world titles, or WorldTour victories. Her power output already surpasses that of many of the world’s best time trialists, and her aerobic capacity shows room for future gains. USA Cycling has yet to perform a VO2 test on her, but coaches already believe the results will shine.
“I have coached over 100 athletes from over 20 countries, and by the numbers I believe Chloé is the most talented male or female cyclist, ever,” Sparks says. “I also believe she is the most mature young lady I have ever met and is destined to become an Olympic star for the United States in the years to come.”
[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Chloé Dygert Owen”]“I can’t do something and not be the best. I can’t play board games, even with kids.”[/pullquote]
Dygert Owen has yet to decide which path to pursue in cycling. She wants to compete in both the road time trial and track events at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which is a realistic goal. She is committed to the individual time trial, but also has ambitions to improve at road racing. Cranmer says her team has the flexibility to help Dygert Owen achieve those goals.
“We understand the selection processes for [Olympics and worlds], so we will strategize around those goals,” Cranmer says.
Dygert Owen has committed to racing domestically with Twenty20, but admits that the European races do present an attractive challenge.
“I want to win Flanders or a big one-day race in Europe someday,” she says. “For now, I don’t see myself going to Europe for a while.”
In the immediate future, she’ll step into the role of the country’s latest great female individual time trialist — a spot steeped with both history and tradition. Over the last 20 years, the United States has developed female time trialists with impressive consistency: Karen Kurreck, Mari Holden, Armstrong, Christine Thorburn, and Amber Neben, to name a few.
In the short term, that goal works for Dygert Owen.
“I am planning on going to the next six Olympics,” she says. “I have time to get the gold.”