This article is part of 'Belgian Week' on Cyclingnews, a special run of features to celebrate the start of the Classics. For all our Belgian Week content click here.
While the rest of his US peers set up their overseas operations in well-established European landing spots like Girona, Nice or Lucca, Logan Owen (EF Education First-Drapac) followed a path blazed by fellow Washington native Tyler Farrar, taking up residence in Belgium during the majority of his race season.
Maybe Owen is drawn to the rainy, grey Belgian winters - not unlike those he grew up with on the Kitsap Peninsula along Puget Sound in Bremerton - or maybe it's simply that he knows his cycling fortunes lie on the cobbled roads and famous bergs that are the foundation of the Spring Classics, where Owen hopes to one day excel.
"It just seems like home, honestly," Owen tells Cyclingnews from a team camp in Girona, where he has joined several teammates for a week of training in northeast Spain.
Owen's 'home' in Belgium comes pre-furnished with a family - a handy amenity for a rider who will spend months on end away from his own family and new bride back in the Pacific Northwest. He first met his Belgian hosts as a teenage cyclo-cross rider looking for a place to stay during the Koksijde cyclo-cross World Cup, and he's been coming back ever since.
"They loved having us over, and since then they keep inviting me to come back," Owen says. "They're kind of like my second family. It's perfect.
"Having a family that lets me stay at their place, it feels like home just with that. And then the weather and the rain is very similar to where I live at home in Washington. It's maybe a little bit hillier at home, but I get pretty good access to hills going to Celles or Oudenaarde. I like it."
Farrar, now retired, was the last US WorldTour rider to make his home in Belgium during the race season, and it's probably not a coincidence that he also hailed from Washington, where winters can be Belgium-like cold and wet, and the landscape is awash with varying shades of green too numerous to count.
Investing in the future
While the familiar environment and comfortable family life are obvious draws for Owen, the 2016 Liège-Bastogne-Liège Espoirs winner also sees his cycling future on the narrow roads and cobbled climbs of his adopted country. And there's no time like the present to start gaining some local knowledge.
Axel Merckx, the former Belgian pro who runs the Axeon team where Owen raced through the U23 ranks, said Owen's base in Belgium is a good fit for the rider and his goals.
"I think it makes it easier for Logan to be central over there," said Merckx, who runs his US Pro Continental team from his own home in Canada. "He also has a Belgian family that hosted him there for years, so he will have support. Given where I think he wants to go with his career, it is good to train for the races where you plan on doing well. You create some habits and also know the landmarks to be ready for and in front for positioning."
Owen has an occasional Belgian training partner in 24-year-old Jonas Rickaert from the Pro Continental team Sport Vlaanderen-Baloise, but most of the time he trains solo. In his first Belgian Classic at Omloop het Nieuwsblad last month, he already saw the importance of knowing the roads and the races well.
"When I raced Omloop, just having trained around there - because I live close to Oudenaarde - it helped a lot, because we raced on a lot of the roads I've been training on. It was pretty cool. I knew the pothole that was going to be after the turn and all of that kind of stuff - just the little things that can kind of make a difference."
But even with that local knowledge, he learned the most from watching team leader Sep Vanmarcke, who finished the race on the podium with solo winner Michael Valgren (Astana) and runner-up Lukass Wisniowski (Team Sky).
"Over here it's more like a chess game," Owen says, comparing racing on the Belgian roads to racing on the wider streets in the US. "You have to plan ahead and always be thinking about if it's going to be a smaller road at this point, then you need to be at the front at that point.
"I actually saw that a lot with the team at Omloop, learning from Sep. He knew all these roads, and he'd say, 'OK, we need to be here at this time.' It made my job easy, because I just needed to make sure he's in position on these points, and I think I did a good job of that.
"But to see how important those points were in the race, too, if like you weren't in the front there, then say Philippe Gilbert attacks, and you can't follow him because you're behind everybody else and you're not going anywhere."
There are no more big Belgian Classics on Owen's immediate schedule - he'll line up later this week at Coppi e Bartali in Italy - but in the meantime he'll keep knocking out the training miles in his new neighbourhood, learning the nuances of the Belgian roads and benefiting from living in a country where cycling is anything but a niche sport.
"It's kind of cool," Owen says of training near his Belgian home. "I noticed that when I first got to Belgium for this season wearing the kit, people stare and watch as you go by. You can tell that people know what the kit is and that you're on a professional team.
"It's kind of cool to be riding around and people kind of respect you because you're at the top level of the sport. Every now and then you get juniors who will jump on my wheel for a while and then go off and do their own thing.
"Back home people have no idea," Owen continues. "Back in the US nobody really knows what it is and they don't care."
Now there's at least one American in Belgium who's hoping to give US cycling fans something to care about soon.
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