Before the 2017 season started, Logan Owen (Axeon Hagens Berman) told Cyclingnews he was on a mission to land a WorldTour contract by the end of what will be his final year in the under-23 ranks. The 2016 U23 Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner took his first step toward achieving that goal Saturday in Portugal during stage 4 of the Volta ao Alentejo, his team's first race of the season.
Owen outkicked race leader Carlos Barbero (Movistar) for the win at the end of a difficult 175.2-km stage that finished with a fast downhill run into the town of Alcácer do Sal and then a final punchy climb over the last kilometre.
"I wasn't expecting to win this early, but it's a good start to the season and hopefully we can build off of it," Owen told Cyclingnews Monday by phone from Portugal. "It's definitely a good way to start the year. It relieves myself of some pressure because I got another good win."
Owen relied on his teammates to keep him relaxed and out of trouble during the stage before they went to front and pulled back a breakaway that had survived dangerously late into the day.
Rally Cycling's Rob Britton and Evan Huffman were in the all-day breakaway with two other riders, putting serious pressure on the Movistar-led chase. The Rally pair eventually dropped their breakaway companions and stretched the field even further, holding off the chase until just two kilometres remained.
"They stayed away for awhile, and we decided to go to the front because it was looking like it was going to be close coming back together," Owen said. "Movistar was a little bit tired and we didn't really know if they could bring it back, so the boys went flat out and brought it back just before we got to the town."
From there, Owen surfed wheels as the peloton raced headlong through Alcácer do Sal toward the bottom of the finishing climb, where he found himself on the wheel of Barbero and one of the Spaniard's Movistar teammates. A Gazprom-RusVelo rider hit out first, and the others hesitated for a second.
"There was a little bit of watching each other, then the Movistar rider in front of Barbero led him out," Owen said. "I fought to stay on his wheel. He went from about 200 metres to go. The wind was coming from the left so I tried to go on the right. He kind of shut the door on the barriers, so I had to slow down and come back around, then kick again on the other side.
"It was kind of crazy," Owen said. "I didn't really think I was going to be able to come around him and win."
Spreading the wealth
Owen's win was the top stage result for Axeon Hagen's Berman, which also won the Alentejo team classification for the second consecutive year after placing four riders in the top 11 of the general classification.
Irish U23 time trial champion Eddie Dunbar was best-placed overall for Axeon Hagens Berman in fifth, while Owen was sixth. Jhonatan Narvaez, the Ecuadorian U23 time trial champion was 10th, and American Adrien Costa was 11th.
British national criterium champion Chris Lawless scored a pair of runner-up stage finishes, both of them to Colombia's Juan Sebastian Molano (Manzana Postobón), winner of Stages 3 and 5.
"We have just as strong, if not a stronger group of guys this year than we did last year, so I think we'll have a lot more success this year," Owen said.
Axeon Hagens Berman Sport Director Koos Moerenhout agreed, saying that winning the team prize in the first race out of the gate was a good sign so early in the season.
"It shows you are not depending on one or two riders," he said. "Every day, many riders needed to be with the best guys. Every day, we battled for the win and we succeeded once. It is also proof that in depth we are doing well. The race may have been decided in bunch sprints - which is OK for us - but we have many riders who can also do well themselves when the finishes are going up."
'I'm on the right track'
For Owen, the season will continue with Axeon Hagens Berman on March 5 at the Classica da Arrabida, a one-day race in Portugal.
"I've actually never done that race, but it finishes up a 2-km climb, so it seems like it would be another good race for me," he said. "Basically our entire team is pretty good at a finish like that, so I think it will be a good race for us as a whole. Hopefully we can get another win and keep it rolling."
After Arrabida, Owen will return home to the Pacific Northwest for a short break and a chance to compete in some local road races. He'll return to Europe with the USA Cycling national team for U23 Gent-Wevelgem on March 26 and U23 Tour of Flanders on April 8, all with an eye toward attempting a repeat at U23 Liège later in the month.
Now, with his win last week in Portugal, Owen will head into the meat of his spring season with a nice confidence booster and having already taken an important step toward proving he's got what it takes to compete at the top level.
"I've shown that I can win against WorldTour teams more than once now, and hopefully that will get some attention, especially against somebody like Barbero," Owen said, referring to his win in Alentejo and his stage win at the 2015 Tour of Utah, a 2.HC race.
"He's pretty good. He's kind of a specialist in that kind of finish as well, so to be able to beat him, and he's on a WorldTour team, it shows that I'm on the right track."