If there was a gold medal offered for heart, resilience and determination from Saturday's junior men's cyclo-cross world championship few would dispute that American Logan Owen would be the recipient. The eight-time US junior 'cross champion had carefully crafted his season so as to be at his physical and mental peak for a 40-minute slugfest against Dutch star Mathieu van der Poel, but circumstances within both the opening minute and closing laps culminated in heartbreak for the 17-year-old American.
Ranked second in the world and a third place finisher in this season's World Cup, Owen was a favourite in his own right for a medal on home soil, but he finished fourth, four seconds shy of bronze medalist Adam Toupalik (Czech Republic).
"It's really disappointing because I know I'm so much better than that," said Owen. "It's not what I wanted but you can't do anything about it."
A near false start followed by a crash in the opening minute put Owen in a deep hole, but he'd clawed his way to a podium finish in the second World Cup round in Plzen, Czech Republic after being dealt a similar hand in the opening seconds.
"At the end of the red lights I thought the last red light was the green one, so I was getting ready for it," said Owen of his start line miscue. "And as soon as I saw it appear I didn't look at the color and I went, then stuttered. So I stopped, then it went green and I got swarmed.
"I was mid-pack and then moved up on the [first] straightaway, just powered it, got to like fifth place behind the Belgians. Then some German kid came up on the inside and took me out in the corner down there. I moved back to mid-pack then I had to battle from about 20th to the group racing for third."
Riding with a bloodied left knee from his crash with Germany's Marco König and roaring along amidst a thunderous wall of sound from the partisan crowd at Eva Bandman Park, Owen proceeded to move back into medal contention after two remarkable laps. While van der Poel and Dutch teammate Martijn Budding had a lock on gold and silver, with two laps to go Owen made contact with the riders vying for third place: Belgium's Yannick Peeters and Nicolas Cleppe plus the Czech Republic's Adam Toupalik.
Then disaster struck.
"The chain problem started with about one and a half to go in the woods," said Owen. "My chain came off and I had get off and unwrap it. That's when all the Belgians and the Czech kid got about 10 seconds on me. I pulled it back in one lap, got right back up there, but the next thing I know the Czech kid had attacked the Belgian kid. I dropped the Belgian kid and was just chasing the entire last half lap.
"I was closing it in, closing it in, and I just ran out of room. If we had one more lap I think things would have been different, but it was just too many things for me to overcome today and I did my best with what I had.
"It's kind of like the Seahawks game," added the Washington native. "They come back, get really close to winning, and winning for me at this point was third place, and have it taken away right at the end."
Nonetheless, competing in a historic cyclo-cross world championship on home soil was a memorable experience for Owen.
"I couldn't hear myself think," said Owen of the crowd noise. "It was great having everyone out there. It was just so motivating. If I didn't have that crowd here I don't think I could have done what I did today."
"I'm proud of him," Marc Gullickson, USA Cycling's Mountain Bike & Cyclo-cross Program Director, told Cyclingnews. "He rode well and he rode his heart out. He put himself in a hole right there at the start. I've seen him do that before in Plzen when he gifted those guys a minute at the start and still got third. In this case I had confidence he'd come back, and he did, but by the time he got back to those two Belgian guys it was so late in the race. Then he dropped his chain and it's tough to come back from a mishap like that at the end of a world championship.
"He'll learn from it, he's a super-tough guy and he'll be back. It's too bad he missed his opportunity here."
The sense of disappointment was palpable in Owen as he fielded questions on the race course, a short distance past the finish line, wondering what might have been.
"I'm happy with third place in the World Cup overall, that's pretty cool, but I really wanted a podium here at Worlds. I feel like I let a lot of people down. I'll come back next year even stronger."