Chloé Dygert Owen competes at the Panamerican Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 7, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
In the short history of women’s cycling at the Olympic Games, only three American women have won multiple medals. Sarah Hammer won four silver medals in track cycling events at the 2012 and 2016 Games, and Kristin Armstrong is a three-time Olympic champion in road cycling’s time trial (2008-2016).
Only one has won medals on both the road and track: Rebecca Twigg won a silver medal in the road race at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984 and a bronze in the individual pursuit at the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
Chloé Dygert Owen, who’s inspired and mentored by both Hammer and Armstrong, could soon add her name to this short list.
Already an Olympic silver medalist in team pursuit at the Rio Games, the 22-year-old cyclist with an easy-going smile and quiet demeanor aims to win medals on both the track and road at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
While many cyclists have successfully competed on both surfaces, only one cyclist in recent memory has been successful in both at the same Olympic Games. In 2000, Dutch rider Leontien Zijlaard (nee van Moorsel) won Olympic gold medals in individual pursuit on the track, and the time trial and road race.
“There are going to be sacrifices,” Dygert Owen said to TeamUSA.org this week. “But for the most part, I’ve had these goals, and everybody knew what was going to come of these goals.”
On top of the physical challenge of racing on both the track and road, Dygert Owen knows that the Tokyo Games will be emotional for the American team pursuiters, a tight group of women who consider themselves family. Teammate Kelly Catlin, who was also on the team that won silver in Rio, as well as three consecutive world titles, committed suicide in March 2019.
“It’s definitely going to be tough,” Dygert Owen added. “But that’s where us being a family and us being as close as we are, it’s all going to come together, especially at the Olympics.”
Dygert Owen’s path to the 2020 Olympic road team begins next week in Yorkshire, England, host of the 2019 UCI Road World Championships. A top-five finish in the road race or time trial will earn her a nomination to the 2020 long team. A top-eight finish in the team pursuit (and a time below 4:22.64) at the 2020 track world championships in late February will put her on the track long team.
So where did this cycling wunderkind come from?
Dygert Owen hails from Brownsburg, Indiana, about a half-hour northwest of Indianapolis. Her dad, David Dygert, is a mountain biker and landscaper and built a dirt track in their backyard when Chloé was young. It started as a small BMX track and grew to a mile-long mountain bike trail.
As a kid, Chloé rode her bike for fun, chasing her older brother Gunner and neighborhood kids along the trail. But her main interests were basketball and running.
“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said. “Or Larry Bird. One of the two.”
Perhaps it was all that backyard cycling, or maybe it’s genetic. Whatever the reason, Dygert Owen has a big engine. At youth basketball camps, she would run laps and ask for more, Brownsburg High School coach Amy Brauman told the Indianapolis Star.
“She could just go, go, go,” said Brauman.
But injuries kept getting in the way. Dygert Owen tore the labrum in her shoulder when she was 16. The day before she was scheduled to have surgery, her dad took her for a bike ride. As they pedaled along, David saw something in his daughter and pestered her to try bike racing.
“Whatever,” thought Dygert Owen — the typical teenage response to parental enthusiasm.
But Dad would not let up. He even resorted to bribery. She could borrow Gunner’s aerodynamic Zipp wheels if she raced junior nationals, and he would buy her Oakley sunglasses if she won.
“Of course I went and used the Zipp wheels,” Dygert Owen recounted with a laugh. “Of course I had to have Oakleys, so I had to win the race.”
At 2013 junior nationals, she won the criterium and finished third in the road race and time trial.
Still, Dygert Owen wasn’t sold on cycling. She returned to the basketball court and, in 2014, tore the ACL in her knee. Cycling became her rehab.
She graduated from high school in January 2015 and dove into cycling full-time. That summer, while racing the Cascade Classic, a five-day stage race in Oregon, she caught the attention of Armstrong, who was gearing up to defend her back-to-back time trial Olympic gold medals in Rio.
Still a junior, Dygert Owen finished fourth in the Cascade Classic’s Stage 2 time trial and claimed the best young rider jersey.
“From then on, we started talking,” Dygert Owen said. “It was nice to spend that week and learn from her and really have her take me under her wing.”
Two months later, at the 2015 UCI Road World Championships in Richmond, Virginia, Dygert crushed the international competition in the junior road race and time trial, becoming the first American to win both events at the same world championships.
From that performance came an invitation. Dygert Owen had very little experience pedaling around a velodrome. But she was invited to try track cycling with the U.S. team pursuit squad. On her first day, Hammer motor-paced Dygert Owen around the velodrome, with its steep banked turns.
“She took me up to the rail the first day, it was the scariest thing of my life!” remembered Dygert Owen.
But the young cyclist, still only 18, quickly overcame her fears. A few months later, at the 2016 UCI Track World Championships, Hammer, Jennifer Valente, Catlin and Dygert Owen won the team pursuit title — the first ever for the United States. Then in Rio that August, these same women claimed an Olympic silver medal in team pursuit.
Until she reached Rio, Dygert Owen had no idea what the Olympic Games meant. The Games had not been on her radar when she was younger.
“It was an experience,” she said. “I’m glad to have the friends I have from that team. We’re always a family. I’m forever grateful for that experience.”
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Since she began focusing on cycling, Dygert wanted to follow in the footsteps — pedal strokes? — of Armstrong.
“I wanted to be a time trialist,” she stated.
The time trial is a race against the clock, without the tactics of the peloton or drafting coming into play. It shows a cyclist’s strength and ability to handle pain.
So after Rio — and after marrying fellow cyclist Logan Owen (who recently competed in his first Grand Tour, La Vuelta, in Spain for the Team EF Education First pro cycling team) — Dygert Owen turned her attention back to the road and began working with Armstrong full-time.
“We’re very different, but we both have the same kind of mentality,” said Dygert Owen. “I think that’s why we mesh and work so well together.”
Dygert Owen wanted to keep the track in her program too. The individual and team pursuits are track racing’s time trials. (But the individual pursuit is no longer on the Olympic program.)
“I never put a cap on what I can do because I want to do it all, it’s just a matter of what my body will allow me to do,” said Dygert Owen.
Over the next two years, her body took her on an emotional roller-coaster ride. On the track, she helped the U.S. women win two more team pursuit titles in 2017 and 2018. And in the individual pursuit, she literally rode away from the competition, becoming a two-time world champion in the event and twice sharing the podium with Catlin, who won bronze medals both years.
Hammer and Dygert Owen are the only American women to win two track world titles in the same year.
Dygert Owen also broke Hammer’s world record in the pursuit at the 2018 world championships. In the first round, she dropped the record by over two seconds (Hammer had retired the previous fall). In the final, Dygert Owen shaved off another 0.012 seconds. She currently holds the women’s pursuit world record at 3:20.060.
“I missed having Sarah there, it will never be the same without her,” she told the press after the final. “I am just thankful for FaceTime. We talked between my rides. She gave me my extra 0.012 seconds for the final.”
But injuries continued to plague Dygert Owen. She tore the labrum in her hip in 2017 and sat out most of the road cycling season. With only six weeks of training, she competed at the 2017 world championships, finishing an astonishing fourth in the time trial.
She was motivated for redemption in 2018. But only a couple months after shattering the pursuit world record, she crashed at the Tour of California and suffered a concussion that haunted her for months. Then a knee acted up. She was not able to go full-gas in training again until this past winter.
Dygert Owen returned slowly to the peloton this season. She and her teammates were also shocked by Catlin’s suicide. They realized that the best way to honor her is to continue to talk about her — and continue to win.
“That was one thing we wanted to make clear, we’re going to talk about Kelly,” said Dygert Owen. “If something’s funny and it reminds us of Kelly, we’re going to bring it up. She’s not going to be forgotten. That’s the easiest way for us to deal with it is to act like she’s still there. Of course there are moments where it’s sad. We can’t change it. We might as well make it as best as we can.”
Dygert Owen entered a few races this past spring and summer — including the Tour of California, where she faced her fears of the previous year’s crash — but was not back at full power until the Pan American Games Lima 2019 in early August. In Lima, she helped the U.S. win gold in the team pursuit, then won the time trial on the road, dedicating her win to Catlin, who had won the Pan Am time trial title in 2015.
“That’s my girl!! CHAMPION,” tweeted Hammer after Dygert Owen’s Pan Am win.
Two weeks later, Dygert Owen showed her full breadth as a cyclist. Outsprinting and out-climbing everyone, she dominated the inaugural women-only Colorado Classic, winning all four stages plus the best young rider, king of the mountain and best sprinter jerseys.
"I came into this race trying to make it as hard as possible, because if it wasn't hard enough [coach] Kristin [Armstrong] was going to make me go home and train even more,” she told reporters after wrapping up the race win.
Next week, Dygert Owen hopes to cap her pre-Olympic season with the world time trial title and perhaps a medal in the road race as well.
“I never go into a race wanting to get second place,” she said with a quiet laugh. “But in the road race, that could mean helping a teammate get to the line first, and that’s a win for me as well. If I have a shot to win, great. But I’m there to do what I’m told, and that’s probably to lead out our sprinter to the finish.”
Looking ahead to Tokyo, Dygert Owen has her sights set on qualifying for the team pursuit again, plus the time trial, and hopefully the road race as well.
The 2020 Olympic Games open Friday, July 24, with the women’s road race on Sunday, July 26; the time trial is three days later on Wednesday, July 29; and the team pursuit six days after that, on Aug. 4, 2020.
Dygert is quietly confident about the road ahead.
“After Rio, the CEO of USA Cycling said, ‘If Chloe races as long as Kristin Armstrong, she’ll be going to the next six Olympic Games,’” recounted Dygert Owen. “As long as my body stays healthy, I’m not too worried that I can accomplish what I want to accomplish in that time.”
A freelance writer based in Vermont, Peggy Shinn has covered five Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since its inception in 2008.