Matt Owen got into riding and racing mountain bikes in an unlikely fashion.
The now 17-year-old Rosman native raced four-wheelers up and down the east coast, traveling as far as Florida and New York. Regulations didn’t allow racers to pre-ride the course, which are anywhere from 3 to 5-mile loops. Most of the racers walked the course with their dads, but Matt decided that he was going to start pre-riding the courses on his bike, an unworthy bike that likely weighed half his own weight.
The more he pedaled, the more he liked it. After pre-riding the racecourses, he would come back to the start and tell his dad, Tommy, that he was going out for another lap. “I guess he was about 14 when he started doing that,” said Tommy Owen. “I would laugh and say ‘Ok, go for it!’”
The passion for four-wheeler racing fizzled, mostly due to the cost of maintenance and upgrades to the machines.
“It got to the point that whoever had the most money was going to win the race,” said Tommy. “That was pretty much everybody else. It’s a lot of money to keep those things up and make upgrades, plus the cost of travel and entry fees.”
Matt’s love for racing motorized sports hasn’t totally waned, but the mountain bike, and being surrounded by places like DuPont and Pisgah forests, sparked a new drive.
“I was on Ridgeline trail in DuPont when I fell in love with riding mountain bikes,” said Matt. “Whether or not it’s a bad day or a good day I always have a good time on that trail. I love that after a long day of riding, it’s a pretty easy trail to relax on, but you can still go really, really fast on it. Which can be dangerous, but that’s the best part for me.”
Saving his own money working with his dad on construction side jobs, Matt bought a $400 Specialized Hardrock and never looked back. Matt looks at that Hardrock now and can’t imagine riding the same bike. His go-to machine is now the Specialized Enduro 29, a long-legged beast of a bike that Matt has no problem racing in everything from short track to downhill races.
“When I got the Enduro it changed everything,” said Matt. “Going from my old bike to this one is like night and day. It just didn’t make sense how good the bike was. I still haven’t found its limits. Every ride, I think, how fast can I make this bike go? But I haven’t got there yet. I’m not fast enough for this bike.”
That curiosity in trying to understand the bike’s mechanics has instilled in him the desire to learn about the design and the engineering of mountain bikes. “I just stare at it,” said Matt. “I have my bikes at the foot of my bed and when I’m supposed to be asleep I look at the details, wondering how they work. The lines, the welds, they look crazy. I want to know how they work, and how the designers and engineers do what they do.”
Matt is particularly interested in suspension and wants to know what the next step in suspension engineering is and how he can be a part of it. He said the perfect job would be designing new bikes and riding them himself to work out design flaws.
Matt just received two scholarships, academic and athletic, to King University in Bristol, Tenn. where he plans to major in mathematics with a minor in physics and race on the cycling team.
“I’m a little nervous, it’s college and I’ll be moving away from home, but I know its going to be fun,” he said. “The coach expects me to travel to nationals my freshman year as one of their “A” gravity racers, so I’ll be busy!” He won’t be entering the race season without any notches in his belt though. Matt has raced in many of the regional races, including short track, cross-country, downhill and some cross racing.
“I started with the Carolina Youth Mountain Bike League (CYMBL) series,” he said. “My first CYMBL race was at Camp Gwynn Valley. All I knew about biking was just that I had a bike and I liked riding. I had a skateboard helmet, basketball shorts and tennis shoes.
“That was my first ever mountain bike race. There were quite few people there. I didn’t know everybody, I didn’t know who the other people were and there weren’t many people from Rosman: just me, Waylon McDevitt and Seth Parker.
“I had butterflies in my stomach, it was scary. I didn’t know what to do except pedal. I had pre-rode the course a couple of times to get my bearing. I was intimidated by the other guys. I had been riding for maybe three months and everyone else had been riding for years. I got second place and I felt pretty good about it. It made me want to get out ride more. That first year, even though the Hardrock was a little painful to ride at the time, I just wanted to ride.”
The Owens have supported Matt, driving him to races, events and helping him out to find the right gear.
Tina Owen, Matt’s mom, said that her son’s motivation has encouraged her to get out as well. “I’m just a little proud of him,” smiled Tina. “He has helped me get into shape also. I’m trying to lose weight and get fit. I love watching him and cheering him on. It’s hard to know what to say about Matthew and his cycling. I’m surprised he doesn’t pedal in his sleep. I love seeing him ride whether or not he wins or loses. There’s times when he wishes he could have done better, but win or lose he knows he can’t win them all and he loves it. I’m proud of that.”
Tina said that the Transylvania Youth Cycling team has given Matt a core group of friends and support, and the Owens are thankful for that program, as well as the cycling community in general. “Sycamore Cycles has really helped me out a lot,” said Matt. “Letting me borrow bikes, giving me advice, great deals and letting us know when there is a race coming up. Deals are a huge for us. I wreck sometimes (laughing), and parts are expensive.”
During the week, Matt and his dad usually jump on the Bike Farm Wednesday night ride, or the Sycamore Cycles Thursday night ride.
Tommy Owen now rides Matt’s old bike and is chasing his son up and down the trails. “The way some of these guys come down these trails its really dangerous,” said Tommy. “Now me, I have to slow down. I’m a little too old to get too crazy! But Matthew is after it. He’s always been good on anything with wheels. If it’s got wheels he can ride it somehow or another.