After a busy spring, and a rest, the young American heads back to Europe for Team Sky.
By Daniel McMahon
Joe Dombrowski turned 21 just a week ago, but he’s already riding on the world’s No. 1 pro cycling team, Sky, and enjoying a career that most riders only dream of. Riding as an amateur last year for the Trek-Livestrong development team, he put in two extraordinary performances that caught the attention of WorldTour teams. The first was on the queen stage of the Tour of California, on Mount Baldy, where he rode Levi Leipheimer, Tejay van Garderen, Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, and Dave Zabriskie off his wheel to finish fourth behind stage winner and overall champion Robert Gesink. The second was winning the amateur Tour of Italy, or Girobio, where he was triumphant on the super-tough Gavia stage. Dombrowski was already known domestically a talented climber, but in those two races he showed his rare ability to the world. After signing with Sky at the end of last season, he moved to Nice, France.
cyclingreporter spoke with Dombrowski by telephone on Thursday afternoon, the day before he was to fly back to Nice after being home in Virginia for a month. During the interview, Dombrowski was watching stage five of the Tour of California on TV. It was the same day that his Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins lost further time to his rivals in the Giro d’Italia. (On Friday Wiggins withdrew from the race because of illness.)
You’re halfway through your first season as a pro. How’s it been going?
Overall it’s been good. A big learning experience, on the bike and off. I was talking to Dave Brailsford in the fall and he stressed to me how important it would be to get settled in to living in Nice and making myself comfortable there. I guess I kind of disregarded it a bit. When I moved over there in January, just getting everything set up and figuring out how to train well and to recover over there was a bigger challenge than I’d anticipated. The team was helpful in that, and they’re setting up a training base in the Nice area—because there are a number of other riders on the team in Nice and Monaco—but at first it was tough for me.
Then on the bike, jumping into some of the WorldTour stage races, it was eye-opening at times. The speed of the races and the physical demands weren’t so much what I found to be a real struggle, but rather some of the technical aspects, the positioning and descending. The guys at the top level are all really good at that. Just learning how to get better at that was a big part of the learning curve this spring. But I feel like overall I’ve come out of it better at those aspects, and with a bit better grasp of living in Europe.
You know, I didn’t do a whole lot of road racing before I turned pro, and I didn’t spend a whole lot of time in Europe, so that was a bit of a shock for me.
Off the bike, what was challenging exactly? Shopping? Getting laundry done?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s all the little things that you take for granted when you’re at home in the U.S. You know how everything works. I first got there and I didn’t have any Internet or TV. Without Internet you’re like, how do I figure out where things are? I speak almost no French—which doesn’t help the situation! You spend so much time trying to get that stuff figured out that at first it was a distraction from my training and recovery, and it was a stressor.
You know, I went to Chipotle after my ride today and I was just thinking, I would kill to have a Chipotle in Nice so I could just cruise back into town and get my burrito on the way home and have it for lunch!
I’ve really enjoyed getting to do some of these big races, but in Nice the roads are incredible, so one thing I’ve really enjoyed in training is exploring some of the roads in the area. The riding is amazing.
Have you gone up the Madone yet?
Yeah, a few times now. It’s a nice one.
It’s not Chipotle, but have you tried the socca in Nice?
I have—it’s pretty good!
Recap your season for us so far.
I started back in February, and since then I’ve done the Tour of Oman, Tirreno-Adriatico, Critérium International, Tour du Pays Basque, and Giro del Trentino. So I had done five stage races before the end of April. Toward the end of April, I came home and had a little break from racing. I haven’t raced in three weeks or so now, but I’ve put in a solid training block. I head back to Europe tomorrow [Friday] and will be starting up again with Bayern-Rundfahrt next week, then Tour de Suisse, and after that we’re not sure.
The first week back home I was just recovering and chilling out. I was on the bike every day but recovering from the first block of racing. Since then I’ve had two to three solid weeks. Pretty good volume and some good efforts. I’ve been lucky to have some of the local guys like Ben King and Jeremiah Bishop in the area. Usually when we’re all at home we link up for some good training rides on the home roads.
We’re in the second week of the Giro, a race you were supposed to do. What happened?
I had an off-and-on knee problem throughout the year, and one concern was the durability of that over the course of a three-week race, since I’ve had problems with it after a weeklong race. Another thing is that the first grand tour for neo-pros is always a big challenge. With Sky going to try to win the GC, I think being part of the team was maybe a little bit higher stress than what I needed in my first year. It might be different if, say, last year was my first year, and with the team that Sky had sent to the Giro, then maybe it would’ve been a good thing. But in this first year it would be a big ask and a lot pressure to be a part of a team like that.
Do you know what’s wrong with the knee?
We still don’t know exactly what it is. It’s been off and on. It started back in January. Some of it may have to do with switching bikes and equipment and all that, which I think we’ve pretty much got sorted out now. Some of it is a lot of volume in training, and I’ve certainly raced a lot more than I had raced at this point last year. And I’ve definitely been doing harder races. Also in training, I’ve seen a dramatic increase in volume there. So I think there are a few factors.
You missed the Giro, but what about racing the Vuelta?
That’s one thing that’s being talked about now. The original plan, from very early on, included the Giro and then having a bit mellower latter half of the season. So initially the plan was Colorado [USA Pro Challenge]. They see the point in me doing a grand tour, but then again I’m still pretty young and I have plenty of time for that, so it may be that I still go ahead and do Colorado. I think they know I’ve certainly enjoyed coming back to the U.S. and racing at a race I’ve done before, and being in the States for a bit.
Would you be ready to lead Sky, the world’s No. 1 team, in Colorado?
We’ll see. Obviously it’s hard in a team like this to get a lot of opportunities as a young guy. I mean, that’s fine with me. I look at these first two years as more of a learning opportunity. But that being said, where it falls in the calendar [in August], being after the Giro, after the Tour, and knowing that guys who are doing the Vuelta won’t be doing Colorado … depending on who they send, I guess there would a potential for a leadership role. Maybe not an out-and-out leader of the team, but maybe getting a little bit of a leash to go for it a bit.
This year’s USA Pro Challenge features steeper climbs than those in the first two editions. Those would really suit you.
Yeah, for sure. Looking at Colorado last year, I thought it was well put together. They had a lot of short finishing climbs that made it exciting, and that made the time gaps pretty tight. So if you wanted to win the GC you really had to go for it. On every one of those stages you had to chase five seconds here, 10 seconds there. And it came down to the last time trial. But personally, the thing I would have liked to see, and what I think some other people would have liked to see, is a true mountaintop finish. The finish on Flagstaff is great, especially being there in Boulder with the cycling fan base that’s there. The turnout was incredible. I think it was a really nice stage. But I would like to see a bit more significant climb on maybe one of the stages. And it sounds like one of the stages—I think the one into Breckenridge—is a road stage with a pretty significant climb not too far from the finish. And then it looks like they’re bringing back the Vail time trial. So in that sense I guess that suits me as it’s an uphill TT.
Have you been watching the Tour of California?
Yeah, I’m watching it right now actually.
Did you watch the first uphill finish, on stage two?
Yeah, you know, I was watching it, and it kind of made me wish I was in California. Like I was saying about Colorado, there’s a draw to racing at home and doing the races in front of the U.S. fans. I was actually really surprised on the Tramway climb. Maybe I’m kind of ignorant, but I had never heard of [Janier] Acevedo before, and he was really impressive on that climb. I don’t know what his TT is like, but Tejay is obviously a really strong time trialist. Michael Rogers also did OK on the Tramway climb, and he’s a good time trialist. In terms of the climbing, Acevedo is super strong, maybe the strongest guy in the race.
What’s interested you most about the Giro so far?
I thought it was an interesting day on the first mountain finish, when Urán won. Urán is the team leader now. I hope that Rigoberto can fill in that role. Hopefully they can piece something together. He’s definitely capable of podium, and possibly even winning.
With Bradley, it looks like it has been things beyond him. I obviously haven’t been there at the race, and I don’t know what all is behind it. I read what’s in the press like everyone else does. It sounds like a chest infection. I had a chest infection this spring and we had some rainy days racing, so it just sucks. It’s not that I was the GC leader, so it didn’t matter that I lost time. But it can really hamper your performance.
That’s obviously disappointing. Everyone on the team was pulling for him to win the Giro this year. But at the same time, that’s bike racing. Sometimes things go your way, sometimes not. You look at his season last year, it was perfect almost. But then things that maybe are beyond your control also are working against you.
Looking ahead to the Tour de France, there have been reports of infighting between Wiggins and Chris Froome for the leadership role. What do you make of it?
To be honest, I haven’t heard anything about it from within the team. The only thing I’ve ever seen is what I read on Cyclingnews. And I think the media loves to sort of create, you know, drama. It sells, so that’s what they write. Whether that’s as much of an issue as the media has played it up to be, I don’t know. But personally, from what I’ve seen, they seem to get along fine.
What’s it like to be a neo-pro on a team that’s as deep as Sky? It has so many riders who could be GC leaders on other squads.
I look at it as a positive. I have all these guys to learn from. I can learn from the best. Learn good habits in racing and in training, soak up all the experience these guys have. It’s tough when you have so many good guys. It’s a balance. You look at their Giro team. They’ve got Bradley, Dario [Cataldo], Rigo [Rigoberto Urán], and Sergio [Henao]. Half the team has done, or could do, a GC ride in the Giro on another team. They’ve been sacrificing their own chances in the name of Bradley, and now Rigo. They’ve done a good job of it. For me I look at it as a positive.
On Twitter: @JoeDombro