"Wicked Icy." This is how American Amy Dombroski described the World Championship cyclocross race in Tabor. The race turned out to be a frustrating experience, thanks to "treacherous" conditions. "I wasn’t happy with it," she told me in an interview last week. The Tabor slip-and-slide session came after two months of adventuring in Europe for Dombroski. She sampled Marmite, rode the track at Roubaix, and locked her bike in a shed for four days after a snow-induced break-down in England.
Want to see the future of U.S. women’s cyclocross? All signs suggest that Amy Dombroski will figure prominently. Already, the 22 year old is a three-time U23 national champion in cyclocross. Dombroski also holds U23 national titles on the road and mountain bike. This coming season, she will ride her first season on the mountain bike with the powerhouse women’s Luna team.
Dombroski grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Northern Vermont and competed in downhill skiing through the end of high school. She moved to Colorado to continue racing until a knee injury interrupted her career. The injury sent her to Boulder to recover, and she fell in love with the mountain town. "They have a sun!" exclaimed the New Englander, accustomed to dark winters. The turn to bike racing happened by accident. "After a long time out of competition, I was going crazy," she said, and her brother, who raced bikes, suggested she try it out. It only took one race, "I was hooked." For the past three seasons, she has focused her energies on bike racing, and specifically cyclocross. In December 2009, she reached the podium in the elite national championship in Bend, her highest finish yet at elite nationals.
After nationals, Dombroski headed directly to Europe. At the outset, she was not certain she was going to ride the Worlds race this year, and in fact, she bought a return ticket dated 2 January, over a month before Worlds. In part, her uncertainty resulted from the terms of her new contract with Luna. The contract went into effect on 1 January, and she was unsure that the team would allow her to compete. As it happened, Luna proved supportive, which opened the way for Dombroski to extend her trip. Still, her path to Worlds did not run especially smoothly.
When she arrived in Belgium in December, Dombroski promptly got sick. Traveling is a "gumball machine of germs," as she put it. She spent about ten days in Belgium before heading to England to stay with Simon Burney from Schlamm Clothing, who sponsored her this season. Her visit to England coincided with a massive snow storm that shut down most of the country for nearly a week. "England just got pummeled in snow," she recalled.
At first, Dombroski tried to train through the mayhem, but even badass New Englanders have their limits. "I cracked." One day after an hour of riding, she was done. "I’m not going to pedal anymore," she decided, and she pulled out her phone to call for a ride back to the house. Adding insult to injury, she discovered while standing there by the side of the road in the snow that her phone did not work in England. Resisting the overwhelming urge to hurl the bike into the nearest snow drift, she climbed back on the bike and headed home.
Once back at the house, she locked her bike in the shed out of sight. She also stuffed her clothes and shoes under the bed. "For four days, I did nothing. I didn’t ride. I couldn’t really go anywhere, because the car was shit in the snow," she recounted. One day to break the monotony, she went for a two hour run that included a pub stop for hot tea. And she seriously considered packing her bags and heading home. "On the fifth day, it got better. The sun came out finally." Dombroski unlocked the bike, pulled her clothes out from under the bed, and decided that maybe bike riding was not so bad after all.
That weekend, she traveled to Belgium to race the Roubaix World Cup. The race reignited her enthusiasm. She described her performance as "not great" and her preparation as "sub-optimal." "Two hour runs aren’t exactly the ideal training for cyclocross," she commented ruefully. But riding the Roubaix track was amazing. "I’d never ridden on the track, it was my first time," she said.
Fired up by her return to the atmosphere of big-time cross, Dombroski headed to Hoogerheide for the next World Cup in much better spirits. "I was excited to race again, especially at a venue I recognized." Dombroski rode Hoogerheide during her first trip to Worlds in 2008. "It’s awesome," she said of racing in the Netherlands where the course is lined with ‘cross fanatics. "It’s like hockey in Canada or football in the U.S." she said of the fans. At ‘cross races in the United States, most of the fans ride bikes, but in Belgium and the Netherlands, everyone comes out. "Guys are smoking cigars in your face, they have giant beer bellies. They don’t ride bikes at all," she said of the crowds. "It’s exhilarating!" At Hoogerheide, Dombroski rode to a ninth place finish, her highest at a World Cup.
The World’s race in Tabor proved more frustrating. The conditions were "mysterious" and constantly changing as the snow melted and re-froze throughout the day. Each night, the temperature would drop well below freezing and turn the half-melted snow into ice. "Early in the race, it was snowy and grippy, but as everyone braked on it, it got slippery," Dombroski explained. "There was black ice everywhere. You’d lose traction and fall down before you could even get a foot out," she said. The course also included constant u-turns which made the icy conditions more difficult to handle. Of the favorites, only winner Marianne Vos and second-placed Hanka Kupfernagel avoided crashing.
Going into the race, Dombroski knew she was going to crash. "You know you’re going down, so the key was to keep your cool and don’t panic," and she said she mostly succeeded. All the same, "I wasn’t happy with it," she said of the race. "Some laps, I was totally killing it, other times, I couldn’t get out of my own way." Watching the men’s race helped put things into perspective. "I was thinking, I’m such a rookie. Then I saw Sven Nijs, he’s like the best cross-racer in the world, slide out and face plant." Nijs finished third after crashing repeatedly in the icy conditions. "There was just no way to prepare for a race like that," Dombroski concluded.
At 22 years old, Dombroski has time. This year’s trip to Europe was all about gaining experience. She had never spent such a long stretch in Europe before this trip and she was not sure how it would go. In what turned out to be the best part of the trip, she found the experience invigorating. "I get a lot from new experiences, new cultures, new foods," she noted. She got "hooked on tea" and did not drink coffee for two months. She also discovered Marmite, which is a yeasty, salty spread like Vegemite, and Hob-Nobs, a tasty chocolate-covered cracker.
For some American riders, long stretches of time in Europe prove impossible and their careers are shaped by the need to return to the United States at regular intervals. Road-racer Chris Horner, for one, struggled with his first season in Europe, and returned to race full time in the United States. "I was excited to find out that I could do that," said Dombroski of her long stay in Europe. Over the long term, Dombroski is hoping to secure support to race a full European season of cyclocross. "You get such a long season there, from August to January," she said. And of course, there’s the crazed, ‘cross-loving fans.
More immediately, Dombroski will race for Luna on the mountain bike this season. The switch to mountain bike racing comes after two years on the road with Webcor Builders. Looking back on her experience with Webcor, she said, "the first year was great, everything was new. I loved my team-mates, the team was great." The second season went well, too, but sponsorship troubles led to cancellations for women’s races around the United States. The cancelled races opened up gaps in the calender, and Dombroski started doing a few local mountain bike races in Colorado to keep her fitness rolling. "I’d come in from training rides on the mountain bike with this shit-grin on my face. I was just having tons of fun with it," she said. The lure of the dirt began to tempt her away from road racing.
A trip to nationals last summer turned fun into victory. "I already had two U23 titles, so I figured I’d try to get one more," Dombroski explained of her U23 national mountain bike championship victory. "The race was an hour from my house in Boulder, so I figured, why not." She won the race and added to her growing collection of national championship jerseys. Dombroski also travelled to Australia for the U23 world championship. "That course scared the living daylights out of me. I kept thinking we were on the downhill course, there were so many steep drops," she said of the trip Down Under. She finished the race, her first international mountain bike race, in the top twenty.
In August, she faced a decision between continuing on the road with Webcor or finding sponsorship to race mountain bikes. She decided to turn down the offer with Webcor, though she had not yet secured another contract. "It was a gamble," she said of the nervous waiting period that lasted until October. But by then, Dombroski knew she really wanted to give mountain bike racing a shot, so she held out. Her reward was a deal with Luna, one of the biggest teams in the women’s mountain bike scene. Her race plan remains undecided for now, but she will likely race mostly on the American circuit for the coming year.
Still, "cyclocross is where my heart is." Dombroski admitted that after a season of mountain bike racing, she might change her mind. But for now, cyclocross is "the main focus." The best part of ‘cross racing is "the atmosphere." "You go to a road race, and you’re on the start line and everyone’s stone-faced. I mean, chill out! It’s not like any of us are making any money," she said of the road. Cyclocross has a partying atmosphere and Dombroski described the other women as "a fun group to race with." She also looks up to U.S. Cyclocross champion Tim Johnson, a rider she described as "all class."
In cyclocross, the races are "hard and short," and Dombroski enjoys the variety in the training. "It’s not just sitting on your bike for six hours," she explains. She also likes messing with the bike, fine-tuning tire pressure and learning what works in particular conditions. The best is when it’s fast and the dirt is grippy. "You can rail the corners," she explained.
Variety is a recurring theme with Dombroski. She likes to mix up her training and she likes ‘cross races with a little of everything. Ticking off her favorite things she counted, "hills, for sure. Sand is alright, but not huge stretches. I like running. Running is good." "Deep peanut-buttery mud, I need to get better at that," she said. Most of all, "I like fast courses. I like to go fast."
Fast is a good thing when it comes to bike racing. Dombroski is steadily making her way up the ranks, but she still has a ways to go before she can challenge three-time World Champion Marianne Vos, who is also currently 22 years old. Vos finished just over three minutes ahead of Dombroski in Tabor. With only a few European races in her legs so far, Dombroski will likely improve over the coming seasons, but much depends on whether she can find a sponsor to support a full season of European racing. In the meantime, watch for her out playing in the dirt with a shit-grin on her face. No doubt she will be going fast.
Story by Jen See. Photos are copyright Christopher See, and are used with permission. Thanks big bro!