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Rider Profile: Climber Joe Dombrowski of Bontrager-Livestrong on the Cusp

When we last saw him, Joe Dombrowski was chasing eventual winner Robert Gesink on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of California. Dombrowski went on to finish fourth on the stage and twelfth overall. It was a big result for the young rider from Bontrager-Livestrong.

Now, the 21-year-old Dombrowski is racing the GiroBio in Italy. On Monday he won the first mountaintop finish of the race on the Monte Terminillo and took over the race lead. Though he subsequently lost the race lead when he flatted on the strade bianche, Dombrowski is looking ahead to Saturday's finish on the Passo di Gavia.

Who is Joe Dombrowski? Follow me below the fold to learn more about the latest climbing talent to come out of the United States. (Dombrowski is, by the way, no relation to cross racer Amy Dombroski.)

Dombrowski is from Virginia, and turned professional in 2010 with Trek-Livestrong. He has continued with the team, now Bontrager-Livestrong, ever since. Dombrowski rode his first race at age eighteen. It was a local mountain bike race, and he showed up in t-shirt and running shoes. A year later, he made the jump to the U23 ranks after friends brought him to the attention of Axel Merckx who manages the Trek-Livestrong U23 team.

In August 2010, Dombrowski joined Trek-Livestrong as a stagiaire and rode the Tour of Utah. The following spring, he began to snatch up results, especially when the road turned up. He finished third on the difficult Mogollon stage at the Tour of the Gila, a promising sign of his climbing talent. The Tour of the Gila serves as a proving ground for climbing talent here in the United States. It covers mountainous terrain through an arid, windy area of New Mexico. Levi Leipheimer has won it twice, and Jonathan Vaughters won it in 1995.

Dombrowski also travelled to Europe with the U.S. national team during the 2011 season. He quickly showed that he could match his U.S. results against the international U23 fields. Dombrowksi won a stage at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta, an U23 race in the mountainous Val d'Aosta region on the Italian-French border. He also finished second overall there. Along the way, he picked up some podium placings at the Ronde de l’Isard d’Ariège and Flèche du Sud stage races.

It’s never easy to predict the course of an U23 rider’s career. Sometimes, a young rider comes onto the scene, gets a few results, then drops off the back. Dombrowski’s first season in the U23 ranks suggested a promising future.

So far during the 2012 season, Dombrowski has shown every sign of confirming the promise of his early results. In May, Dombrowski returned to Tour of the Gila, and picked off a second place on the Mogollon. And this time around, Dombrowski kept himself in the battle for the overall classification, and finished second behind UnitedHealthcare’s Rory Sutherland.

Then came the Amgen Tour of California. Like many climbers, Dombrowski has some work to do yet in the time trial. He finished 45th in the Bakersfield time trial and dropped around five minutes to winner Dave Zabriskie. No matter, Dombrowski has time on his side. The long time trial put him out of the running for a high general classification finish, but the summit finish on Mount Baldy offered the young rider the perfect stage to show his talents.

As they approached the turn-off in Baldy village, Dombrowski looked around, and realized the field had diminished to fewer than a dozen riders. As the road steepened, Robert Gesink attacked in what became the race-winning move. Dombrowski tried to follow, but could not catch the wheel of the Dutch climber. Neither, it seemed, could anyone else. Gesink won the stage after overtaking Jhon Atapuma of Colombia. Another Colombian Fabio Duarte finished third.

Dombrowski finished fourth on the Mount Baldy stage behind proven pro tour talent Robert Gesink and a pair of Colombian climbers. Maybe more interesting is to look at just who he outrode on that climb. The riders behind Dombrowski included a solid list of talented climbers — Tom Danielson, Chris Horner, Levi Leipheimer, Tejay van Garderen, and Matt Busche. It was an impressive finish for any rider, but all the more so for a 21 year old.

Currently, Dombrowski is racing the GiroBio, more commonly known as the Baby Giro. It’s arguably the most prestigious stage race for the U23 riders. On Monday Dombrowski won the first mountaintop finish on the Monte Terminillo after he attacked from a small group with eight kilometers to race. Dombrowski crossed the line solo with a 50 second gap over second-placed rider Fabio Aru of Team Palazzago. Dombrowski’s ride on the Terminillo also put him in the leader’s jersey.

“I was not very sure of my condition,” Dombrowski said after the stage. “though I had a good race a few weeks ago at the Tour of California. At the finish I had a good margin, and I succeeded despite the fog.”

The following day, the wheels came off a bit for Dombrowski. The stage ran through the strade bianche in the Chianti region. Around 15 kilometer to go, Dombrowski suffered a flat tire and he could not make it back to the main field. He finished the day 3:10 behind stage winner and new race leader Ilnur Zakarin. Zakarin rode a long escape and finished over two minutes ahead of the main field.

On Saturday, the GiroBio has its second mountaintop finish of the race. The stage includes the Passo Tonale and finishes on the Passo di Gavia. Dombrowski said on Tuesday that he expects the Gavia to decide the overall. Though he is currently three minutes down in the overall, Dombrowski must surely be looking forward to the return to his favorite terrain. For a climber like him, the Gavia offers a chance to take all the marbles.

What’s next for Dombrowski? Certainly, he is starting to make a name for himself as a climber. After his ride on the Mount Baldy stage, it’s hard to imagine the pro teams are not taking a serious look at him. Like making the front group on a climb, some young riders make it to the pro ranks, and some do not. Talking about his teammates in a recent interview, Dombrowski said, “We’re sort of on the cusp. It’s really like in the next year or two, we are going to make the jump or we’re not. And we will all sort of go our separate ways.”

After this season’s results, Dombrowski looks well-positioned to make the jump. For now, he is a rider to watch any time the road turns up.

Want more? Follow @JoeDombro.