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Joe Dombrowski Interview: Going Uphill Fast

When the USA Pro Challenge hits the mountains this week, the black-kitted form of Joe Dombrowski will almost certainly be near the front of the bike race. Currently riding for the Bontrager-Livestrong U23 team, Dombrowski is fast becoming one of the top young climbers in the sport. This spring, he won the U23 Giro d’Italia with a furious attack on the Passo di Gavia and he finished fourth in some very select company on the Mount Baldy climb at the Amgen Tour of California.

An announcement about his future team is imminent. A talent like Dombrowski has does not go unnoticed for long. The long legged climber stands 6’2" and he looks like a stiff breeze could blow him straight over. "I’m skinny, I don’t weight a lot, and my power for how skinny I am, is pretty good," Dombrowski told me recently over the phone. "It translates to going uphill fast."

Currently 21 years old and riding his third full season on the road, Dombrowski does not yet know how far his talent can carry him. "At this point, I don’t know what my limits are. I’ll just assume there aren’t any."

Dombrowski got his start in cycling on fat tires. His first experience with racing came from the local mountain bike circuit. Then a local shop team convinced him to try road racing, and Dombrowski raced his first season on the road in 2010. “I did pretty well right off the bat,” he said. That is something of an understatement.

By the end of his first season on the road, Dombrowski was riding as a stagiaire for Bontrager-Livestrong. The team invited Dombrowski to race the 2010 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. “It was pretty shocking,” Dombrowski said of that first race. He had never raced at that level before then. Dombrowski was also coming into a team that had worked together throughout the season. “You show up, and you’re there, and you’re like, you just don’t want to mess up, you know?”

Despite Dombrowski’s first race jitters, he did not mess up. The team liked what they saw, and Dombrowski received an offer to join Bontrager-Livestrong for the 2011 season. He proved quick to reward the team’s confidence. In the spring at the Tour of the Gila, Dombrowski placed third on two of the race’s mountainous stages. The climb to Mogollon at the Tour of the Gila is fiendishly difficult, and the race has long served as a proving ground for climbers in the United States. Dombrowski finished third on the stage in his second full year of racing.

The 2011 season also sent Dombrowski to Europe for the first time. “It was eye-opening,” he said of racing against the international U23 fields. The intense positioning battles and the small roads offered a new experience for Dombrowski. “Everyone over there already had quite a lot of experience,” he said. “Just the speed of the peloton and the aggressiveness of the positioning, especially being on smaller roads in the United States, it made everything more aggressive.”

In Europe, he learned that he could not just use his fitness to get results, and like many riders new to road racing, Dombrowski struggled to thread his way through the field and find the front at the right moment. He may have found the racing a shock to the system, but Dombrowski still managed to score a handful of top five placings in his first European race, the Ronde d’Isard d’Ariège. He also finished third overall.

Plainly, Dombrowski is a quick learner. When he returned to Europe later in the season with the U.S. national team, he won a stage and finished second overall at the Giro della Valle d’Aosta. The Valle d’Aosta is a valley on the borders of France, Italy, and Switzerland, just down slope from Mount Blanc. The only way out is up. There are no flat roads, only long mountain passes into the high Alps. “There’s pretty much nothing but mountains,” said Dombrowski. The stage victory and second overall at the 2011 Valle d’Aosta were his first significant international results.

Though climbing has come easily for Dombrowski, the other half of the stage race equation has not. At the 2011 Tour of the Gila, the time trial doomed his chances for a high placing in the overall. “I lost a ton of time in the time trial,” he said. Over the past winter, Dombrowski has gone to work on the discipline, and he was happy to see some signs of improvement. This year at the Tour of the Gila, he finished third on the time trial stage, rode strongly through the mountain stages, and scored second overall.

At the 2012 Amgen Tour of California, the flat, windy Bakersfield time trial proved less favorable, despite his winter’s efforts. “I knew the California time trial course wasn’t as suited to me as the Gila one,” he said. “It was pretty much dead flat, and there were some fast downhills where being a little heavier would definitely help,” he said. Still, Dombrowski was not overly disappointed. He approached California with an open mind and the goal of learning as much as possible. “I was expecting to go a little better, [but] I wasn’t really disappointed either,” he said. “I was there to learn and just to enjoy the experience.”

While the time trial in California may not have gone as he hoped, Dombrowski had his revenge. On the terrain he loves best, the difficult climb to Mount Baldy, Dombrowski showed just how fast his talent is developing. “The guys definitely helped me out on that stage, because I wanted to go for a result. I didn’t really know what was possible,” he said. “It ended up, I was riding up there with some big names.” He rode to a fourth place finish on the stage ahead of riders like Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and Tejay van Garderen. Sometimes a sign of a rider’s talent is not how he places, but who finishes behind him.

From the Amgen Tour of California, Dombrowski headed to Italy for the U23 Giro d’Italia. Together with the Tour de l’Avenir, the Italian stage race is one of the proving grounds for young riders, especially climbers like Dombrowski. The Italians do not mess around when it comes to mountains. This year’s edition of the “Baby Giro” included a stage finish on the Terminillo and a finish on the Passo di Gavia by way of the Passo Tonale.

Dombrowski staked his claim early. On the climb to Terminillo, Dombrowski attacked, won the stage and took the pink jersey of race leader. The path to victory in a stage race never does run exactly smoothly, and while racing through the Chianti region on the strade bianche, Dombrowski suffered a flat tire in the final ten kilometers of the stage. “I was up there in the front group and making all the splits and positioned well,” he said. He flatted on the final sector of strade bianche, and the team car was behind him. Dombrowski finished three minutes down on the stage winner and one minute behind the other race favorites.

“It was definitely a little bit of a blow,” he said. “You have the emotional high of winning the stage the day before and you’re in the pink jersey, and there’s all the excitement that comes along with that.” To flat out of the race lead was a disappointment for Dombrowski, but it also offered a tactical opportunity. Rather than riding in defense of the jersey, he could pick his moment to attack.

That moment came with twelve kilometers to race on the Passo di Gavia. Dombrowski started the day three minutes behind the race leader. “I knew I had to go early,” he said. “I kind of looked at it, like, I’ve already won a stage. It’s all or nothing. I’m going to try to win the overall.”

The stage included five climbs and around 5500 meters of climbing. After the Tonale, Dombrowski still had teammate Larry Warbasse, now a stagiaire with BMC Racing Team. As they began the Gavia climb, Warbasse went to the front and whittled the group down to fewer than five riders. “[It was the] biggest day I’ve ever had on the bike,” said Warbasse later on Twitter. “[I] rode as hard as I could at the foot of the Gavia for Joe.”

When Warbasse swung off, Dombrowski attacked. He needed 25 seconds at the finish over Fabio Aru, who set off in pursuit of Dombrowski. The two rode a drag race up the switchbacking road to the summit of the Gavia. “The moto came up to me, and told me I had 35 seconds,” said Dombrowski. “Eventually, that went up to 45 seconds, and then it just kind of stuck there.”

For the next eight kilometers, the two riders remained locked together in a hand-to-hand battle. “Really, it was pretty awful,” said Dombrowski. “Like one switchback below, I could see him coming, and the gap would never go up or down. If I eased up at all, and I lost any time, that was the race.”

It was the hardest hour of racing Dombrowski had yet ridden in his young career. He rode much of the climb without his team car which flatted at the base of the climb. It was a surreal surprise to see the Dutch car come up behind him. “And then, [I see] Marcello our director, like, halfway out of the back window, just going nuts. ‘You’re in the jersey by 15 seconds, you’re going to win the Giro, you have to keep going.’” The car followed Dombrowski to the top, honking the horn all the way.

At the finish, Dombrowski crossed the line solo to take his second stage victory of the Giro. He also successfully held off the challenge from Aru and won the overall by 25 seconds. “You know, when you can win like that, and you see it, and you know it’s possible, you can kind of almost do anything,” he said of his raid on the Gavia.

After his successful spring, speculation about Dombrowski’s future heated up, and the young American is due to announce his new team next week. He said he had “a lot of opportunities.” For any rider, it is an important step to move from the U23 ranks to a professional team. “I think the step from going from U23 to neo-pro is probably the most important team decision you’re going to make in your career,” said Dombrowski. “At this stage, where I’m still learning and I’m still developing, I think it’s important to go to a team that respects that and gives me a good program where I can learn.”

In the long run, Dombrowski wants to develop into the most complete rider he can. “I think everyone pretty much knows that I can go uphill fast,” he said. “I want to be able to do it all.” Dombrowski admits that he is not likely to win a bunch sprint any time soon. “But I don’t want to be a guy who is notorious for having weaknesses,” he said. Dombrowski wants to be a guy who is not only known as a big talent but also is capable of spinning that talent into race wins.

For now, Dombrowski is racing the USA Pro Challenge which passes through the high mountains of Colorado. He is fresh off a fourth place overall at the recent Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah where he also won the Best Young Rider prize in Utah.

At his best, Dombrowski is talented enough to challenge the top riders in the sport, but still young enough to be embarrassed by the podium kisses that come with his successes. When the road tilts toward the sky in Colorado as it surely will, Dombrowski will be right there at the front of the bike race, his long legs turning the wheels over, and propelling him ever closer to the big victory of his dreams.

Photos by Christopher See.