In the heartland of the American West, a new cycling hero has emerged. Welcome to the pantheon of great American climbers, Joe Dombrowski!
It happened like so many other legends are born, in the wake of tragedy. Dombrowski inherited team leadership from his departed captain, Tom Danielson, who got benched for a doping violation (confirmation pending). Like when Wally Pipp had to take a day off and a kid named Gehrig took over at first base for the Yankees. Just like that.
OK, let's not go putting Dombroski on a pedestal yet, but the Tour of Utah produced about as intriguing a result as possible. Sure, considering Chris Horner was the early favorite to win, that's a pretty low bar for intrigue. Horner is a lot of good things, I suppose, but "future Tour de France hopeful" isn't one of them. Whether Dombrowski is remains to be seen, but his ability to climb at high altitude for long periods of time was on display for all to see last weekend. That alone gets you some pretty serious status in this sport.
For those of you to whom Dombrowski is an unknown, a quick recap. He hails from Delaware and Virginia, not the usual Colorado or California set, and worked his way up through the Trek-Livestrong team to be signed away by Team Sky for his first pro gig, after winning the Baby Giro in 2012. At Sky he was a support rider, with no particular results, apart from a sixth in the Japan Cup in 2013. After last season he underwent iliac artery surgery, which I believe was causing numbness in his legs, and hindering his performance. Following his recovery from that, he resumed racing this winter in Cannondale-Garmin colors, and has begun to hit his stride. He came in fourth in California and rode a decent Tour de Suisse, including 18th in the nasty Rettenbachferner stage. The team has kept him somewhat under wraps, but Dombrowski will race the Vuelta beginning in a couple weeks, marking his first grand tour.
The Tour of Utah is not exactly a launching pad for success, nor is anything else in Dombrowski's palmares, but to the naked eye there was something exciting going on. Dombrowski was clinical in Saturday's queen stage, bridging up to Ben King and then laying the smack down on his closest rivals, lastly Frank Schleck. Mind you, that's 2015 Frank, and if a win is only as good as the quality of the other guys on the podium, this was nothing too special. Same could be said of the Girobio, which has a pretty nice lineup of famous names but more recently guys who did not go on to great fame (the Girobio stopped after Dombrowski's 2012 win).
But if we dare to dream, we might say that his climbing so far could put Dombrowski in the Hampsten category of American cyclists, high mountain specialists with a chance at greatness from time to time. Even that comparison is a bit unfair, as Hampsten made the jump straight to the Tour de France squad for La Vie Claire before winning a Giro, whereas Dombrowski is slowly approaching the grand tours and with results to be determined. But if you're an American fan and were struggling to think of a reason to take interest in the Vuelta, you have a good one now. Facing elite-of-the-elite competition, Dombrowski will team up with Andrew Talansky to take on the peaks of Andorra and Cantabria in search of victory. Unlike the Tour heroes Quintana, Nibali and Froome, Dombrowski should be coming in fresh and hitting his peak. But as it's his first three-week race, success looks like survival with maybe a few exciting moments, probably helping out Talansky -- not overall success or uninterrupted consistency.
Wherever his career is going, the 24-year-old has definitely given us something to think about, starting probably in 2016.
Oh, and I can't quite move on without mentioning Matt Brammeier and his horror crash. I'll link to it rather than paste it in here, in keeping with my inconsistently applied policy of not wanting to look at such things. Brammeier is improbably enough OK, as much as can be, suffering fractures to his ribs and pelvis, and something involving a lung. But he's on his way home, which is better than could have been had that car not been there. In a year marked by collisions between vehicles and riders, both in and out of races, this is a very weird exception where it's safe to say the car not only didn't cause the accident but stopped the rider from potentially more serious injuries. Brammeier lost control coming into that corner -- and several other riders in that nasty video show signs of struggling to maintain control in that spot -- and ahead of him were nothing but trees. Brammeier escaped something worse in part because his head was above the height of the car, so it didn't absorb potentially deadly impact. Any veteran skier can tell you that people die in the trees every year due to head injuries. Maybe Brammeier would have gotten lucky again, but it's kind of awful to contemplate, even more awful than watching that video. Heal up Matt!