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Cycling is a sport of extremes.
Joe Dombrowski lived both ends of the scale in the opening week of the Giro d’Italia.
In stage 4, the American star achieved a career-long ambition of winning a grand tour stage and clawed to within seconds of the pink jersey.
Some 24 hours later, the UAE-Team Emirates rider was the latest victim of cycling’s sometimes harrowing race course conditions. A high-speed collision with a race marshal at a traffic island in the closing kilometers of a sprint stage saw him exit the race with a concussion.
VeloNews recently caught up with Dombrowski from his European base in Nice, France. With recovery well on its way, he hopes to return to racing, perhaps as soon as the Critérium du Dauphiné or Tour de Suisse.
VeloNews: Joe, what a wild few days you had at the Giro d’Italia, winning a stage and then crashing out a day later. What are your emotions looking back at it a week later?
Joe Dombrowski: That’s professional sport. The highs and lows are probably a lot more amplified than what most people would experience in their career. I can say I didn’t expect it to pan out the way it did. If you’re gonna crash out on day 5, it’s pretty good to have a win the day before. You feel unlucky, but at the same time, life is full of surprises.
VN: Winning a Giro stage was a surprise? It’s been something you’ve been chasing your entire racing career…
JD: Not that it was a surprise, I just didn’t expect it when it happened. If someone asked me, can you win a stage in this Giro? I would say ‘yes,’ but I wouldn’t have said the first week, just in the sense that the third week suits me more with big mountain stages.
VN: Winning out a big breakaway like that is always tricky, how much did your experience help you?
JD: If I was in that position as a neo-pro, there’s no way I would have played the race the way I did. Once you’re in a break, you get a read pretty quickly on the group. It was obvious very quickly we were racing for the stage win and the pink jersey. I made mental notes of who was in the break, who looks strong, and whose wheels to follow. I was cuing off De Marchi a lot because he’s been in that position before and he’s won grand tour stages. I could see he had good legs, and I held his wheel.
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VN: Was there any chat of a deal, me the jersey, you the stage?
JD: He asked me if I could help when those two guys had chipped off the front. I took a turn because it’s in my interest that they come back, too. De Marchi made the last pull to close those guys, and I knew to win I couldn’t leave it to a sprint, because nine out of 10 times, I will not win a sprint. I tried to press on, and once I saw I had a gap, I was getting a lot of encouragement to make it to the top of the climb.
VN: How big was the victory for you?
JD: It was great. I’ve done the Giro every year since 2016, and it’s a race I’ve always loved. I always found I tend to have good form in the second half, and I had come close before, but I never won a stage. To finally get that, it was pretty exciting.
VN: Any special celebration at dinner?
JD: The chef made a nice cake and we made a small toast. It was a nice evening and a nice way to celebrate with the team. My phone kind of exploded. I have an iPhone 6, and I am not sure it can handle it. I had so many messages, and I tried to say thanks to everyone who sent me a message.
VN: You were also close to the pink jersey, how did that play into your thoughts?
JD: The position I was in on GC, in second, there was an uphill finish two days later, and Bernal was closest to me, and I thought if I had good legs and I could drop De Marchi, I had an opportunity to take pink, and maybe run with it for a few days. Just being in that position was a pretty exciting prospect. Guys like Tadej [Pogačar], who knows how many times he can win the Tour de France. For most of the other riders, just to win the pink jersey, that’s a dream. That was going through my mind, then we had an early departure …
VN: The next day, your birthday, starting the stage with the climber’s jersey — how did the day unfold?
JD: It was a stressful day because it was windy. We were along these beach town roads, with a lot of road furniture, roundabouts, and potted plants. It was quite intense during the last 20km with the sprinters fighting for position. I tried to stay close to the GC guys to avoid danger.
VN: And then the crash, can you describe what happened?
JD: It was about 4km to go, and I was on my teammate’s wheel. Someone changed their line, and I went straight into a traffic island — that was pretty much it. It was a straight section of road – we were going close to 60kph – I tried to swerve, and it was too late. The next thing I was on the ground. I think I hit the marshal first, and thank goodness someone had put that padding on the pole. It all happened so fast, and I don’t remember a lot of what happened. I saw a couple of guys who were down, and since it was only 4m to go finish, so I just rode in on my own. If it were less severe, the stress would have been higher, because you don’t want to lose time because I was second on GC. When I was on the ground, all that just seemed like it was out the window.
Joe Dombrowski will not start today's stage at the Giro d'Italia having sustained a concussion yesterday.
— John MacLeary (@JohnMacLeary) May 13, 2021
VN: From what we saw on TV, it appeared you were holding your left arm; how bad were the injuries?
JD: At first, we thought the left wrist potentially was broken but there were no fractures. I was having issues with sensitivity to light, and I felt nauseous when I was standing up, so for sure I had a concussion. The team doctor did some testing that night, but I knew I was probably out of the race. In the end, it wasn’t my or the director’s decision; it was the decision of the doctor, who said that it wasn’t safe for me to race. It was the right decision. I finished the stage because I rode in alone and we did X-rays in the mobile truck, and everything was OK at the finish. The main thing was a possible head injury, and following that protocol. It was definitely a concussion; nothing severe. The team doctors did a good job of monitoring everything, and we’ve been very cautious moving forward in terms of training or racing.
VN: Uff, how lonely is that, going from winning a stage and racing on your birthday to being out of the Giro?
JD: I was disappointed. In my mind, I felt the next day I had a really good chance to take the maglia rosa. I was thinking about that, and I was focusing on positioning to be at the front with 3km to go. I just didn’t want any time gaps given what was on the next day. It was a bummer. It was my birthday, and the chef made a cake, but I didn’t go down [to the team dinner]. I wasn’t feeling great because of the head injury, so I spent my birthday eating alone in my hotel room.
VN: So much is made of these dangerous sprint finales, what do you think could be done to improve safety?
JD: You’re never going to eliminate crashes from racing. It’s part of racing. No one likes to crash, and you have to accept that it’s going to happen. It’s not a question of if, but when. When it does happen, you just hope it’s not too serious. In this insistence, it was a dangerous last 20km of the stage and not the safest run into the finish. It could have been better managed, and it’s not the first time something like this has happened. A lot of riders didn’t feel the finish was safe, there was a lot of road furniture, a lot of left/right. Unfortunately for me, it was my turn.
VN: What was going through your mind the next day when you were out of the Giro instead of racing for the pink jersey?
JD: There were a lot of mixed emotions. My wife picked me up, and we spent a day in Rimini area, and then drove back to Nice. It was a bit bittersweet, starting the Giro like that, and to think and hope more was coming my way. It was not how I wanted to end it. It was a big rollercoaster for 48 hours.