PARIS (VN) — In two weeks time, Cannondale – Drapac’s Joe Dombrowski will step up to a chilly early-morning start line at 10,000 feet and take on some of the world’s best marathon mountain bikers. About six hours later, he’ll find out if he has what it takes to win the Leadville Trail 100.
“I think it suits me pretty well, and I’d like to go there and contest for the win,” the 25-year-old American said of the decision to jump into the high-profile mountain bike race. “But it’s a bit different from my day job.”
Dombrowski’s day job will send him to the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and the Vuelta a Espana in August. His own curiosity led him to add Leadville between the two. Entering the 103-mile mountain bike race is a chance to try something different, he said, and go back to the discipline where he got his start. And he’ll race for a cause, raising money for World Bicycle Relief.
It’s also a way to take a momentary step, mentally and physically, out of the pro road scene.
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“You can be on this razor edge all season and be super focused, but, honestly, I don’t know that the results are any different than if you have a bit of fun along the way,” he said. “And I think its good for having a long, healthy career to have breaks and mix it up.
“This is an instance of something that is, honestly, a good marketing opportunity for the team and Cannondale and myself. And it’ll be fun.”
The idea sprouted while Dombrowski was still at the Giro d’Italia, as he cast about for something to fill the gap between the Tour of Utah and the Vuelta.
“I think it was Matt [Beaudin, Cannondale communications director] and I were talking at the Giro,” he said. “Not even really seriously. Just kinda like, ‘Oh, it might be kinda fun. If I can get Cannondale to get me a mountain bike, I’ll do Leadville on it.’
“I didn’t imagine that [team CEO Jonathan Vaughters] and the team and Cannondale would be as receptive to it, but they all loved the idea.”
Dombrowski started his racing life as a mountain biker, but he hasn’t touched flat bars much since he started his pro road career. The last few weeks have been used to regain some of his old mountain bike handling skills.
“Since I’ve been back home, about three weeks, I’ve gotten out on the mountain bike a few times, even jumped into a local Wednesday night race,” he said. “When you haven’t been on the mountain bike in a while you feel like a fish out of water. You’re always bobbling around and unclipping. It comes back quick, but you definitely lose that.”
Leadville is the perfect mountain bike race for a road racer prone to such bobbles. It contains very little singletrack, mostly just fire roads. There are high-speed descents that require skill to navigate quickly but has few of the technical difficulties found in most mountain bike races. Time differences are mostly made across the day’s 14,000 feet of climbing, almost all of which takes place above 10,000 feet.
The race has previously been contested (and won) by road racers. Most famously, Lance Armstrong and Levi Leipheimer both raced it multiple times.
For a rider like Dombrowski, the mountainous course offers plenty of opportunity to put distance between himself and the rest of the field. The Columbine climb, found at the race’s halfway point, reaches up to 12,500 feet. The ride back to Leadville from the turnaround point at the top of Columbine is peppered with steep, difficult climbs.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to win or not. You know, it is a fun thing for me, just kind of a cool challenge. I thought it would just be fun to do,” he said. “But I also want to take it kind of seriously. I think in terms of mountain bike races, it’s probably one of the best ones for me.”
But winning would just be icing on the cake, really. Like most who race Leadville, Dombrowski has other motives.
Dombrowski has relished the independence the project has provided him. It’s a dramatic departure from the world of pro road racing, where rider’s lives are tightly controlled. They’re told where to be, what to eat, when to sleep. But for Leadville, he’ll have the same level of support as most of his amateur competitors. He’ll prepare himself, cook for himself, and line up on the day with no team at his side.
“When I started thinking about how I was going to do it, it made me realize that in road racing I don’t do anything for myself,” he said. “You don’t have to think about tires, gearing, pressure, what am I doing to do for the feed zones. There’s all these aspects I don’t usually have to deal with.
“It’s a good challenge in that it’s a different type of racing. There’s the physical side that’s different, but also the prep side. Just from the standpoint of having your own gear and your own food and really having to take care of yourself.”
“It’s a cool story and something different,” he said. “I’m pumped.”