American Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale-Garmin) holds himself to exceptionally high standards, as all pros should. He was fourth overall at the Tour of California in May and is set to start his first grand tour in August at the Vuelta a España, yet with all that success both past and impending, Dombrowski tends to be level-headed in his assessment of his results. While many hailed his finish at the Tour of California, Dombrowski was lukewarm on his result. Perhaps that’s because Dombrowski knows what’s at stake after looking in from the outside for the better part of two seasons.
Physical troubles of the past two seasons behind him, Dombrowski is refreshed and ready to race. His demeanor after a long recovery is casual in the way only young men in peak shape can muster, the lasting effects and permanence of cycling’s physical detriment still years down the road. But the past two years did not zip by with the same casual calm.
“I came into this season sort of thinking I’m starting at zero again,” Dombrowski told VeloNews Tech Editor Dan Cavallari in between casual rides in Kitzbühel, Austria. “It’s almost like I’m kind of a neo-pro again.“
Fourth on the steep tree-lined slopes of Mount Baldy in 2012 and a Girobio (the U23 Giro d’Italia) winner weeks later, Dombrowski showed the world his climbing prowess three years ago, and a lucrative two-year contract with Team Sky confirmed his presence as one of cycling’s rising stars.
Moving to the cycling’s highest level does not come without tribulations, as a new team, a higher level of racing, and most often a relocation to Europe can upend a rider’s training regimen and overall mental preparedness. “Your first year in the WorldTour, a lot of times the first few months are kind of a wash,” Dombrowski said.
“I felt like I was just kind of finding my feet in May, June, July, in my first year. I remember Tour de Suisse I was up there on some of the mountain stages. Tour of Austria I was up there, and then right after, that’s when I was starting to have problems.”
The problem turned out to be decreased blood flow in his left leg through the iliac artery. “A whole year of wondering what was going on” eventually morphed into a full-blown crisis that ended with a 2014 surgery to repair the artery damage.
Despite a lack of results and question marks surrounding his ability, Cannondale-Garmin signed the young American for 2015 upon his return to competition.
Climbing up and over
Recovering from a major injury can reveal a rider’s mentality, fortitude, and ability to adapt. Can he roll with the would-be knockout punch, or does he resign himself to a place on the mat?
No question, Dombrowski’s head is in the right place.
Instead of sulking around the house, unable to perform at any level, let alone the level he had spent years honing his skills for, Dombrowski did something unfathomable for so many pros while he was recovering: he stayed off the bike.
“It’s rare that you get to take a break like that, especially that time of year. I thought, I am just going to make the most of this. I know I can’t ride my bike, but if I can be home for the fourth of July, maybe hang out with my friends, do some road trips and just get my mind off that, I can make the best of it.”
Dombrowski enjoyed his summer, despite the multitude of unknowns. When could he ride his bike again? When would he be back to full strength? The reality was no one knew, not even his doctors.
“You talk to the surgeons about recovery period and it’s all just sort of vague,” Dombrowski said. “They’re like, well, just be smart about it. Well, what does just be smart about it mean?”
The road back revealed the true maturity of the 24 year-old, who once appeared to have it all, but now had to start from scratch to get it back. After two months of summer relaxation and recharging the engine, Dombrowski was itching to return to his passion.
Beginning with 30 minutes a day at the pool, Dombrowski was back on the bike in 8-10 weeks. It may have been a stationary trainer, but the path forward couldn’t have seemed any clearer.
Back where it all started
After being hailed as the next great American climber, Dombrowski had fallen back into the racing shadows; after recovering, he wanted to show the world he still had that it factor.
“I was just so gung-ho about getting back on the bike and I’m going to show everybody,” Dombrowski said. He landed seventh overall at his comeback race, the Tour de San Luis in Argentina, and with it came a sigh of relief. His legs had returned to him, or were in the process of returning.
He came full circle at California, where he finished fourth again atop Mount Baldy on stage seven, proving he is still one of America’s best climbers. He finished fourth overall, the best-placed American — but Dombrowski couldn’t hide his disappointment.
Dombrowski needed the good result in Argentina to prove that he could still compete with the best, but going hard in January had cost him in May. “California was good for me, but I feel like maybe I did kind of overcook it coming into the season,” he said.
Overcooked or not, Dombrowski looked more impressive than he would allow himself to admit.
Heading into his inaugural grand tour, Dombrowski’s main goal is to finish, but he’s got an eye on making a splash, too. The gung-ho mentality has subsided a bit and has been replaced by the calm that comes with a healthy shot of self-confidence.
“I think it’s more going into it and gaining experience, but later in the race when I think more opportunities surface, then if I could take advantage of that, I would love that, too,” Dombrowski says of his plan for La Vuelta.
Now with both legs at full strength, the sky’s the limit for the skinny climber from Marshall, Virginia. A future start at the Tour de France seems imminent.
Dan Cavallari contributed to this story.