Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
From the darkness of Cannondale-Garmin’s first-ever doping positive sprung one of its proudest moments — a victory of the new generation, the young generation.
Joe Dombrowski, 24, won the Tour of Utah with a display of climbing prowess at the end of a week that couldn’t have begun any worse for the world’s “clean team.” His team leader, Tom Danielson, was less than 24 hours from pinning the No. 1 bib of defending Utah champion to his back when he received a phone call, over team dinner, from the USADA. He had returned a positive test for synthetic testosterone.
A positive test cut the squad to its heart. It put a question mark over the team’s public image, that of a team built without doping, one combining innocent youth with repentant experience. Half that equation was thrown into doubt.
Dombrowski is part of the other half, the half about whom few have ever raised doubts. If anything, Danielson’s positive opened a door for the young man from Virginia. What was to be a week of servitude, domestique duties atop Utah’s high climbs, turned into an unexpected chance.
Dombrowski, GC captain. It has a certain ring to it.
“I mean, look, obviously none of us want that news, and you know that’s not what we want to hear, but at the same time, in a way it opened up an opportunity for me,” Dombrowski told VeloNews over the phone during a layover at JFK Airport, as he made his way back to Europe to get ready for his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España.
Dombrowski was thrown into the deep end, handed leadership duties on the eve of one of America’s biggest stage races.
“I came into the race kind of expecting to sort of be there on the mountain days, kind of late on the climbs sort of being a high mountain guy for [Danielson],” Dombrowski said. “So yeah, in that regard it did sort of open up an opportunity where all of a sudden I was going to be the GC leader.”
Dombrowski, who described himself as reserved, was tasked with bringing a flustered team — “I’d say morale was pretty low the night before the race and the first stage or two,” he said — back to focusing on the task at hand.
On the morning of the first stage, Dombrowski, not the big pep-talk type of person, talked to the team, now his team, and then told them, “I don’t think there is any point in focusing on this and we might as well move on and focus on the race and see what we can take out of it.”
He hoped he was able to steer them away from the distraction, he said, and toward a simple focus on the race.
“It’s almost like by stage 4 we totally forgot it happened,” he said.
A veteran leader
Cannondale did the improbable in Utah, taking a stage win along with the general classification, but more impressively, Dombrowski showed the leadership skills and mental fortitude of a veteran leader in the sport.
He was able to gain the trust of a confused team and lead them away from all the “distraction and drama,” as Dombrowski described it, that comes with a doping positive, especially one from a rider with a history such as Danielson’s.
“I think to say in that regard we were pretty successful, and I’m impressed with how as a team we dealt with it. Here we walked away from the race successfully and to be honest we all really forgot about [Danielson’s positive] quickly and we were all 100 percent focused on the race, which is what I think we all wanted to do,” he said.
The positive was a blessing in disguise for the young pro looking to show his abilities and looking to show his capabilities in the role of leader. Sometimes in dire circumstances, an opportunity awaits; missing that opportunity can be regrettable.
Dombrowski seized the opportunity when it appeared.
He proved he is worth the hype surrounding his talent, which sat dormant over the last two seasons as he suffered through blood flow problems, and eventually surgery, on his iliac artery.
Dombrowski displayed his riding abilities in Utah, also showing the mental strength and perseverance that belied his age and experience.
What comes next?
Utah has created a conundrum in the Cannondale camp. What to do with a young pro that has now proven himself to be beyond his years in both ability and leadership?
Cannondale is in search of a GC rider, as evidenced by its shotgun approach to the Tour this year, protecting Dan Martin, Ryder Hesjedal, and Andrew Talansky in equal measure.
Talansky has shown he has the grit and the determination to ride high in the GC of grand tours, but another tough Tour de France put into question whether he has the raw ability to one day perform with the best over three weeks.
Hesjedal, the team’s only grand tour winner, is one of the old guard. A fifth-place finish in this year’s Giro d’Italia proved he can still perform, but nearly 10 minutes down on winner Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) suggested that, at 34, his best years are most likely behind him.
Dombrowski is unsure of his role in the team entering the Vuelta. It’s his first grand tour, and he’ll line up beside, or more accurately, behind, Talansky.
“I think for right now they will just kind of wait and see what the team is and what roles I’ll sort of fill in based on the team,” Dombrowski said.
Regardless of Dombrowski’s performance in Spain, grabbing the reins at a grand tour next year is a distinct possibility. As a previous winner of the Baby Giro, ahead of Fabio Aru (Astana), a tour through the Italian countryside next May should be on his radar.
Caley Fretz contributed reporting to this story.