SACRAMENTO (VN) — When American Joe Dombrowski won the 2012 GiroBio, or “Baby Giro d’Italia,” the runner-up on the final podium was Italian Fabio Aru (Astana).
As with the Tour de l’Avenir — the under-25 stage race put on by Tour de France organizer ASO — the GiroBio, for riders under 27, was positioned as indication of things to come, a predictor of future grand tour podiums. (The GiroBio has not been held since 2012.)
Now, three years later, Aru and Dombrowski are on different paths.
Aru, a gangly climber, is at the Giro d’Italia as one of the favorites for the podium in a race that features favorites such as Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), Richie Porte (Sky), and Rigoberto Urán (Etixx-Quick-Step).
Dombrowski, also a long, lean climber, is in the Amgen Tour of California as an unproven GC leader for his new Cannondale-Garmin squad, and as a rider with something to prove, particularly when the peloton hits the steep slopes of Mt. Baldy on Saturday’s queen stage.
Aru, 24, finished third overall at last year’s Giro, and went on to take a pair of uphill stage wins at the Vuelta a España in September.
By contrast, Cannondale-Garmin’s Dombrowski spent the 2013 and 2014 seasons with Team Sky, largely lost in one of the sport’s biggest-budget teams while he battled a nagging leg problem that turned out to be Iliac Artery Endofibrosis — a narrowing of the major artery that runs through the pelvis and down the leg, reducing blood supply to the leg when exercising.
In 2012, prior to his GiroBio win, Dombrowski placed sixth on Baldy while riding for Bontrager-Livestrong, setting the Strava record, though he finished that stage 18 seconds slower than eventual race winner Robert Gesink (LottoNL-Jumbo). That proved to be Dombrowski’s breakthrough ride. This year, the Baldy climb returns to the Amgen Tour of California following a two-year absence.
Cannondale-Garmin came to California with both Dombrowski and Andrew Talansky as potential GC contenders, but any chance of a dual-pronged attack quickly disappeared when Talansky withdrew from the race midway through the opening stage in Sacramento, citing a respiratory infection brought on by seasonal allergies. Cannondale’s plan is now to hunt for stage wins, with riders such as Alex Howes and Lasse Hansen, while keeping Dombrowski protected for the Baldy stage.
“We’re hoping for a breakout performance from one of our many young riders,” said Jonathan Vaughters, Cannondale team manager, in a pre-race press release. “Joe Dombrowski first proved himself in California in 2012 on Mt. Baldy. I think he’s looking to see what he can do there again. Our objective will be to race for the win as much as possible on every day that presents a chance.”
Though Dombrowski will be the team’s protected GC rider, Vaughters’ statement was hardly a ringing endorsement for his young climber. And it’s hard to fault him — since that GiroBio win, Dombrowski has only shown glimpses of the potential that earned him Velo’s award as the 2012 under-23 rider of the year, and a lucrative two-year contract with Team Sky.
Dombrowski’s results in 2013, his rookie season with Sky, were littered with DNFs and DNSs — not entirely unusual for a neo-pro, but not promising, either.
His 2014 season wasn’t any better, though he had flashes of brilliance, riding in a critical support role for Tour of California winner Bradley Wiggins on Mount Diablo and Mountain High.
Dombrowski had surgery to fix the Iliac Artery Endofibrosis in August and was not picked up by Sky, instead signing with Cannondale-Garmin.
Thus far in 2015, Dombrowski has shown signs that he’s returning to top form. He finished seventh overall at the Tour de San Luis in January, placing seventh on the main climbing stage, 19 seconds behind Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar). In April he abandoned the Volta a Catalunya on the sixth stage, and then finished 22nd overall at the Giro del Trentino.
Yet in the days before the Tour of California began, Dombrowski told VeloNews that he believes he’s ready to fight for the win.
Asked if he should be considered a favorite to take the race lead on Mt. Baldy, he answered, “I had some issues the last couple of years, and last year I was off my bike for a long time, but that seems to be resolved now. I’m fit and fast again. I don’t see any reason why not.”
Dombrowski added that sees his former Sky teammate Sergio Henao as the overall favorite among a list of potential podium finishers.
“Gesink, Warren Barguil and Carter Jones [of Giant-Alpecin], Julien Alaphilippe [Etixx-Quick-Step], though I don’t know how well he goes on long climbs … Phil Gaimon [Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies] could do a good ride, and then of course Sky has Sergio Henao, Pete Kennaugh, and Ian Boswell, though I think they will focus more on Pete and Sergio. I think Sergio is the guy on Baldy. I see Sergio as the favorite, if I had to pin it on any one rider.”
And how does Dombrowski rate himself in that pool of riders? “Yeah, I’d say I have a decent shot,” he said. “Yep.”
As for the comparison between his trajectory and that of Aru’s, Dombrowski was diplomatic.
“I don’t really focus so much on that,” Dombrowski said. “I mean, I just think, that was that, and now … I think riders develop at different rates. Some guys are great amateurs, and they don’t do anything as pros. Sometimes it’s the other way around. I have had some setbacks the last few years, that hampered my development a bit, but I wouldn’t say it stresses me, or bothers me. I watched [Aru] at the Vuelta last year, I watched him win two stages, while I was sitting home not riding my bike, and that’s fine; it doesn’t bother me.”