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THE PLAINS, Virginia (VN) — In a small town in Virginia sits a small store, a favorite spot for locals to begin training rides, including one of cycling’s top climbers. Joe Dombrowski strides in, sits down, and engages in small talk with the bike studio owner while he waits for his cappuccino. He leans back fully relaxed, but speaks with the confidence of someone finally achieving the results expected when he first entered the sport’s top tier.
A Virginia native, Dombrowski, 24, hit his stride this season after a turbulent first two years in the WorldTour. He finished 2015 on a high, winning the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and finishing his first grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana. A “comeback year” he likes to call it.
The third-year pro talked with VeloNews about the pressure to perform, how he dealt with the Tom Danielson doping positive, and his unique training program.
VeloNews: Would you consider this your first real year in the WorldTour after all you have gone through with the leg injury?
Joe Dombrowski: Yeah, I would say so, in some regard. I guess a little bit of a comeback year. I did a full season in 2013. Then in 2014 I ended up stopping basically after Tour de Suisse and that was the end of my season, and I didn’t race really much prior to Tour de Suisse. So it was really limited on race days, but this is really the first season where everything has gone pretty smooth throughout the year. So in a way it was really like my first WorldTour season without any hiccups. Third time is the charm I guess.
VN: Coming into the season there was a question mark surrounding you. What were the expectations from the team?
JD: When I sat down with the team in 2014 coming from Sky to Cannondale, it was like, “What is expected of me for 2015? What are the goals? What do I want to do? What does the team want me to do?” Basically [the team said], “we want you to be healthy and consistent. You had two kind of bad years, and you just need to get back to being healthy and riding consistently again. Secondly, we think you can win an American race.” The initial goal was California and JV [Cannondale director Jonathan Vaughters] really believed I could win California, especially the Mount Baldy stage. I wasn’t too far off. I was just off the podium, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. And then the other American race I did was Utah, which I ended up winning.
VN: Why the focus on the American stage races?
JD: The thinking behind that was that I was lacking the pack skills a bit and the competitive skills to compete in the some of the European races, but if you have the engine to do it you can win the American races without that skillset totally developed. So the idea was to basically focus on these American races and try to get some results in those, and do some of these European races and go support your teammates and try to learn how to move around the bunch more. So year two, next year, we are building on some of what we did this year. OK, so you have the command to win a race here in the states, but can we apply it in Europe if the engine and if the ability is there? It’s harder to execute in the European races because you are on small roads and everyone is really good about being in the right position and it is just different. So the next step is building on that and ratcheting up the level of the races I want to excel in.
VN: You rode to fourth on Mount Baldy at the 2012 Tour of California and announced yourself to the world then. How was it finishing fourth again after what you have gone through? Did you feel any disappointment, only being back in the same spot you were in three years ago?
JD: Yeah, in some regards. I think I was also fourth on GC this year, which is good compared to 2012 [Dombrowski was 12th overall in 2012]. On the Mount Baldy stage, it was more or less the same in the way that it played out. Overall it was an improvement. I would say I was a little off the mark of what I had hoped on Baldy. After the time trial the time gaps weren’t so big, so I thought if I had a really good ride on Baldy I could potentially win this overall, which was the goal going into it. I wasn’t really on my A-game, I would say. It wasn’t a bad ride, but it wasn’t everything I had hoped for, either.
VN: The Tour of Utah didn’t start out the best way for the team, with Tom Danielson leaving the race after a failed anti-doping test. How did you deal with the pressure of suddenly being forced into a leadership role?
JD: I would say morale was pretty low overall, and in terms of the pressure I would say I didn’t really feel any pressure on me because I think we were all distracted by the situation, and it wasn’t like, “OK we have to race, we can win this race, let’s develop a new plan.” It was more just like everybody staring off in the distance, not sure about what just happened. I think the impressive thing though was how quickly that turned around. I think Alex [Howes] was second or third on the first stage and that got him rolling in a good way. When I won the stage to Snowbird and took the yellow jersey, it felt like the Tommy D. thing had happened 10 years ago. We all just forgot about it, so that was cool. I felt like as a team we moved on from it really well.
VN: Jonathan Vaughters made a comment a couple weeks ago, saying if the Tour de France were run on trainers, you would have already won it. How do you feel about that?
JD: I don’t know if I totally agree with him. Yeah, I understand what he is saying that my results aren’t totally in line with the power files I show in training. At the end of the day, bike racing is not power files. Bike racing is a dynamic and tactical sport with a lot of variables. I think for me, a lot of the things I need to work on is more in the race. It isn’t something that you are going to train here in the wintertime, just being tactically astute, being in the right position, moving around the pack efficiently, and not being in the wind. I have changed a lot of things this winter, it is definitely not a typical cyclist’s December training routine. I am only riding like an hour and a half or two hours a day. It is a lot of sprints and a lot of big gear starts, then three or four days a week in the gym doing a lot of lifting. I got a text from JV the other day saying, “let’s try to get you to 70kg [154 pounds],” and I don’t think that is something you see from a team boss too often, asking you to gain weight.
VN: Why the change in your training?
JD: We are working on what’s the big limiter for me physiologically in the races. It’s like the aerobic component isn’t so much the limiter. When I get to the climb and I’m fresh, I can go and do my thing, but a lot of these high-torque jumps out of the corners and having to ride in the wind to move up, that is what is really tough for me. We are working on putting on some good functional muscle mass. We are working on getting better at producing more power with a better closed hip angle because you know I am 6-foot 2, I don’t ride a super-aero position, and I catch a lot of wind, and when you are that kind of frontal area and you weigh 64 kilos or whatever, you’re going to have some problems when you have to move up alongside the pack or when you are trying to time trial. Really getting better at minimizing that frontal area and producing power in that hip flexed position, putting on functional muscle mass, working on my anaerobic capacity and stuff like that is what’s on tap. It is sort of counter-intuitive. I do an hour and a half ride, and that’s it for the day. I mean it’s not full-bore yet, and you still got the holidays and some guys are still relaxed now, but you’re doing four- or five-hour rides by now. We acknowledged that coming into it, I may be a little on the slow side coming into Haut Var and Valencia in February, but it’s more with the Giro as the big picture.
VN: The top of the sport for U.S. cycling is young, and only a select few American riders at the moment have the potential to win a grand tour. Do you feel pressure to perform well in a grand tour in the near future?
JD: No, I wouldn’t say that I feel the pressure. Is it something I aspire to do, yeah for sure. I wouldn’t say at this point I am close enough for there to be much pressure. Maybe if I was Tejay [van Garderen] and I had been fifth in the Tour twice, then maybe there is a little bit of pressure, but I guess I don’t really feel that way. Yeah, I guess I had two years dealing with injuries, and there was a lot of hype before I turned pro and then sort of failed to deliver the results people had hoped for. Some of it is … if you have an injury like that, there isn’t much you can do. In terms of that situation and the thing I learned from that is I am self-motivated and have it within myself and I aspire to do big things and I don’t really care what everyone else thinks I should do, and I don’t think it is productive to focus on what everyone else thinks I should do. I should just focus on myself and ride the best I can and try super hard in training and be the best I can and get the most out of it I can. There are a few of us who are young Americans, who are GC-type riders, but from my standpoint, no, I don’t feel a lot of pressure to deliver. I do it just because I love to do it.