Among the riders making their debut in the 70th edition of the Vuelta a España – the season’s third and final Grand Tour – there will be also Joe Dombrowski, who comes here after taking a breakthrough win at the Tour of Utah, where he put years of suffering behind and enjoyed his finest moment since turning pro. The 24-year-old will be one of the many Cannondale-Garmin cyclists hoping to shine and thus get a stage win, and although this is going to be his maiden three-week race and he starts as an outsider, Dombrowski shouldn’t be overlooked, as he can turn into one of the Vuelta’s revelations.
A couple of years ago, he was seen as the next big thing in cycling, after winning the prestigious Girobio and finishing in the top five at both the Tour of California (where he also was the best young rider) and the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, two events in which he outshined many pros. His impressive results led to a contract with Sky, but the two-year spell with the British outfit wasn’t a happy, but more a bleak one, due to many health problems which kept hampering him, problems whose main cause remained unknown for a long period of time, until a vascular specialist told him to undergo some tests, before finally discovering what was really troubling him: iliac endofibrosis – basically, a drop of blood flow in his iliac artery, which meant he was getting 50% less blood in his left leg than normal.
After having surgery at home, he took a long break before coming back on the bike and starting to work in order to gradually build his form. Eventually, at the end of the season, Joe changed teams, moving to Cannondale-Garmin, where he was looking forward to show that he can come back to the top. Making his debut for the US team in Argentina, at the Tour de San Luis, Joe Dombrowski finished in the top 10, which made him very confident ahead of his next goals, the Tour of California and the National Championships, two races in which he put on an impressive display, finishing fourth and second, respectively.
For that reason, and taking into account that his form was constantly on the rise, his stage win on Snowbird and overall classification victory in the Tour of Utah didn’t count as a surprise, but more as a confirmation of the fact he finally reached the much desired top level just weeks before the start of the Vuelta, where he comes very motivated to test himself and see what he can do in a three-week race.
A couple of days ago, while he was still at his home in Nice, I talked to Joe Dombrowski about the way his season went since pulling on the green and argyle of Cannondale-Garmin and the expectations he has ahead of his Grand Tour debut.
– Joe, what were your thoughts at the beginning of the season, after joining Cannondale-Garmin?
I was a good change for me and I’ve really enjoyed it so far. I feel really at home being in a US team and I think it’s a good environment for me, I feel comfortable and I like being among other Americans. Another important thing is that at Cannondale-Garmin I have more opportunities than I did with Sky. I want to develop into a GC rider, so I think that Cannondale-Garmin, at the moment, is the right option for me to do that, because I can go on some of the races and ride in support of Daniel Martin, Andrew Talansky and Ryder Hesjedal, while in some smaller races where they aren’t there I can be the leader of the team. It’s very important to have more opportunities for myself, than I did in the past.
– Looking behind at your two years with Sky, what conclusions can you draw?
It was a little bit difficult, because last year I had the injury and the operation on my iliac artery, and it was hurting my performance. Once the operation was done, it was almost three months before I was out training on the road again. So last season I didn’t raced so much. But no matter on what team you’re in, to have an injury like that means it’s not going to be a nice experience. Other than that, I learned a lot during my two years with Sky and got exposure by riding the big races, and I also got to live in Nice, where is my European home and where I feel comfortable. Maybe I didn’t score a lot of results and I was having a lot of setbacks because of the injury, but I wouldn’t say it was a negative experience.
– After these troubled seasons, how important was it for you to get a top 10 in your first race of the year, the Tour de San Luis?
I think it was good. It’s an early season race, and as a North American rider coming from the cold, and racing in the summer against South American cyclists who are in good shape, meant the race was a tough one. I wanted to see how I can go, because it was my first real test after having the operation and coming back after the injury. It was a good start for me and it gave me a lot of confidence, I felt I’m back in the game and I also had fun, which is very important for me. Cycling is a hard sport, it’s about suffering, but if you’re in an environment where you’re having fun, you really look forward to the racing.
– Not many riders say they’re having fun in the races.
For me this is what I’ve dreamed of doing and I don’t want to take for granted the fact that I’m basically getting to do what I dreamed of doing for a living. I don’t think there are many people – doing all kind of jobs – who can say that they are living their dream when at work. For me, that’s the case: I love riding my bike, I love racing, and I love everything about it – the training and focusing on being fit for the races, traveling all over the world and living in a foreign country. There are a lot of things that I’ve been really lucky to do. Of course, sometimes you get some crappy weather and you don’t have a great morale and don’t feel like getting out there and racing, but overall I love what I’m doing.
– After San Luis, you had a good run on home turf, in both the Tour of California and the National Championships. Did you see the glass half-full, or did they leave you with a bitter taste?
Concerning the Nationals, I’ve always thought about how cool it would be to wear the national champion jersey for a year. It’s just something really special to do that at some point in my career. Second was a good result for me in a race like that, giving that everybody went there wanting to win. It wasn’t a race for me initially, but for my teammates, as I really can’t sprint very well. Still, considering the way it played out, I got an opportunity in the end. I was a little bit disappointed to be runner-up, because I wanted to win and wear the jersey for a whole year. In the Tour of California, my ambition was to be on the podium, but I finished fourth, which I can say it still was a good result. Overall, I can be happy with that, considering that the year before I was in just a couple of races. Basically, California confirmed to me that I was on the way back.
– Did you felt like you kept improving between the Nationals and the Tour of Utah?
As you know, I came back to Europe, the plan being to ride for the general classification in the Tour de Suisse. I don’t know if it was because of the fact that I was tired as I began my season early, in San Luis, but I wasn’t very good in Suisse. So after that, I returned home to the US and didn’t touch my bike at all for some time. Basically, I took a vacation, went to see some friends and pressed the reset button, as I knew I’ll do the Vuelta at the end of the year. I wanted to make sure that I’ll come into the second half of the season really fresh. I haven’t trained so hard before the Tour of Utah, but I still prepared for the race, because I wanted to have a good GC. In the end, I kind of surprised myself in the Tour of Utah.
– But what were your thoughts before the start?
Obviously with the news in regard to Tom Danielson it was a shock, it’s not really what someone wants to hear at the start of the race, it’s a bit difficult, but I talked with the guys the night before the race after we heard what it happened and I said that we still have a race to do and that I think we can still win it, as well as takins some stages along the way. So we decided to think about the race, to focus on it and make the best out of it. We all did a great work and overcame a difficult situation.
– How much did it mean for you to win the race?
It was great. That’s my first ever victory as a professional, and winning the stage to Snowbird was special, as well as taking the yellow jersey and defending it the next day. It was awesome. This season was kind of a reset year and to have my first pro win was very nice and special.
– The Vuelta a España is up now on your schedule. Are you nervous about making your Grand Tour debut?
I’m pretty relaxed, actually. I know I haven’t raced in a three-week event, but I’m excited about it and I’m really looking forward to gaining experience. I still don’t know what my role is going to be, but I’m sure that it’s going to be a good experience. I’m in my third year as a professional and it’s very important to finally get to ride a Grand Tour. It would be a really big step to finish such a race.
– Besides this, what other goals do you have?
Well, I’ll have to see are the plans of the team, but especially in the third week – once the general classification is established and there are bigger time gaps – I could go in a breakaway on a mountain stage. If there’s no one dangerous there, there’s a good chance they’ll let it go, and once you’re there you don’t fight against Froome or Quintana, but against the other guys who are in the escape. If I’d get the opportunity to fight for a stage victory, then I would love to get one.
– What do you think of the course?
The Vuelta is always mountainous and has short and punchy climbs at the finish, which will be the case also this year. Then there’s the Andorra stage, with six major climbs. It’s going to be one of the hardest routes of the year, and looking at the startlist, it’s maybe the Grand Tour with the most depth in terms of Grand Tour stars: Froome, Nibali, Quintana, and the list goes on, it looks like everyone’s doing it. It’s going to be a very high level here.
– Did you pick your books for the Vuelta?
Yes, I did. I got a lot of suggestions on Twitter and I now have plenty of books to read during the three weeks of the race, one of the books being Richard Moore’s „The Bolt Supremacy”. Personally, I think that it’s very important to read a book in the evening, especially in a Grand Tour and any stage race, actually. You ride hard during the day and you need a nice way to relax. In my opinion, you have to put down your phone, your electronics, your computer, and just read a book before going to bed. It’s really great to go old school and read some books, and it’s something I like to do during the race. We need less smartphones, and more books.