BOULDER, Colorado (VN) — Two years ago, he was a Cat. 4, working his way up the road ranks. One year ago, he was racing for the American development squad Bontrager-Livestrong. Two months ago, he was sitting on a curb in Utah, hiding from the heat, with one black glove and one white.
“Yeah,” Joe Dombrowski said. “I grabbed two right gloves.”
And now, the 6-foot-1-inch, 141-pound 21-year-old has signed a two-year deal with Britain’s Sky Procycling — the most dominant program in the sport in 2012.
Sky won this summer’s Dombrowski sweepstakes as the sport’s top teams vied for the young American’s services after several sterling climbing performances, from Italy to California. He could have gone anywhere.
“I pretty much had the opportunity to go wherever I wanted,” Dombrowski agreed. “It made for a hard decision, because the possibilities were endless. After talking to each different team, you think that it’s a good option.”
Sky, however, came off best. Maybe that’s because the team won the Tour on the legs of Bradley Wiggins, who also won every stage race at which he pinned on a number this season. Sky was clearly a cut above.
“I think it’s pretty clear that they were the best team in the world this year and I think a lot of that is due to them being on the cutting edge,” Dombrowski said. He notes the training programs, the tactical approach, the nutritional components. It all was referred to as “marginal gains” during the Tour de France, though the gains turned out to be not so marginal after all.
Honestly, there is something a bit menacing about the Sky team. All black everything. A bus that David Millar (Garmin-Sharp) semi-affectionately dubbed the “Death Star.” Methodical wins. And it’s a bit of a surprise that a nice young kid like Dombrowski, who gives a thoughtful interview and is a genuine pleasure to talk to, chose the British squad over homegrown teams like Garmin-Sharp and BMC Racing.
“That was a talking point on their side. ‘We’re an American team. It’s a natural fit,’” Dombrowski said. “I can see where it’s easier and more comfortable … that being said, maybe what’s the easiest and most comfortable isn’t the best at first.
“I think they (Sky) are the best right now. And as a neo-pro, I want to put myself in a position to learn as much as I can from the best guys.”
Dombrowski says riders like Wiggins, Chris Froome and Michael Rogers “are some of the best GC riders in the world.” Yes, they are. And it’s possible that one day the name Dombrowski will carry the same sort of authority. The young American is a pure climber — when the road tilted upward this season, he fired away with the big guns.
Dombrowski rose to the occasion in Colorado, finishing 10th overall in the USA Pro Challenge and seventh on Flagstaff Mountain, a jam-packed ascent above Boulder. The kid can climb, of that there is no doubt. See the results sheet from the 2012 Amgen Tour of California’s queen stage for further validation — Dombrowski finished fourth on the day to Mount Baldy.
He also won the 2012 GiroBio, the so-called “Baby Giro.” But despite his successes at the under-23 level and domestically, Dombrowski knows he’s got to get better in the bunch, especially at the next step up.
“For me, it’s been, I think, a little bit of skills catching up with fitness,” he told VeloNews earlier this summer. “At the U23 level, for example, I can start a climb and not be in the best position, and you make your way to the front, it’s fine. But, racing some of these guys — it’s just not possible. If you start at the back, you’re not going to make it. For me, that’s the hardest part.”
Bontrager-Livestrong director Axel Merckx agreed that Dombrowski needs to work on positioning himself better in races.
“He’s been going though the ranks really fast. He obviously has a huge talent and huge engine. And he has to finish up his tactics and position over the next few years,” Merckx told VeloNews earlier this summer. “But engine-wise, talent-wise and commitment, he’s got enough for him to make it to the ProTour level.”
The change happened slowly for the young rider, but look at it now, and it just seems absurd — two years of road racing and bang, riding for Sky.
“Other people think it’s so crazy. I never really think too much of it. While it’s happening… it’s all just little cumulative steps. But then when I look back on it? I’m like, ‘wow,’” he said.
Dombrowski’s program is yet to be finalized, though it’s likely to lean toward stage races a cut below the WorldTour level.
“I think they know I still have a lot of learning and development to do. You have to step out of your comfort zone,” Dombrowski said. “I think it’ll be mostly smaller stage races, maybe some one-days, maybe one or two WorldTour stage races thrown in there.”
He will move to Nice, France. That may be a challenge in itself.
“I haven’t actually spent a whole lot of time in Europe. I guess that has been a bit of concern for me. Just moving over there and making sure I can perform how I’ve been able to in the States,” he said. “It’s going to be a big change. Just figuring out all the small things that are easy to overlook… little things, like where do you do your laundry? Where do you buy your groceries?”
For now, he’s a talented project; perhaps the next big thing. And even he’s surprised.
“I didn’t necessarily ever think I could do it, full-time at that level,” Dombrowski mused. “But now it’s happening.”
When asked what’s possible, he replies that he’s not yet sure, and Sky asked him the same thing.
“To be honest, I don’t know what’s possible. There are a few things that are pretty clear limiters that I need to improve on,” he said.
Time trials, for one. But there is time for that. He’s just 21, entering his third year of racing.
“I think there’s a lot of time between now and then, and there’s a lot of learning to do,” Dombrowski said. “There’s a lot of things to work on, but I feel like I have the ability to potentially win a grand tour someday.”