OVERIJSE, Belgium (VN) — Amy Dombroski is just two seconds too slow. The American Telenet-Fidea rider, in the midst of perhaps her best season ever, has missed three milestone achievements in three weekends by just seconds. Two weeks ago, at the third round of the UCI World Cup in Koksijde, Belgium, Dombroski finished 11th, two seconds behind Briton Gabriella Day. Last weekend at Roubaix’s World Cup stop she finished 11th again, three seconds behind Czech Martina Mikulaskova. On Saturday, she was fourth in Antwerp’s riverside Scheldecross race, eight seconds behind Belgian champion Sanne Cant.
Finishing tenth in either World Cup would have earned her an automatic spot on the American national team for the world cyclocross championship in Louisville, Kentucky, in February. Third at Scheldecross would have been good enough to earn Dombroski her first European podium. Both dreams will have to wait — for now.
Though many American racers have achieved some level of success in Europe, Dombroski — together with Jonathan Page and Christine Vardaros — is one of only three Americans to completely immerse herself in Belgium’s crazed cyclocross scene. And with a full season of experience under her belt last year and the support of one of the biggest teams in cyclocross this year, 25-year-old Dombroski is on the brink of real racing success.
“Every weekend it’s getting better,” she said after finishing fifth in Sunday’s race in Overijse. “Yesterday was a big breakthrough for me. I feel like I’ve finally gotten into a really good routine. I’ve dialed in all the places to train, I know the courses, and it’s finally feeling really like home — and normal. You know a big part of being a bike racer is just having a routine; I’ve finally got that down, so I’m feeling pretty good about things.”
Dombroski’s journey to the ranks of the Belgian regulars had a slow start. She made several trips to Europe before spending nearly the entirety of the 2011-12 season in Belgium. Though she had support from former British racer Simon Burney for much of that season, she was more or less on her own.
“I was kind of inspired by Jonathan Page coming over,” she said in an interview in November. “The year before last I came over for a month and a half, I loved it, and I figured I could make it happen. I just needed to find a place to live and the details sorted themselves out. People in Belgium are really eager to help out, whether in the pits or helping with transportation or whatever, so I knew that if I came over without everything, it would work itself out.”
The season was a success. Dombroski earned a sixth place in the opening round of the World Cup in Plzen, which she followed up with top-tens in epic races on the legendary Koppenberg, in Zonhoven’s massive sand quarry, and muddy Hamme-Zogge and Gavere. But the transition to Europe was difficult; illness and injury both took a toll. Dombroski was able to race only three times between the end of November and worlds in Koksijde at the end of January, where she finished a disappointing 23rd.
After a season alone in Europe, Dombroski reached out to new sponsors and landed in Telenet’s women’s program. Team support, both with logistics and through the camaraderie of competing with — and against — four other experienced women, has transformed her racing. Though her World Cup results have been disappointing, she has not finished outside of the top ten in any other race this season. The team, which provides a mechanic, a shared mobile home for pre- and post-race preparations, and a soigneur to help manage race-day details, has helped her narrow her focus to the race itself and, in turn, fostered success.
Telenet, the only one of the major Belgian outfits with more than one woman on its roster, is also helping to change attitudes about women’s cycling in Europe.
“[Team manager] Hans van Kasteren is a big advocate for women’s cycling,” Dombroski said recently, “and I’ve had great experience with him. A lot of Belgians don’t consider women as cyclists, and he definitely does.”
But, as much as Dombroski — and most of her rivals — would like to to advance the cause of women’s cycling, it is the desire for success that drives her. To that end, Dombroski completely reinvented her approach to training, hopeful that she could stave off the illness and fatigue that derailed her in the second half of last season. She has built up slowly, improving nearly every week.
Her ultimate target, the world championship, back home in the U.S., depends on continued improvement. Though her chances of making the team appear to be good, the only guarantee is to earn an automatic selection. That, in turn, means earning that elusive World Cup top-ten. Dombroski’s commitments in Europe mean she cannot return to the United States for the national championship next month, so World Cup results offer the only remaining opportunity.
Dombroski will have two chances later this month: first on the vertiginous slopes of the Citadelle de Namur on December 22, and then on the serpentine Zolder racetrack the day after Christmas. For now, Dombroski says, she’s hopeful.
“I really hope I can qualify,” she told VeloNews. “I’ve been getting faster and faster each weekend, so I’m really hoping that continues. If I can just stay healthy, then I think it’s a good thing.”
Dombroski’s understated optimism, however, belies a confidence that has been earned through two seasons of racing in Europe — two seasons immersed in the unending gloom of Belgian winter; two seasons of mud and rain and cold; two seasons spent far from family and friends and supporters; two seasons in which she transformed from being a young and promising rider to one recognized as being among women’s cyclocross’s elite.
The truth is that one way or another, Dombroski believes she will be racing in Louisville.
“I’ve booked my flight,” she said before the Koksijde World Cup. “So I’ll be there.”