MOUNT DIABLO STATE PARK, California (VN) —Early-season frustration wound up literally – and mockingly – at the front door for Joe Dombrowski (Team Sky).
The 23-year-old American lives in Nice, France, during the European racing season, but while his teammates were competing in the local French race in March he wasn’t. Injured — really for the first time in his young career — and without an answer why, he stewed.
“On the last stage of Paris-Nice, the 2K to go sign was actually right outside my door,” Dombrowski said before Tuesday’s third stage of the Amgen Tour of California. “I ended up going out to watch, but you almost don’t want to watch it because you know everybody else is out there racing and you’re just sitting on the couch.”
The trouble began at the start of the year with a gradually but increasingly sore left knee. He had no idea what caused it; nothing had been altered on his bike setup. But coming out of training camp, he knew something wasn’t right.
“It was really just kind of an on-the-bike thing that started to bother me, and nothing really significant changed,” he said. “We really didn’t know what it was. It was frustrating, really frustrating. It’s one thing to have a broken collarbone, because you know in three weeks you’re going to be fine and back on the bike. It’s a little bit different when you don’t know what is causing the issue.”
Dombrowski was coming off a mildly promising first year with Sky, capped by a seventh-place finish in October’s Japan Cup. Then the calendar turned and his fortunes did, too. He sat, many days unable to ride for more than an hour or two. He tried starting March’s Settimana Coppi e Bartali but abandoned during the third stage.
Out of answers, he flew back to the U.S. to seek the advice of Andy Pruitt, director of the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. Dombrowski said the fix was actually minor and, ultimately, head-slap easy. It never occurred to him, and he’s generally a stickler for all things measured.
“Pretty basic, actually. He did a standing X-ray to measure the actual leg length on both sides,” Dombrowski said. “He shimmed my shorter (right) leg and it was better right away.”
It was a minute change, but princess-and-the-pea noticeable. But that’s just the way Dombrowski is, sport director Servais Knaven said Tuesday.
“Riders are all different, and for him everything needs to be just right,” Knaven said. “When everything is right for him he’s a really good bike rider. He’s down to details, the way some bike riders are. They feel a millimeter difference. Others don’t.”
Dombrowski definitely did. And the team could do little.
“It’s been frustrating for us, too,” Knaven said. “We’ve tried to support him and back him up.”
The early season lost, Dombrowski spent some training time in Colorado before heading home to Marshall, Virginia, a couple hours outside of Washington, D.C. This week’s Tour of California is his first healthy outing this season.
“I’ve had three or four weeks of good training, but with that long a layoff you don’t really know where you are,” he said.
Where he was on Tuesday was trying to shepherd team and race leader Bradley Wiggins up the finishing Mount Diablo climb. He and teammate Joshua Edmondson helped shut down a breakaway early on the mountain, but Dombrowski fell away with about eight kilometers to go and finished 42nd, 8:42 down to stage winner Rohan Dennis (Garmin-Sharp).
Before the stage, though, he said the question of wondering whether he was back had been answered. Not without some doubt.
“I think for a while I was in that mode like, ‘Oh, is my knee going to start hurting again? Is it? Is it?’” he said. “But I’m pretty confident that after a month of nothing that I’m fine. I’m motivated to get back to racing.”
He looks forward to repeating rides at Bayern-Rundfahrt in late May and the Tour de Suisse in June. If all goes well he hopes he’ll start his first grand tour, the Vuelta a España in September.
He’ll have long since digested the frustration of the injury, buoyed by words of encouragement he’s received in recent days from Wiggins.
“He’s pretty quiet, but sometimes he comes out and you listen,” said Dombrowski. “He said, ‘If you’re going to do this for 15 years, there are going to be ups and downs. Don’t focus on the moment, but look at it like a learning experience.’”