WESTLAKE VILLAGE, Calif. (VN) — As the road to Mountain High steepened inexorably and one after another, riders dropped off the back of the lead group, Joe Dombrowski rode at the front for Team Sky captain Bradley Wiggins.
The 23-year-old Dombrowski was the last Sky rider to drop off the lead group on Friday’s stage, and still managed to finish 14th.
Friday’s stage was a highpoint in what has proven to be a difficult sophomore season for Dombrowski at Team Sky. Injury ruined the early season for him and he came to the Amgen Tour of California uncertain about his form.
“I didn’t really know where my fitness was before this race, because it’s been such a kind of shitty spring for me,” he said.
A bike-fit issue caused a nagging injury to his left knee and left him sitting on the sidelines, frustrated. After sorting that out, Dombrowski put in a hard block of training at home in Virginia. Then he came to California to ride in support of Wiggins, who is impressed with how well Dombrowski has risen to the occasion.
“Joe had only one day of racing so far this year,” Wiggins said. “To come back here after three weeks of training and do the job he’s done here, he’s a future winner of the race for sure.”
After getting his start in cycling on mountain bikes, Dombrowski raced his first season on the road in 2010. That same year, Trek-Livestrong picked him up as a stagiaire and he raced the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. The following season, Dombrowski headed to Europe for the first time with the U.S. national team, steadily accumulating results in hillier stage races.
Then in 2012 came Dombrowski’s breakout season. At the Tour of California, the time trial stage ended his hopes of a high overall finish, but he had his revenge on Mount Baldy. There he placed fourth on the stage ahead of riders such as Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, and Tejay van Garderen.
A few weeks later, Dombrowski headed back to Europe and won the Baby Giro in dramatic style. He attacked with 12 kilometers to go on the Passo di Gavia — on a stage that also included the Passo di Tonale — and after a drag race up the Gavia with Fabio Aru, Dombrowski stayed away to win solo. His long escape also secured the overall classification. Dombrowski signed on with Team Sky at the end of 2012, after just three full seasons of road racing.
Though Dombrowski may have come to the Tour of California uncertain about his form, his talent is evident. On Mount Diablo, he and Josh Edmondson set a torrid pace on the lower slopes of the climb. In retrospect, Dombrowski feels they may have gone a little overboard.
“It was only Josh and I when we hit the climb,” he said. “I don’t think we really paced ourselves right. It’s got some rollers and some flats, so you can be doing 450 watts on the front and guys are coasting behind you.”
When the race reached the more difficult sections of the climb, Wiggins was alone in the lead group. That’s not the ideal situation for a race leader, and Dombrowski was determined to avoid making the same mistake at Mountain High.
“Once we finally hit the climb [on Diablo], Brad was isolated,” said Dombrowski. “Eventually, we saw that he was so strong, it was fine. But normally we wouldn’t want to leave him alone for so long. Obviously, he lost a little time, but he was also towing everyone around for six kilometers.”
California has experienced record-breaking heat this past week, and the weather has weighed on everyone’s mind throughout the race. Dombrowski wondered if the altitude and heat on the road to Mountain High might slow him down. He also knew that the climb was harder than Mount Diablo, because the team rode it before the race began. As it turned out, Dombrowski need not have worried.
“It’s not quite so hot up here today, so that was a benefit,” he said. “I knew between the heat and the altitude, I could not go into the red too much, especially [because] it’s kind of hard to replicate that when you haven’t been racing in training.”
Dombrowski’s performance on Mountain High was impressive, especially after his troubled early season. It seems clear that he’s back on track. After the Amgen tour finishes on Sunday, Dombrowski heads back to Europe for the Bayern Rundfahrt and the Tour de Suisse. If all goes well, he could ride his first grand tour later this season at the Vuelta a España. The Spanish grand tour is typically mountainous, which should suit Dombrowski just fine.
One of the big stories to come out of this year’s Tour of California is the fast-rising generation of riders such as Dombrowski. Rohan Dennis, 23, is second overall and won the stage on Mount Diablo. Lawson Craddock, 22, is third overall, while Taylor Phinney, 23, won the stage into Santa Barbara with his big solo escape.
For Dombrowski, it’s a job well done this week with Wiggins taking home the overall victory. And maybe some year, it’ll be Dombrowski’s turn to take a crack at chasing a result of his own.
For now, he’s just happy to be back racing instead of at home, watching it all pass him by.