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Joe Dombrowski: breaking down and bouncing back

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Photographs: Cannondale Pro Cycling, Cannondale/Philipp Nemenz

Joe Dombrowski could talk for America, which might have been a useful sideline had he not had career-saving surgery to correct the condition iliac endofibrosis in his left leg.
He is honest and highly articulate; more open than any journalist who has met him just once, in the restaurant queue at a hotel in Austria, has any right to expect.

From the loneliness of the Anglophone neo-pro racing in a strange continent to the challenges of leadership and the frustration of performing with an undiagnosed impediment, Dombrowski is an open book: not reckless or self-indulgent, only frank and engaging.
The American admits to recognising a bleak period in his own life when reading about the breakdown of his directeur sportif Charlie Wegelius in Wegelius’ autobiography, Domestique, has an eclectic musical taste that encompasses hip hop and Frank Sinatra, and waxes lyrical both on his enthusiasm for the process of training and racing and the sacrifices that they demand.
His results are pretty handy, too. Since pulling on the green and argyle of Cannondale-Garmin in January, Dombrowski has scored top ten finishes in the Tours of San Luis and California, and finished second at the American championships. Not bad for a rider who is still only 24.

A medical matter
Rewind nearly a year, and Dombrowski was in a less happy place. Since the summer of his first professional season with Sky, an outwardly perfect graduation from the Bontrager-Livestrong development squad, he had been aware of a numbness in his left leg after long and demanding efforts, typically the final climb of the day.
With the Tour de Suisse about to begin, Dombrowski insisted that he wanted to see a vascular specialist, and no longer attempt to resolve the issue with the sole input of Sky’s medical team.

“I wouldn’t pin the fault down on them, but at Sky one of the things they’ve tried to do is to get the medical staff from non-cycling backgrounds, which I can totally understand. I see what they’re trying to do, but sometimes I think there’s something to be said for experience in a very niche sport, and kinked iliac arteries are a very niche problem. Cycling, triathlon – that’s about it.
“Even a lot of vascular surgeons have never heard of it. Even if they’ve come into contact with professional cyclists, they have no reason to operate on iliac arteries and certainly they’re not used to seeing young, fit individuals almost with an arthero-sclerotic condition that has nothing to do with poor diet or lifestyle. It’s purely mechanical: you pedal your bike a lot and at a crucial junction that artery has got kinked.”
He concedes that its rarity, and the vagueness of the symptoms, makes it easy to misdiagnose, but says that among those who have been on a similar journey, the story is eerily familiar. Former mountain bike world champion Sally Bigham is another to have suffered with the condition.
“You have this onset of symptoms, and this vague lack of power that gets worse when you ride harder, and goes away when you ride easier; maybe it’s worse when you’re riding on the drops, or on the time trial bike. I hear it and I’m like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Checking the boxes. ‘You need to go see a vascular specialist who has experience with it and go get it checked out.’”

New surroundings
“The change of scenery, in regards to team, was a good change for me. This has been the first year since I turned professional that I have been to races as an outright leader.”
Dombrowski embodies a contradiction found elsewhere in the peloton: the rider with the physical gifts to win races, but free of the overbearing personality that makes him believe victory – and the unquestioning support of others – is his right.

While he admits to feeling uncomfortable issuing orders to his team-mates, it need not be a barrier to success: Alberto Contador, for example, leads by excellence, rather than by fear; inspiring his team-mates with an unlikely mix of dominance on the bike and humility off it.
Contador, of course, has nothing to prove. Dombrowski is aware that he still has much to do, if he is to fulfill his considerable potential. He says that while the atmosphere at Cannondale-Garmin is more relaxed than at Sky – at least until the serious business of racing begins – the expectations placed upon him are higher. He led the team at the Tour of California and may do so again at La Vuelta.
There is little doubt that Dombrowski has the physical ability required to win big races, having graduated to the WorldTour with impressive credentials. Now, he is one of an ever-expanding number of bright young things in cycling’s top tier, including his team-mate Davide Formolo. Formolo won a Giro d’Italia stage in May, and Dombrowski, shielded from expectation by the depth of Sky’s roster, may feel the weight of expectation at the Vuelta.
“I wouldn’t say I mind the pressure of being told that we’re going to commit to riding for me, but I wouldn’t say that I’m naturally comfortable with telling people what to do,” he admits.
“Sometimes in sort of grippy situations out on the road, you just need to tell your team-mates what needs to happen, and I don’t think that’s something that naturally I really like doing. I think a lot of people don’t like to.”

Pro life
A week before the Tour de France, Dombrowski is almost demob happy. He will not be among the nine riders rolling out for Cannondale-Garmin in Utrecht, and is about to begin a mid-season break when we meet in Kitzbuhel. It will be his first break since January from an unremitting schedule of training and racing that began in the humidity of Argentina and has reached a temporary conclusion on the slopes of the Swiss Alps.

He now enjoys living in Nice, and a routine of core exercises, training rides, afternoon naps and evening barbecues keeps him focussed and happy. It wasn’t always thus. When Dombrowski read Charlie Wegelius’ (above) acclaimed book Domestique, he recognised a period in the career of the man who is now his directeur sportif at Cannondale-Garmin, when the attainment of the goal he had worked so hard to achieve – the life of a professional cyclist – suddenly left him empty.
“At one point he [Wegelius] talks about being in Italy and going on this drinking binge and he completely cracks and goes off the rails. And he’s just at his point where, ‘What am I doing here? I wanted to do this, this was my dream, and now I have zero interest in doing this,’ and there are just certain points in the book where I felt, ‘I know exactly what you are talking about.’”
Dombrowski highlights the parallel between Sky and Wegelius’ former employer, Mapei: the big budget team with a grand plan to do things differently.
“I remember my first year at Sky coming and living in Europe. I was living by myself, I got to April in the first season and I finally just broke down. I was in my apartment all alone. My friend Ian Boswell came to the team with me, and he had been out of town, so every day I was going out and training by myself,” Dombrowski recalls.
“I remember at one point, I Skyped my mum and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve spoken to anyone in five days.’ All the guys were out of town, and I thought, ‘I haven’t talked to anyone for a week.’ I just remember how hard that was.”
He laughs now at the memory and how he has grown to enjoy life in Nice. At the time of Boswell’s absence, his suddenly hermetic experience was enough to drive him home, to ask the team for a break after the Giro del Trentino and to surreptitiously extend it on the pre-text of completing a visa application at the embassy in Washington.
It’s surprising that in the modern era teams do not consider the value of a social network to the young men who carry their sporting and commercial ambitions. Meet the riders who compete at the highest level of the sport and it’s impossible to ignore their youth. In another life, they would they would be trainees, apprentices or undergraduates. In cycling, they hold the ultimate responsibility for the return on often significant investments.

Ambassadors and moving billboards
Dombrowski is not unaware of the rider’s commercial responsibilities: that he is, to use his own words, a moving billboard. If you accept a de facto role as ambassador to the companies who sign the cheques, he reasons, you should be prepared to be a good one.
“And people are always watching,” he adds, warming to his theme. “You sort of get used to it. At races we’re always in the limelight and you don’t necessarily realise that people are very observant of what you’re doing.

“When I think back to when I was younger…” He pauses. “I’m still a fan of the sport, but I’m not super excited about seeing a bunch of shiny team buses lined up, like I used to be. I wouldn’t say that I have the same observant eye that I used to, but when you’re a young kid, or a fan, you pick up on everything. As a rider, it’s important to realise that and be respectful of the fact that people really follow closely what you do.”
Dombrowski must be something of a sponsor’s dream: an articulate young man with a keen awareness of his importance to the team’s wider ambitions. He suggests that “in the heat of battle”, some riders lose this perspective; that in the immediate aftermath of a race, a rider craves the sanctuary of the team bus. He should cut himself some slack, I suggest, having already taken far more of his time than we’d bargained for.
The peloton, happily, is not short of ambassadors like this young American. The sport’s dark past lingers on in the form of the previous generation, but in articulate young men like Dombrowski, Tinkoff-Saxo’s Chris Juul-Jensen and world champion Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-QuickStep), cycling has spokesmen to be proud of.

Creative racing
Dombrowski will race at the Tour of Utah during his visit home and return to Europe in time to contest the Vuelta, perhaps even leading Cannondale-Garmin. Fabio Aru, the rider he beat to win the Giro Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc in 2011, has five Grand Tour stage victories and two podiums to his credit. His team-mate Davide Formolo, also won a stage of the Giro, and might also race in Spain.

Cannondale-Garmin lacks Sky’s strength in depth, but race more creatively as a result, Dombrowski believes. He offers Andrew Talanksy’s victory at last year’s Criterium du Dauphiné to support his argument.
Would Talansky have beaten Froome or Contador in a drag race into Courchevel on stage six? Unlikely, he reasons, but by attacking almost from the gun, getting away with 20 other riders on the Côte de Domancy, he gave himself a chance.
“If you want to win, sometimes it requires more creative tactics, and in doing that you have to risk losing,” Dombrowski reasons. “And I think that is the difference with this team: they throw everything out there and put it on the line and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out.”

No ordinary Joe
He says he feels reinvigorated by changing team, as well as returning to full strength since surgery to repair the iliac artery in his left leg. The process of training – “of being the best bike rider I can be” – again inspires him.
It would be fair to describe Dombrowski’s mood as upbeat, but when the press camp to launch Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO race bike ends the following day, he is homeward bound, to a life and friends that seem of almost equal importance to him as his career.

“I get a lot of out of both sides of it, and both sides are refreshing. At this point in the season, I’ve been racing since San Luis, and I haven’t had any break since then: I’ve just been training, full gas, doing racing.
“Now, at this point in the season, I’m kind of ready to let my guard down for a bit and reset for the second half. But then after a break, I’m ready to just get back into that routine and that process. I really love that process of ticking all the boxes and doing everything right.”
Such dedication will surely reap its just rewards. Freed from the physical constraints of a condition that went undiagnosed for too long, Dombrowski is back in form and hungry for success. He has adapted to life in Europe and has a work-life balance that transcends continents. In Cannondale, he is trusted with leadership, but operates within a tactical framework in which creativity is prized above control. Articulate and clearly intelligent, Dombrowski is no ordinary Joe. La Vuelta may yet see the best of him.
1 spoke to Joe Dombrowski at the launch of Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO and CAAD12 bikes

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