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He grew up on a rural farm in the foothills of western Virgina just outside Shenandoah. His parents, engineers working for the same company, sat next to each other at work. He was a normal kid. He played lacrosse, attack. Throughout middle school and high school he had various jobs. First Subway, then Jerry’s Subs and Pizza—There was this sub called the T-N-T that had these fried jalapeño poppers on it. That made it the T-N-T, it wasn’t just a cheesesteak. But I never remembered the T-N-T poppers, so it was usually just a cheesesteak.—then Blue Ridge Mountain Sports.

“At some point in the middle of his sophomore year, because his friends raced and because he thought it looked like fun, he showed up to a mountain bike race on a 100-degree day. In a t-shirt and tennis shoes—no water bottle. He raced Junior Beginner, he finished seventh out of ten. Six years later he won the Baby Giro and hired an agent.”

Trying to weigh contracts and offers is really tough, especially for Neo-Pros. There are so many U23 riders that are really talented, but when they go up to the Pro Tour teams they get lost in the shuffle. People are always saying, whatever happened to that guy? I don’t want to be THAT guy.”- JOE DOMBROWSKIInside the Ogden Marriot, the day before the start of the 2012 Tour of Utah, in the pool room –  rubber chairs, plastic tables, chlorine-humidity, big windows, lots of sun, and staff (hotel and team) comings and goings – we (MFS) interviewed Joe Dombrowski. For two hours we talked about horses, George Mason University, rumors (Sky), basektball, the Lab at JMU, Chris Horner & Hincapie & Levi, racing cross in road kit, his VO2Max (86), etc.

 

The following story of Joe’s path from high school to the Pro Tour is in his own words.

At first I had no idea I was good, but I kept at it, I enjoyed it. In my junior year of high school I started getting serious; I wasn’t fast but I was getting better. That year I went to MTB Nationals at Mt. Snow and raced Junior Expert. I don’t remember how it went, but probably not super well. I had kit at that point but my legs were still hairy.

After graduation I went to George Mason University. My parents wanted me to go to college and I wasn’t serious enough about racing at that point to consider the alternative. They were fine with cycling of course, but I was 18 and they put the responsibility on me; I had to pay for bikes, find my own way to races, etc. In 2010, my freshman year at GMU, I started racing the local early season Mid-Atlantic Cat 4 road races. Three months later I was Cat 1. In July I went to Bend and raced the Cascade Classic. I was 18 and riding alone but I finished 20th overall in the Pro/Cat 1 GC and was fifth in the Young Rider Classification. That’s where I met Axel for the first time. He asked me if I wanted to race with the team (Trek-Livestrong at the time) at the Tour of Utah as a stagiaire. None of this felt normal.

Utah was cool, I got to ride with this team that had all the best guys: Ian Boswell (now on Sky), Ben King (Radioshack Leopard Trek), Taylor Phinney (BMC), etc. At first it was sort of awkward because the team is so young and so close—it’s different than any other sort of cycling team. Other teams have dudes who are dads and older guys and younger guys. They aren’t going out for Froyo every night as a team. I came into this team when they’d already meshed. I was the “new guy.” But it worked out well; we all got along and I rode pretty alright – 27th overall. That same year I went to the lab at JMU to get some numbers run—we did VO2 max and lactic acid tests—and they said they hadn’t seen anything like it.

“They told me my VO2 max was 86, while a normal American is about 45 and Lance was 83. They told me I was in the top, you know, tenth of a percent. They told me I wasn’t normal.”

That’s when I thought maybe I really can do this. But even then I knew my physiology wasn’t a guaranteed ticket for success. Cyclists are machines, we have to be to some degree. But I love what I do, so much so that it’s not a sacrifice to give up a lot of things that most people would consider sacrifices, or to go through things most people wouldn’t. It’s what I want to do.

After the Tour of Utah in 2010, Axel offered me a spot on Bontrager-Livestrong in 2011. Of course I said yeah. I was planning on taking that next spring semester off anyway and this was a good opportunity. I hadn’t been doing this very long, so why not take some time off and give it a shot? I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. At the time it all just seemed cool. I had no idea if I would be on the team the following year, I just wanted to see what would happen.

The confidence and self-belief builds over time. I have it now. Say you’re a kid in HS playing varsity basketball. Of course if you could make it to the NBA that would be great, but how many kids actually make it? In all likelihood, and on any given team, none. But that’s professional sports. Now that I’ve been a part of this learning curve for a for a few years, I’m starting to see the signs. I’ve moved out of “probably not” and “maybe” and even “probably” into “this is happening now.”

I did well at Gila. I won a jersey and was on the podium at Ronde de l’Isard. I went with the USA National team to the Giro della Valle d’Aosta in Italy and won the big stage and got second overall, which was huge. But everything took off with the Baldy stage during the Tour of California. I remember making the left turn onto Mt. Baldy road and seeing that sign and knowing that was it. I felt pretty comfortable. I saw Levi and Gesink next to me and thought, “Okay, I’m positioned well.” Then I looked back thinking I’d just come up to the front for whatever reason but really there were maybe 10 guys there. I distinctly remember moving up next to this little train of Rabobank guys wondering if I’m supposed to drop off the back or something. Like, what now? What am I doing here? That morning Axel told me to go for it, it was my day. He probably would have been happy with 15th. I knew I shouldnt attack because if I did I would have blown  up. But in retrospect, why didn’t I attack? I think if I’d known what I had in me at the bottom of Baldy, when everyone’s just looking around, I would have gone. No one would have followed me, figuring I’d get caught soon enough. I got fourth.

“That next day, in the peloton, all the guys from English-speaking teams, guys like Chris Horner and Hincapie, came up to me saying things like, ‘Hey that was crazy,’ and asking me questions. What were my plans for next year, what am I doing next, that sort of thing.”

That sparked some interest. But after I won the Baby Giro, my phone really started going nuts. At that point I had maybe 15 different offers, mostly from Pro Tour and some Pro Continental teams. At first I was like, “Oh I dunno how I feel about agents,” but I was spending four hours a day on the phone. I can’t do that. So I got an agent. All of these different teams have different things to offer. My very first contact with Sky was with Bobby Julich. It was cool. First, because he’s American which made it more comfortable for me. And then he told me, “Look, I live in Nice, I work with five or six guys, three are in Monaco, and if you come to the team I’ll probably be working with you. I think it’ll be a good match; you’re from the US and I know how to make you better at the TT. I’m getting better at TT but it’s not my thing right now.

The smaller teams, some Pro Continental and smaller Pro Tour teams, were selling me like, “We think you have the potential in a few years to win some one week races like CA, Dauphine. We think you can win California.” And that sounds great, to step into a role where I’m a team leader. The thing is, on the bigger Pro Tour teams where you won’t have the opportunity to play that role for awhile, you may get opportunities at some of the smaller races in Europe and you will be riding with and learning from the top GC guys in the world. That’s hard to turn down.

At first I didn’t want to talk about it with a lot of the guys on the team. The whole point of the team is for all of us to move on, but the reality is that not all of us will go up. Not everyone can be a Pro Tour rider. But in reality, everyone was interested. I’ve been traveling with these guys and racing with these guys, and they’re just excited. I can talk about it with them, it’s cool.

I guess I’m the one buying yogurt now, you know?”

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