American 'cross racer Amy Dombroski will be based in Belgium for the second straight season, but while last year's campaign was contested as a one-woman team for CrankBrothers, this year Dombroski will be contesting a European schedule as part of Belgium's powerhouse Telenet-Fidea squad.
Dombroski had already debuted her Young Telenet-Fidea kit Stateside in several local 'cross races in Colorado, followed by the first UCI C1-ranked race in the US at Cross Vegas, but it wasn't until the team presentation on Tuesday that the 25-year-old American could officially confirm her place on the squad's roster.
"I actually signed back in May and had to keep it a secret until Tuesday at the team presentation," Dombroski told Cyclingnews from her base in Belgium. "Last year CrankBrothers allowed me to spend the whole ['cross] season over here and I was hoping to continue on with them but they needed to switch focus more to mountain biking. I really needed a break after last winter and I just didn't want to focus fully on mountain biking and as it went this summer I rode my mountain bike a handful of times.
"I had to leave that team and then luckily Telenet-Fidea took me on. I was just trying to use the contacts that I had made through the winter, sending emails, sending my resume around, trying to make myself seem better than I am [laughs]. A couple of teams responded - some were full, some just not interested and Telenet-Fidea was the one that worked out."
CrossVegas provided the biggest venue thus far this season for Dombroski to show her new squad what she was capable of, but after finishing on the podium the previous two years she finished a disappointing ninth place.
"I really wanted to win that race and I was very confident going into it," said Dombroski. "I think I rode a perfect race up until the final lap and then things just fell apart. I actually didn't really know what had happened when I finished the race. I ended up watching the replay of it and I realized that on the final lap I had bobbled on stairs after the barrier section. I screwed up from there and I was totally tapped from attacking on the prior lap, I was just closing gaps."
"I think my head fell off more than anything, I thought, 'No! This isn't how this race is supposed to unfold...I'm supposed to win this!'. It was unfortunate and I was very angry at myself. Hans [van Kasteren], my big boss, was there and it was not how I wanted it to go. I really wanted to be at least on the podium. At the same time, for the last two seasons I've started out really fast there and the rest of the season has gone downhill from there, so it could bode well for this winter."
Dombroski will be able to rely on a return to a familiar part of Belgium where she's already well-acquainted with training routes plus can capitalize on the full entourage of the Telenet-Fidea support system at races.
"Last year I was in a pretty massive flat that I had all to myself and this year I'm basically with a family - they're friends I stayed with when I first came over probably five years ago. I'd come over for a few weeks at a time, like the normal Americans do," said Dombroski. "It's a very similar location, about five kilometres from where I was last year. I got over here this past weekend and I've been able to go out and build training routes that I had discovered last year. So there's no break-in period there, which is good.
"Last year I basically had Simon Burney who brought me to all the races, he did all the work in the pits and everything. It was just kind of myself and him - a two-man team. This season obviously we have the massive camper van, which is [Zdenek] Stybar's old van, and the entourage that travels around with the team. I'm really excited to see how the added support can hopefully make me go faster this season.
"In the cold races it's so important not to be shivering in a tiny station wagon before the race so I think just the addition of the camper van is going to be a big help. Plus there's three bikes, six sets of wheels - lots of good equipment."
Pre-season training session
While Dombroski had already known a few of her teammates from competing in Europe last season, she had an opportunity over the summer to meet the entire Telenet-Fidea squad. "I got to know them fairly well since in August we had a team camp in St. Moritz, Switzerland. That was for two weeks and that's where I first met everyone. I knew two of the girls just from racing last season and three of them are fairly close to where I am right now. One of them is the Czech rider, Pavla [Havlikova], and she's going to spend part of the winter in the same house as me so we've been training together and we drove to the presentation together.
"After the presentation everyone lives really close so we went out for a training ride in the woods next to where the presentation was. So having more connections and knowing more of the girls, I'm training more with other people now, whereas last year there were some road group rides but the rest of the training I was doing on my own."
The importance of 'cross Worlds
Like all world-class American 'cross racers, Dombroski has extra motivation this season with the world championships taking place on home soil in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 2-3.
"It's massive, and I worry that they may never return so I'm very motivated for it," said Dombroski. "I know that more and more women are as well. I've heard that Mary McConneloug is going to be trying for the team. Last year I think the competition for the team was very deep and all five of us just got automatic selections through getting top 15 in World Cups so I think that says a huge amount for the level of girls in the US. I think that will only be better this year. I think they're changing the automatic qualifications for the world championship team so that will make it harder and make it more important for these girls that do want to make the team to come over to Europe.
"I think I'll kind of have an upper hand already being over here, but that said every year the competition gets better and better so I just need to be getting better myself, which I think I am.
"Last year I had one result that I was really happy about: sixth at the Plzen World Cup. I just hope I can build on that and have more consistency. After that I got sick, didn't listen to my body, and just got sicker and sicker. The rest of the season was a wash. I'm really happy that I've come back to Europe and can build on all that I learned last year about myself, about my body, about my training and about my racing. I've shown I'm capable of riding that strong, it's just a matter of consistently riding that strong."
Women's racing in Europe
One of the draws for Dombroski to race a full European season last year was that for the first time all UCI C1-rated races were required to hold a women's race on the program. There are more C1 events in Europe than the US, and this year the women's World Cup will be a full eight races in duration, the same as the men. With all of these points-rich racing opportunities in a relatively compact area it's still the ideal locale for accumulating precious UCI points which means better start positions on the grid.
"Like in America, I think it's getting bigger and bigger every year," said Dombroski of women's 'cross races in Europe. "You saw those C1 races added last season, but unfortunately a lot of them the men's race would be at 2pm or 3pm while the women's race would be at 9:10am. That's unfair, I guess is a good word. It's a step in the right direction but a lot more needs to be done.
"Fans are basically a lot more receptive to it now. I think that we'll see a change in the times this year so that we go right before the men, as we're supposed to. It's growing and it's getting better but change can't happen overnight. I think we have to be happy with what we're given and then continue to make those strides to make it better."
Dombroski kicks off her European campaign on Saturday at the Fidea GP Neerpelt in Neerpelt, Belgium. She'll remain in Europe until the US national championships, taking place in mid-January, and assuming she makes the Worlds squad Dombroski will remain Stateside through the world championships. Afterwards it's back to Belgium where 'cross season continues through the end of February.