Joe Dombrowski has recovered from a blocked iliac artery in his left leg that rendered him chronically injured for nearly two years, and he is ready to restart his career in 2015. The young American talent rode for Team Sky in 2013 and 2014. He has been given a second shot at the WorldTour with Cannondale-Garmin this year and it could mark the beginning of his steady progression back to being one of the sport’s future stars.
The 23-year-old spoke with Cyclingnews in a one-on-one interview at the recent Cannondale-Garmin team launch in New York City, where he described his turbulent debut on the WorldTour, recovering from surgery to correct his iliac artery injury, and where he sees his career headed under the guidance of Jonathan Vaughters. He will debut in the new-look Cannondale-Garmin kit at the Tour de San Luis that starts in Argentina on Monday.
“The last year and a half, I had some setbacks with injuries. I didn’t race the majority of last season, and that is what it is… I can’t change that. Hopefully going into this year, everything is fixed,” Dombrowski said.
“I want to continue forward, to progress as a GC rider and to become a better racer in general. Coming off of injury, I need to get back to climbing with the front group and being able to stay with the fast guys during the selective points of the race. I’m looking for steady progress.”
Dombrowski didn’t have the start he had always dreamed of during his first two season on the WorldTour with Team Sky. He raced very little compared to most other riders on that level and spent much of that time suffering from what he thought was a knee injury. His discomfort only occurred while riding and led to a lot of frustration. It took his doctors until June of last year, after racing the Tour de Suisse, to diagnose him with a partially blocked iliac artery, which reduced the blood flow to his left leg, and caused a significant loss of power and numbness.
“There was nothing ever really wrong with my knee, other than it was a little irritated when I would ride, and there weren’t any big changes that would have brought that about,” Dombrowski explained.
“About a year and a half ago, I started having vague symptoms of a lack of power in my left leg, which was the same limb that my knee was bothering me on. After a year of dealing with it, we found out that I had a damaged iliac artery. I was compensating pretty heavily for it and my mechanics on the bike changed quite a bit. I wouldn’t be surprised if that contributed to other various issues on the bike.”
Dombrowski flew home to Virginia to have surgery in July, which meant that he wouldn't be able to ride his bike for the next two months.
“The surgery was convenient because the primary surgeon for that procedure was in Charlottesville, Virginia, which is an hour from my home town,” he said. “That made it easy. We did it in July and then I was off the bike for a couple of months. It took three months before I was out on the road and riding for a few hours at a time.”
He joined his teammates at Team Sky for the final two races of the season at the Grand Prix Cycliste de Québec City and Montréal in September but he didn’t finish either race.
American has no regrets from his two years with Team Sky
Dombrowski was widely regarded as one of the future talents of American bike racing. Four years ago, Axel Merckx picked him up to race for his development teams Trek-Livestrong in 2011 and Bontrager Pro Cycling in 2012. Both were UCI Continental teams that allowed Dombrowski to compete in many of the top under-23 races overseas and against the professional field in the US, where he excelled on the climbs.
His best results were a second overall at the Giro Ciclistico della Valle d’Aosta Mont Blanc, behind overall winner Fabio Aru, in 2011. He went on to win the Giro Ciclistico d’Italia (also known as the Baby Giro) in 2012, beating Aru by 25 seconds. He was also second in the young rider classification at the Tour of California, fourth overall and won the young rider category at the Tour of Utah, and placed 10th overall and won the young rider competition at the USA Pro Challenge.
His results led to a two-year deal with Team Sky and a place in the WorldTour. He had some respectable performances during his first season, where he helped the team to a stage win in the team time trial at the Giro del Trentino, and he was in the top 10 in the best young rider classification. He was also third on stage 1 at the Tour of Austria. In 2014, because of his injury, he started just six races and only finished two; the Tour of California in May and the Tour de Suisse in June.
Team Sky didn’t renew his contract at the end the year but he was offered a spot on Jonathan Vaugthers' Cannondale-Garmin team through 2016. He is enjoying being back on an American-based team.
“I think Cannondale-Garmin is a good environment for me,” Dombrowski said. “After last year, I had a lot of setbacks and I was trying to figure out what was going on, getting everything fixed and moving forward. This feels like a little bit of a fresh start. I had a long time off my bike and a long time away from racing, so I’ve come in motivated to have a good season.”
Dombrowski hoped for a better start to his WorldTour career but said that he has no regrets about being apart of the Team Sky program.
“I guess I could look back on the last two years and think of it as sort of a sour experience because of my injury, but no matter where you are, if you are out for most of the year, it wouldn’t have been great,” Dombrowski said. “Being on Team Sky was good and I don’t regret it at all. The team itself was good. They’re really well-organized, very professional and I learned a lot while I was there.”
Dombrowski said that he will miss Team Sky’s unlimited access to coaches, nutritionists and sport psychologists, as part of the long-list of amenities the team offers their riders.
“One thing about Sky is that they have a really impressive infrastructure in terms of rider support,” he said. “There were a lot of takeaways and I learned a lot from the people that we had access to, which turns into knowledge that I will bring forward.”
Kicking off 2015 with Cannondale-Garmin at the Tour de San Luis
Dombrowski recently met his new teammates at a Cannondale-Garmin team training camp in the British Virgin Islands, followed by a team launch in New York City. His main objective this season is to build back his top form and show consistency at all the races he starts. He will join his new teammates at the Tour de San Luis (January 19-25) in Argentina for his first race of the year. He has no personal targets and will ride in support of Colombian climber Janier Acevedo.
“What I’m looking for is consistency and being healthy,” Dombrowski said. “Last year, I did California and Suisse, and that was it, so not a whole lot of racing. First and foremost, being healthy and being consistent in the races are the two most important things.”
After the Tour de San Luis, Dombrowski will race the Vuelta Ciclista a Murcia (February 14), Classica de Almeria (February 15), Volta Ciclista a Catalunya (March 23-29), Giro del Trentino (April 21-24), Tour of California (May 10-17), USA Cycling Professional Road Championships (May 25) and the Tour de Suisse (June 13-21).
“It’s a pretty good program,” Dombrowski said. “I don’t necessarily have certain targets, just more general targets. I will be in a support role but it depends a lot on who from our team will be at certain races. I’m sure I will have opportunities here and there.”
Dombrowski is realistic about where he stands among Cannondale-Garmin’s roster, especially after his recent recovery from iliac artery surgery. He is looking forward to the opportunity that he will have to support his team leaders Andrew Talansky, Ryder Hesjedal and Dan Martin in mountainous races, and perhaps make a debut at a Grand Tour.
He hopes to regain the form he had when he won the Baby Giro three years ago, and to restore his own belief that he can, one-day, be competitive in a Grand Tour.
“I would like to do a Grand Tour this year but I don’t know if I will or not,” Dombrowski said. “I could definitely be there as a support role for our team leader. I don’t think you can go into your first GrandTour looking to set the world on fire. Just get in there and learn the ropes a bit. The first one is about experience and from there, you build on that.”