For all intents and purposes, the Tour of California will mark the beginning of Joe Dombrowski's second season with Team Sky. The 22-year-old American has been dealing with nagging knee pain since January, and he's wracked up only two race days so far this year.
"I started Coppi e Bartali, but it was somewhat due to the fact that we were short on guys," Dombroswki told Cyclingnews in advance of the California start on Sunday.
"It was like, 'We know your knee is injured, but we just don't have the guys, so you at least need to just go and start,'" he said of the Italian race in late March. "I ended up doing a couple of days and then pulling out."
Dombrowski finished Coppi e Bartali's first day, which included a road race and a team trial. But he did not finish the stage 2 road race on the second day and has not raced since. By comparison, Dombrowski had 25 race days by this time last year.
Dombrowski returned to the US in early April and sought treatment at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, where x-rays eventually revealed that one of his legs is shorter than the other.
"It's sort of hard to diagnose, but it's relatively easy to fix," he said. "It will take some time to even back out and get back into it. I've done three weeks of decent training now. So it was good to get that sorted out. I'm just happy really to be back riding my bike and be back on the race schedule."
The California race will be just his second opportunity to compete in the US with Team Sky. Dombroswki started the USA Pro Challenge in Colorado last year but had to drop out of that race after suffering multiple nose bleeds on stage 1. An ear, nose and throat specialist determined Dombroswki had an over abundance of blood vessels near the surface of the kin inside his nose, and the dry, hot Colorado air caused some of them to crack and bleed. Doctors solved that problem cauterizing the blood vessels.
"It's not really too invasive," he said of the procedure. "It's uncomfortable for a couple of weeks, but since then I haven't had a nose bleed. So that's good."
Now Dombrowski is focused on getting back into full swing in the California peloton while helping team leader Bradley Wiggins try and bring home the overall win. Dombroswki said the team had originally planned for him to be a key lieutenant for Wiggins in the mountains. But with Dombrowski's current fitness a bit of a mystery, his role is up in the air at this point.
"In terms of exactly what my role will be within the team - if they use me earlier or if they kind of save me for the mountain days - I'm not sure yet," he said. "We brought Bradley here to try and win the GC, so I think with that stage 2 time trial coming pretty early - and it looks like it's pretty well suited to him - if he can win that time trial then it's probably a case of us looking after him and defending that lead throughout the rest of the week."
Dombrowski said the course is well-suited to his team leader, with the early time trial flowing into two climbing days that he says do not look overly difficult.
"[Diablo is] not too steep, and it's quite a fast climb," Dombrowski said. "I think there will be a considerable group well into the climb there, because it's not the most selective. The Mountain High finish we rode as well. I think that's probably the harder of the mountain days. But again, I just don't know. It doesn't look like it's as hard as in the past when there has been a finish on Baldy or Sierra Road. I don't think it's going to be as selective as that."
The route should provide a good reintroduction to racing for Dombrowski, who said he is champing at the bit to get back into the thick of it.
"I'm just looking forward to getting back to training and racing again," he said. "It's been kind of a slow start, and obviously no one wants to start the year with an injury, but you just have to look at what you can make of it. At least you can look forward to later in the year and kind of shift some of your goals and target something later in the season."
Bayern Rundfahrt in Germany will be next on Dombrowski's schedule after California. He said the initial plan for the season included the Tour de Suisse and a build up toward his first Grand Tour start at the Vuelta a España, but everything is a bit in limbo now.
"We'll see what pans out throughout the year," he said. "I think [the Vuelta] would be a good way to do my first Grand Tour. Especially starting the year late like this, I definitely would not mind racing later into the year as well."