Dombrowski comes of age at Tour of Utah

Cannondale-Garmin's Joe Dombrowski did more than just win a bike race last week at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah.

His victory over Grand Tour veterans like Fränk Schleck (Trek Factory Racing) and Chris Horner (Airgas-Safeway) obviously announced his return to form as one of cycling's climbing prodigies, but it was his seamless ascent into his team's leadership role after two-time Utah winner Tom Danielson's suspension that showed how much he's grown.

Dombrowski, 24, sat at the dais of the post-race press conference last week in Utah following his first pro stage race win, his flat-billed ballcap resting loosely on his head as he coolly explained his decision to ride conservatively on the final stage, choosing to protect his GC lead rather than using his fresh-feeling legs to dance away to his second consecutive stage win.

The Joe Dombrowski on the Utah stage didn't look so much like a kid who'd made a splashy entry into the sport but then struggled during his two years with Team Sky, failing to live up to some of the early expectations. The rider on the podium was a seasoned pro with the maturity to rally his troops in the face of adversity and then calmly execute a winning plan.

"I did my first two years at Team Sky as a neo-pro and, yeah, I struggled a little bit in the first couple years," Dombrowski admitted to the assembled journalists. "Last year I was off the bike for quite awhile when I had the surgery on my iliac artery.

"So far it's been a really good year for me. I've made steady progress. Anytime you have a long hiatus like that, you fix something and you think you're going to be straight back to the top, but it's not a linear progression."

Dombrowski showed the first signs of his returning prowess in the mountains this January at the Tour de San Luis, where he finished seventh on the Queen stage and seventh overall. Since then he's put in 39 race days, slowly building back his form and his confidence on his way to fourth overall at Tour of California, second at the US professional championships and his win last week.

His last race was the Tour de Suisse in June, and since then he's been targeting his return at the Tour of Utah, where presumably he would be helping 37-year-old Danielson go for his third win. That all changed, of course, when Danielson tested positive for synthetic testosterone in an out-of-competition test.
Rather than skulking off to lick their wounds, Dombrowski rallied his teammates before stage 1 as they waited on the team bus.

"Obviously it's not what any of us want to hear coming into the week," he said. "Morale was a little low the first couple stages on the bus. But I have to say I'm pretty impressed with the team as a whole and how we've moved on from that.

"I said to the guys on the team bus the first day, 'I think we can win this race still. I think that with you guys individually we can win stages as well, so let's not focus on that. Let's focus on the race and see what we and make of it and be as positive about this as we can.'"

The team responded with a second-place finish on the opening day after Alex Howes made it into a late breakaway of five. From there the team rode a solid race to keep Dombrowski in good shape when he decided to launch his bid for the overall win.

Through five stages, Dombrowski held his place within striking distance of yellow and then jumped away on the out-of-category climb to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort on the penultimate day, beating his nearest rivals by more than a minute and leading the overall by 50 seconds.

On the last day, Dombrowski rode like a man accustomed to wearing yellow, never panicking and sticking to his rivals' wheels on the final climb of the race, the out-of-category climb over Empire Pass, even though his legs were screaming for him to attack.

"I felt good on the final climb today," he said after Sunday's final stage. "Since we were kind of bringing the break back at the bottom of the climb, I was like, 'Do I do this aggressively and try to win another stage? Or do I just take it easy?' I just felt like the best thing to do was be conservative and not take any risks.

"I just followed over the climb, and then over the top Brent [Bookwalter] and Lachlan [Norris] went away there. And for me, I mean I knew the descent pretty well; I've been riding the last two weeks here in Park City. So I knew, yeah, they could get a gap and maybe they'd be 20 seconds up, but for me, in terms of my GC spot and the gap I had, it wasn't really significant."

Dombrowski called it correctly, of course, with Norris and Bookwalter taking first and second on the stage but never really threatening the overall.

Dombrowski was calm, cool and collected from start to finish, and then maybe a just a little understated at the very end.

"I think it was a good week for us," he said while wearing the final yellow jersey of his first pro stage race win. "Obviously that was a negative to start the week, but it finished out pretty well for us I think."

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