Joe Dombrowski (Cannondale) desperately wanted to win the final mountain stage 20 of the Giro d'Italia. He has covered the mountain climb numerous times in long training rides up from his European base in Nice and was hoping to win in front of his parents, who had also ridden up the climb and reached the isolated group of buildings that cluster around the Sant'Anna di Vinadio monastery.
Dombrowski has tried several times to win a mountain stage in this year's race and showed his strength and ability with eighth place in the mountain time trial. On stage 20, he again went deep to get in the break of the day, going on the attack after just four kilometres of the Col de Vars and joining a select group of eight rides that would go on to fight for the stage victory.
The break stayed together on the Col de la Bonette but then Dombrowski attacked early on the Colle della Lombarda to split the group. Only Atapuma and Visconti could go with him but then Kangert and Taaramae caught them. He had struggled to get across but attacked three kilometres from the summit and the others were unable to go with him. It was the moment that decided the stage winner, with Taaramae becoming the first Estonian winner of a stage at the Giro d'Italia.
Atapuma finished second at 52 seconds, with a disappointed Dombrowski third at 1:17.
"I felt like I could win and I've wanted to win a mountain stage in this Giro since the start of the year. And this was really the one because it I know all the roads, my family was there with a kilometre to go. I wanted to win really bad today but it doesn't always work out," Dombrowski said as he recovered from his effort.
"We came here riding for Rigo (Rigoberto Uran) and that was the main thing and then as a secondary thing, if I could go for a stage that's what I wanted to do: to try to win a mountain stage. But you know… on almost every mountain day I've been up in the front doing something or trying something. Today was the closest I came to actually taking a stage.
"If you want to win, unless you are going to win out of the GC group and follow the GC group, you have to try a lot. For me at this point, I can't take off from Nibali so I have to take my opportunities when they come and tried to do that every day that suits me."
The American admitted that he perhaps underestimated Taaramae as he chased a stage victory.
"Yeah I think so. He lives in Monaco and I know he trains out here too. He knows all the roads. On a climb like that when it is a bit headwind, a bit tactical and you have to use your energy in the right places … I think he rode a super good race."
Dombrowski also knows the area and the climbs.
"I know the climb super well because Team Sky's come up here from Nice to train at altitude," he explained.
"In the summer we do these DIY training camps up here; it's just a few of us Americans. It's kind of fun. We have done a bike packing trip. There's nothing up here so you have to bring all your groceries up from Nice. The riding is incredible if you are riding six hours a day. It's also only a little over an hour from Nice so on a rest day we just drive down and go to the beach.
"I tried to attack at the bottom because I knew it was hard and then it was not has hard as afterward, so I wanted to make a bit of a selection. But there was a headwind coming up so it made it a bit tactical. I felt good, I was good, so I attacked a couple of times, followed some stuff and I think Visconti and myself weren't really expecting Taaramae to just chip off the front, there was a bit of hesitation. You look at the strongest guy and you follow him, and if somebody comes back you think: 'They are not going anywhere' but it turned out he was going somewhere."
On the way back to his best
Dombrowski excels in the high mountains and on the long Alpine passes. After a difficult early spell in his career, when he lost more than a season of activity due to an iliac artery issue in his leg that was only resolved with surgery and a gradual return to racing and training, he showed the ability, especially on the big climbs, that allowed him to win the 2012 amateur Giro Baby, and take two mountain stages, including one on the legendary Passo Gavia. He is still only 25 but proved he can fight for stages victories, even in the third week of a difficult Grand tour like the Giro d'Italia.
"You know I think I may be a little different than most riders in that for me the third week is usually easier than the first," he explained.
"That's just because I think I am not super punchy or fast, but I can keep going and going. I think Grand Tours suit me. After the 2015 Vuelta I was pretty tired by the end but coming out of this Giro I feel better. I was talking to my roommate (Nate Brown). Like every stage is hard, it's hard during the stage, but I don't feel any more tired than at a hard training camp."
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