Earlier this year Joe Dombrowski made the decision to extend his stay at the Cannondale-Drapac team for a further two years – testament to the fact that, after a shaky start to his professional career at Team Sky, the young American has found his feet and is making progress.
Dombrowski was considered one of the most exciting prospects in the sport when he signed for Sky, the Baby Giro champion joining the big budget team who'd just won their first Tour de France. But, due in part to health problems – Dombrowski had to undergo surgery to repair his iliac artery – things didn't work out as planned.
"I don't necessarily regret being in Sky but, looking at it now, with the perspective and experience I have, I don't know if I'd recommend it for a first-year pro," Dombrowski told Cyclingnews at Cannondale-Drapac's off-season gathering in Catalonia.
"As a neo-pro it's easy to get lost in a team like Sky. Which I think was a little bit the case with me. They're there to win Grand Tours and everything is put into that. In your first year you might not even be ready to ride a Grand Tour yet, so what do you do then?"
After two years in each set-up, the 25-year-old is now well placed to assess the Sky years with a level head and compare the two experiences.
"I find that I've made a lot more progress at Cannondale, and I also just have a lot more fun – it's a more laid-back environment," he said.
"Sometimes, being in a smaller operation can be a good thing. Just being here, I'm placed in a greater variety of scenarios. At Sky, I was more or less riding at the front for whoever. Not that you don't learn by that, but you learn by putting yourself in different scenarios – sometimes at the front, sometimes getting bottles or jackets, sometimes in the break competing to win the stage, sometimes GC. In all those different roles you gain experience, and I think that's where I've benefited a lot from being here. My roles are a lot more diverse."
'I'm still trying to figure out how far I can go'
Dombrowski is still working out what he's capable of, but the ultimate ambition is to develop into a GC rider who can challenge for Grand Tour titles.
He got his first taste of a three-week race at last year's Vuelta a Espana, and this year he rode both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta as he stepped up his workload with a heavy 81 days of racing across the campaign.
He repeatedly found the breakaways at this year's Giro, finishing third on the penultimate day in the mountains, but 2017 could be represent a first opportunity to test the consistency expected from a GC rider.
"We have a fairly young team at the Giro next year. This year we went with Rigo [Uran] and more of a set objective, whereas next year I think it'll be a bit more free. So it may be that I go there and try for the GC, which I've never done. That could be an opportunity. But also there are other races like [Tour de] Suisse which are good opportunities for me."
Dombrowski's 2017 will take a similar shape to 2016 as he builds towards the Giro, beginning at the Vuelta a Andalucia, followed by the Volta a Catalunya. The Giro del Trentino will replace the Tour de Romandie in the run-in to the Giro, while early-season French races like the Tour du Haut Var – where "you're risking a crash that could derail your plans for the Giro" – will be sacrificed.
He will then look to take his Giro legs into the Tour de Suisse before reassessing his goals for the second half of the season, the two options being a predominantly US-based programme or the Vuelta a Espana.
"To be honest I'm not a huge fan of the Vuelta with the steep uphill finishes – they don't suit me," he said. "I don't know if there were 13 or something crazy [this year], but most are only 2-3km and super steep. So it's not really one for the pure climbers. I prefer more traditional routes."
Part of Dombrowski's development at Cannondale-Drapac can be put down to an unlikely alliance with the team's manager Jonathan Vaughters, who coaches him on a personal basis.
"I definitely have some unconventional bits of my training programme," said Dombrowski, revealing that his winter workload sees him spend just 14 hours a day on the bike.
"If you told most WorldTour riders that in the winter they're just going to ride a couple of hours a day, maybe one 4-5 hour ride a week, they might not think that's adequate.
"It's almost like training for a track rider. It's all explosive, short efforts, then I'll lift weights in the gym three or four days a week. The volume comes later, maybe around February. I did that last year – we wanted to put on some functional muscle mass and work on my anaerobic power. It was a big improvement, so it's a similar run-in to this year.
"It's a good coaching relationship. I believe in it too, which I think is a big component – maybe almost more important that you believe in it, than what you're doing specifically."
Dombrowski will turn 26 after a week of next year's Giro, which will signify the early learning-curve phase of his career drawing to an end, and the start of the phase in which he'll be expected to bring in results.
"I feel I've made good progress here the last two years, so I guess we'll see over the next couple of years how far that takes me. It's a progression, going step by step and seeing where I end up. I'd like to be a competitive GC rider, but the time frame on that – who knows?"
As for a return to Sky?
"I wouldn't write it off per se. It would depend on my situation; if I were to develop into a GC contender and I could go back in that role, then potentially. Or if I'm firmly a helper in the mountains and that's going to be my job, and there's a good opportunity for guys like that there, and they always have a rider who can deliver like Froome, maybe it would make sense. But at this point where I'm still trying to figure out how far I can go, and what I can be, it makes more sense to be somewhere where you have opportunities."
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