If Joe Dombrowski is feeling any pressure as the start of his title defence at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah approaches, you'd be hard pressed to notice.
The 25-year-old Cannondale-Drapac rider was calm, cool and collected at the pre-race press conference Sunday, holding court with the press as he joked about his ongoing mustache-growing contest with teammate Alex Howes.
"We'll be doing stage-by-stage updates," Dombrowski deadpanned when asked about the facial-hair battle.
"I had a good race here last year, and I think like the other American guys were saying, when you've been in Europe all year it's nice to come back to beers, burgers and 4th of July barbecues and whatnot. It's good to be back."
Dombrowski took the first win of his pro career in Utah last year, soloing to the Queen stage victory at Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort on his way to winning the overall. He's back this year to try and notch Cannondale's fourth consecutive overall win in the race, but he'll happily tell you that he's not feeling any pressure to perform.
"I think, to be honest, I don't know that it really changes so much," he told Cyclingnews following the press conference. "Maybe the team looks to do a little bit more work than otherwise. But that said, this team's come into the race defending the last few years, so I don't know that it makes that much difference. Maybe some guys feel that there's a bit more pressure. But I'm pretty relaxed."
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"There's a little pressure on the young kid because he's never won anything before last year," Horner told Cyclingnews. "So now, not only has he not anything won anything since, but he's coming in as defending champion and everyone knows it. So there's going to be a lot of pressure. Of course the press wants more of his time. The fans want more of his time. Everyone knows who he is, the whole group knows."
Horner said Dombrowski benefited from not being the outright favourite last year when he attacked the GC group on the climb to Snowbird to take the race lead, a factor that won't be in the defending champion's corner this year.
"When he went last year [on his way to taking the race lead at Snowbird], he wasn't the outright favourite so there was a little bit of hesitation – not much because you know he's good – but there's a little hesitation – not from me, I just couldn't follow, to be clear – but with the other groups of guys there was a slight hesitation when you've never won anything before. It's just a fact.
"So now he has a lot of pressure," Horner continued. "Also, last year he had no pressure from his team, so his team is not riding on the front for him like they're going to have to this week. They're going to have to ride Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday all the way to the end of the stage on Saturday. So he's got a lot of pressure built up to perform on Saturday afternoon. It's a whole different dynamic."
Interestingly, Horner was not among the favourites Dombrowski reeled off when asked about his rivals for this year's title. Dombrowski listed Jelly Belly's Lachlan Morton, who won the Tour of the Gila earlier this year, and Colombian Darwin Atapuma from BMC.
"He was good in the Giro," Dombrowski said of Atapuma. "I think guys, like every bike race, will come out of the woodwork, too, so you can't really write anyone off."
Dombrowski will also have the assistance of talented teammate Andrew Talansky, who is preparing to tackle the Vuelta a Espana alongside Dombrowski later this month. The entire Cannondale-Drapac roster in Utah includes Howes, Alberto Bettiol, Phil Gaimon, Ben King and stagiaire Jonathan Dibben.
"My job is to stay out of trouble the first couple days, the first part of the week," Dombrowski said. "But for the rest of the guys I think we'll go for it with breakaways, and we even have some guys who are pretty fast finishers, so on the days that it comes all together for a bunch sprint we can look toward them, too. I think there are a lot of guys we can attack the race with."