Joe Dombrowski’s roller-coaster career took its most significant upwards turn to date on Tuesday as the UAE Team Emirates pro rider claimed a notable lone triumph in the 2021 Giro d’Italia’s first tough hilly stage 4 in Sestola.
“Success is not always a straight line,” said the 29-year-old American, who dropped Alessandro De Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation) just four kilometres from the finish.
“There are good moments and difficult ones," he told reporters when they asked him why a big win had been so long in coming. “But today was a good day for me and to come away with a stage win, the King of the Mountains jersey, and also to be second on GC is a really nice way to start the Giro.
“Normally, I’ve felt at my best in the last weeks in the mountains and today on paper was not a day that really suited me. But I have to take my opportunities when they’re there and today they [team management] said I could try for the breakaway.”
Part of a large move of 25 riders that formed early, Dombrowski said later that he knew that De Marchi, a well-known breakaway specialist, would be the right wheel to follow. He and the Italian caught and dropped Chris Juul-Jensen (Team BikeExchange) and Intermarche’s Rein Taaramae halfway up the final climb.
Towards the top, the American stomped on the pedals to go clear, and he claimed the USA’s first win in the Giro since Chad Haga clinched the final TT in Milan back in 2019, and his first at WorldTour level since turning pro in 2013.
“After 40 to 50 kilometres we got a good time gap, to seven or eight minutes, so I knew that we were racing to win the stage, and also that there were a couple guys 20 or 30 seconds closer than me on GC for the pink jersey,” said Dombrowski, who is now second overall at 22 seconds, a gain of 88 places compared to Monday.
“So, I tried to use that to my advantage, I knew they also were motivated so they would pull more than the others and you can stay on their wheel and then on the last climb, I felt good.”
It was inevitable Tuesday that the maglia rosa would move from Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers) onto new shoulders because of the break, but it was not Dombrowski's turn in pink, yet. Asked if he felt a little upset at not having taken the overall lead on top of everything else, he replied, “It’s hard to say you’re disappointed when you win a stage.
“I rode hard to the line because many times you don’t know if the gap you’re hearing on the radio is completely correct and it would have been nice to take the pink jersey. But I’m still really happy and I know there’s a sprint stage coming up, but then the day after” - when the Giro faces its first proper summit finish - “maybe that’s an opportunity.”
His last big win in Italy was from the U-23 Giro back in 2012. Dombrowski won the 2015 Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah and was third in a stage in the 2016 Giro, but his early promise failed to materialize in major wins until this Tuesday. Questions about how he had handled that situation personally were all but inevitable.
“If I look back, sometimes I wonder would it have been better to wait one or two more years to turn pro and I would say 'yes', because I was a little bit late coming to road cycling and it’s a big jump going from U-23 to WorldTour, with how it is to ride in the bunch and the speed in the bunch," he noted. “But I feel I’ve taken good things away from all the teams I’ve been in and I’m very happy in this one."
Twelfth in the Giro d’Italia back in 2019 is his best result in a Grand Tour, which, apart from a possible spell in the pink jersey in the days to come, also augers well for a possible overall classification bid over the three weeks.
The subject had not come up for discussion prior to Tuesday in the team, Dombrowski revealed, with his assigned role in the squad initially as a team helper, as well as getting into breaks.
He pointed out that they have several leaders in the squad with Fernando Gaviria for the sprints and Diego Ulissi as well for some tougher uphill sprint stages and Davide Formolo for the GC.
However, he did not say he would reject such an option.
“I haven’t thought about it, but with three-week races, it’s better to come into it with an open mind and it’s a very different dynamic to a week-long race, a lot can change quickly.
“I think just taking opportunities when you can and then brushing off the bad days is the best way to do it. So I haven’t thought so much about GC, but if it develops that way then - why not?”
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