Joe Dombrowski's 2015 win at the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah marked the last time a WorldTour rider won the 2.HC race, as the number of division 1 teams participating since then dwindled down to a low of just one last year.
But with a new date on the calendar and reinvigorated roster of five top-tier teams, Utah is once again a prime one-week plum to be picked, and Dombrowski is back with an EF Education First-Drapac team that also boasts 2015 stage winner Michael Woods, who, while riding for the US Continental team Optum, also led the race for a day in 2015.
Dombrowski's win came on the heels of news that Cannondale teammate and defending champion Tom Danielson had returned a positive anti-doping test and had to withdraw from the race the night before stage 1. Dombrowski ably stepped in despite the psychological blow to the team, winning the Queen stage to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort and then holding off all challengers the following day on Empire Pass.
He returned as defending champion in 2016 but played the role of dutiful teammate for leader Andrew Talansky, who finished third behind Lachlan Morton (Jelly Belly-Maxxis) and Adrian Costa (Axeon Hagens Berman). Dombrowski was 11th on the Snowbird stage that year and finished eighth overall.
Dombrowski will share top billing on the EF Education First -Drapac roster this year with Woods, the 31-year-old Canadian who signed his first WorldTour contract in 2016 but has quickly built an impressive resume, culminating with 7th overall at the Vuelta a Espana last year.
The issue of EF Education First-Drapc's team leadership was not broached during Wednesday's pre-race press conference, where Dombrowski joined newly crowned US champion Jonny Brown (Hagens Berman Axeon), Tj Eisenhart (Holowesko-Citadel) and Sean Bennett (Hagens Berman Axeon) in a question-and-answer session broadcast on the race's Facebook page. Dombrowski did say, however, that he has been training at altitude in Park City and is well-prepared and well-rested coming into the race.
"I've had kind of a quiet spring. I've been in Europe all year," Dombrowski said. "My last race was the Tour of Switzerland. I had a break and I've been back in the US training at home - I'm from Virginia - and then here in Park City for the past week-and-a-half or so."
Having raced the Tour of Utah four times, starting in 2010 when the then-19-year-old was a stagiaire with Axel Merckx's development team, Dombrowski has a keen understanding of what it takes to win in the Beehive State. "Climb fast," he said when asked about the winning formula, and he understands the unique challenges that lie ahead over the seven days of racing.
"It takes me a couple of weeks to really feel like I'm riding well here, just because I live at sea level, and, for one, getting used to riding at altitude takes a bit of time just to adapt," he said. "Also, it's super dry here. I'm used to swampy Virginia, hot and humid conditions. Here it's just a different climate, which definitely takes a little time to get used to."
Dombrowski will also have to get used to the idea of riding an individual time trial in Utah. The 2018 race starts with a relatively flat 5.3km prologue time trial at the southern end of the state in St. George. The 27-year-old last rode an individual time trial in Utah in 2010, finishing 70th. He rode a team time trial with Bontrager-Livestrong in 2012, but that was his last chance to touch a TT bike in Utah after missing last year's uphill race against the clock on stage 3.
"You won't have huge time gaps in the prologue," he said. "It's pretty short, but there are time gaps and it makes a difference. It just adds another element, which is good. It's interesting."
Dombrowski obviously likes his team's chances in Utah - climber Hugh Carthy will join Woods and Dombrowski on the roster alongside Alex Howes, Will Clarke, Brendan Canty and Nathan Brown - but he acknowledged a deep field of possible contenders.
"There are some big teams here. I think Tejay [van Garderen] is coming from the Tour [de France], and I think Yates; someone said he is racing," Dombrowski said, possibly referring to Mitchelton-Scott's Simon Yates, although his team hasn't yet confirmed his participation.
"They both have really strong teams, and they're strong riders," Dombrowski said before concluding that pre-race predictions often turn to pixie dust once the pedals start turning in anger.
"We could talk all day about who could do this or who could do that, but at the end of the day we'll just have to wait and see."
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