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On the morning of the first road stage of the Giro d’Italia, in Arnhem, Netherlands, CyclingTips asked American Joe Dombrowski which stage he thought might be an opportunity for him to shine.
His answer at the time was Stage 20, from Guillestre to Sant’Anna di Vinadio, with a sequence of four climbs and three descents.
It seemed like a lifetime had passed for the Cannondale rider when the peloton finally reached Guillestre, but the 25-year-old Virginian lived up to his word, powering across the Alpine stage for his first podium finish at the WorldTour level.
Dombrowski entered the WorldTour in 2013 with Team Sky as a heralded climber, a Baby Giro winner, and, perhaps, America’s next big thing. Nagging issues impeded his progress; it turned out to be Iliac Artery Endofibrosis — a narrowing of the major artery that runs through the pelvis and down the leg, reducing blood supply to the leg when exercising. He had surgery in August 2014, and is only now, with Cannondale since the beginning of the 2015 season, fully showing what he’s capable of accomplishing.
The definitive turning point of Cannondale’s Giro took place on the rainy time trial through the slick vineyards of Chianti on Stage 9. Team leader Rigoberto Uran lost a massive chunk of time in the race for the general classification, and the team’s ambitions changed.
“I went to the race with the goal of being [Uran’s] high-mountain helper, and as the race developed, and based on the situation we were in, we thought at this point it may be worth it not to put all our eggs in one basket, and diversify a bit,” Dombrowski said Monday from his apartment in Nice, France. “For me that basically meant a bit more freedom; I could go for some stage wins and that sort of thing, or at least try for them.”
Cannondale released the featherweight climber after the second rest day, as the race weaved through the Dolomites.
His attempts at taking stage wins began on stage 13. It proved to be the beginning of an improbable week. From the outside, it may have seemed that he was finally finding his legs, but in reality, he was finally starting to feel himself.
“Basically, when we were up in Holland, I started to get a bit of a cold and so I was affected by that the first 10 days or so,” Dombrowski said. “By the third week I was healthy again, so it just shows you how long a grand tour is.”
Bridging solo to the day’s breakaway on stage 13, Dombrowski climbed away with eventual stage winner Mikel Nieve (Team Sky). Though unable to hold the Spanish climbers pace, he still finished alongside the race’s main GC contenders — names like Nibali, Valverde, Majka, Chaves, and Zakarin. Finishing eighth in the uphill time trial to Alpe di Siusi on Stage 15 gave Dombrowski confidence heading into the final decisive stages.
On stage 16 into Andalo, eventual overall winner Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) tasted blood. Dombrowski rode himself in a select group of favorites once over the first climb of the day, but he was soon to make an error he would regret. Despite being in his fourth season at the sport’s top level, the American demonstrated that he still has room for improvement when it comes to tactics; that those injury-plagued years did, indeed, hinder his development.
Because he was not riding for GC, and his team leader, Uran, was behind, Dombrowski sat on the group. Others in the group weren’t happy about it, namely Nibali, and ultimately the Shark of Messina instructed his teammate, Tanel Kangert, to gap Dombrowski off the back, leaving the American to pound his handlebar in frustration.
“Realistically, I don’t think I could have won that stage, given the final. [Alejandro] Valverde would have been very hard to beat in a flat run-in, and even sitting on, it would have been very difficult to drop all those guys on the last climb,” Dombrowski said.
“That said, you never know, I could have had a good result. I was also upset because I was in the position that I could ride for my own result, but also since we had me in the move, the team was not obligated to pull, even though Rigo was behind. This left the majority of the work behind on Orica’s shoulders for [Esteban] Chaves.
“I was disappointed because I made basically made an avoidable error that caused me to be dropped, and it cost me, but even more so, it cost the team. Also, it was just kind of embarrassing to get dropped on the flat.”
Despite room for tactical improvement, Dombrowski’s stock has definitely risen after a performance like his. It comes at a good time, as he’s nearing the end of his second season on a two-year contract with Cannondale. A considerable number of WorldTour contracts are signed in the period between the Giro and the Tour de France, but UCI rules prohibit them from being announced until the transfer period officially opens on August 1.
“Yeah, I like it here,” Dombrowski said of his Cannondale team. “I haven’t signed a contract yet, but I’m getting ready to go through that now. Hopefully I can get something agreed and worked out. I don’t know for sure where I’ll be next year, but I’ve enjoyed my two years with the team, and I definitely would like to stay, but I don’t know for sure.”
A move wouldn’t necessarily be a bad decision for Dombrowski. Cannondale is rich with general classification talent, with the likes of Uran, Andrew Talansky, Lawson Craddock, and Pierre Rolland.
One possible landing spot would be U.S. WorldTour squad Trek-Segafredo. The team has available funds with the new co-sponsor, and appear to have lost in its quest for Nibali, with rumors swirling the Italian will sign with the new Bahrain cycling team.
Trek-Segafredo is also uncommitted in the general classification department with Bauke Mollema and Peter Stetina, the team’s top GC riders, with contracts expiring at the end of the 2016 season. Recent rumors have linked Alberto Contador to Trek in 2017.
Dombrowski, who upgraded from a Category-4 amateur racer to the Trek-Livestrong development team in 2010, still has some work to do, particularly after losing much of the 2013 and 2014 seasons to injury. Nevertheless, he is settling into his own. He’s won a UCI stage race, the 2015 Tour of Utah, and he’s proven that he can climb among the best in the sport. What’s next for the American is unknown, but what’s certain is that his career is, finally, climbing upward.