Joe Dombrowski and the long, long wait
To understand the weight of Joe Dombrowski’s first Giro d’Italia stage win we must go back to the top of the Gavia on June 16, 2012. On those wind-swept slopes, we find a skinny young American and a skinny young Italian hitting back and forth, minutes ahead of the rest of the field. Both are all knees and elbows, young men not yet filled out, aware of their talent, pushing forward with abandon, absolutely flying.
Fabio Aru, the young Italian, was already riding for Astana. He held onto Dombrowski, the young American, for as long as he could before buckling under the pace, conceding 43 seconds in the final kilometers. Dombrowski crossed the line alone, the stage winner and overall leader of the Baby Giro with just one day to go.
He’s like Andy Hampsten, we said, recalling the last time an American used to the Gavia to such effect.
It was a ride that came to define Dombrowski’s early years as a pro and, in some ways, to haunt him for much of the last decade. As Fabio Aru accelerated onwards to win a Vuelta and pile up Grand Tour climbing stages, Dombrowski endured difficult years with Team Sky, a move to Slipstream, iliac artery issues and subsequent surgery, and a sense that the balloon of possibility he’d filled that day on the Gavia was slowly, unstoppably deflating.
He returned to the Giro for the first time in 2016, riding in support of Rigoberto Uran. When Uran faltered Cannondale’s directors set Dombrowski free. He jumped in breakaways with limited success until, on the penultimate stage, a big one stuck. The finish in Sant’Anna di Vinadio suited him but Rein Taaramae and Darwin Atapuma simply had better legs. He finished third.
Dombrowski, now 29, is proof that though some make it look easy, winning at this level is hard. Damn near impossible sometimes. Even harder when you have the aerodynamics of a refrigerator and the sprint of the same. Much to his credit, Dombrowski kept finding those narrow moments that suited him, kept trying.
“You’ve just got to go for it,” he said after that stage in 2016. “If you don’t try, what are you doing here? Riding in the peloton doing nothing? If it doesn’t work out, you can at least go home happy you gave it everything.”
Dombrowski has been back to the Giro every year since, every year with that same mentality. If you don’t try, what are you doing here?
In 2019, a plan to ride for stage wins (or so he told us reporters) turned into riding for GC alongside former EF teammate Hugh Carthy. The two battled up the Mortirolo side by side, holding onto a flying Mikel Landa and Vincenzo Nibali, cementing places inside the top 15. A glimmer, again, of how very good Dombrowski can be when the stars align and the road points up.
The fourth stage of this year’s Giro held all the signs of a successful breakaway day. A difficult parcours would ensure that only the strong could stay in a move, a steep climb to the finish would have the GC men considering their own legs, and with two and a half weeks to go, no GC team had any real interest in taking the pink jersey. The stage was set for a successful long-range move.
Dombrowski tied himself to Alessandro De Marchi (Israel Start-Up Nation), knowing the Italian was the strongest in the large move. De Marchi was also in with a good shot at taking the pink jersey. Dombrowski found a rider with goals that aligned, but did not completely overlap.
The two used the slopes of the final climb to distance the rest of the break, swallowing up and spitting out Rein Taaramae – the same rider who edged him out in 2016 – and riding into the lead. De Marchi held virtual pink and put his head down, riding hard.
“I was able to follow everything, and I knew De Marchi was the strongest in the group,” Dombrowski said. “I knew if I could follow his wheel, I’d be in a good spot. I was able to get the gap.”
Dombrowski hit the accelerator on a steep ramp, gaining just a few meters of separation that slowly stretched into 10 seconds. The two stayed locked into that gap over the top of the final climb, navigated a wet and treacherous descent, and rode across the line 13 seconds apart. Dombrowski threw his arms in the air in Italy for the first time since 2012, grinning ear-to-ear.
It was a long, long wait. Nine years between victory at the Baby Giro and another win that’s all grown up.