Crossland: The gaping hole left by Amy Dombroski

Amy Dombroski was a warm, American personality in a long, dark Belgian winter, and columnist Dan Seaton will miss her overflowing spirit

Photo: Dan Seaton

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Editor’s note: As we ring out 2013, we look at 13 of our best stories of the year, as voted by Velo’s editorial staff. Dan Seaton’s emotional reflection on the life and death of Amy Dombroski originally appeared on Oct. 4, 2013.

BRUSSELS (VN) — Here’s what we know: late on a warm, cloudy early fall afternoon in Belgium, Amy Dombroski collided with a truck while motorpacing behind a scooter in Sint-Katelijne-Waver, a village at the edge of Brussels’ northeast suburbs. The collision claimed her life, and sent a shockwave of anguish racing across the globe, through the close-knit cyclocross community here in Belgium, through her hometown of Jericho, Vermont, through Boulder, Colorado, where she lived during the off-season.

The news radiated out like a gravity wave, heavy and leaden, the very opposite of Amy’s buoyant, easy nature.

Amy was a pioneer. In 2011 she packed her bags and headed to Europe, determined to tackle a whole season among cyclocross’ best riders, racing on the sports’ most challenging ground. She became one of only a handful of American racers ever to make the full-time leap into the muddy heart of the cyclocross world.

She finished fifth in her first race that season, a Superprestige in Ruddervoorde. And afterwards she stopped and talked about moving to Belgium, about her new place in Begijnendijk, not far from Tremelo and Baal, the neighboring hometowns of Niels Albert and Sven Nys. I was impressed by her confidence, how easy she made it all seem.

“It’ll be pretty drastically different this year,” she told me then, “but I think I’m going to like the change.”

But it’s never easy. Nothing about cyclocross in Belgium is easy — the weather is miserable, the fields unforgiving, the fans hostile. The Belgian winter is cold and dark and isolating.

None of it seemed to bother Amy.

“She had a smile that on the grayest of Belgian days was nice to see,” said Jonathan Page, one of two other Americans based in Europe alongside her and a man who knows just how difficult this place can be. “It was really cool that she came over here and went for it in Belgian ’cross. I really appreciated that from the moment I heard she was going to do it.”

The third member of the American trio to base in Belgium is Christine Vardaros, who said on Thursday that she was devastated by the news of Amy’s death.

“Amy brought the sunshine to Belgium with her wry sense of humor and extra wide smile,” said Vardaros. “Having her here to share in the strange world of Belgian ’cross was a real treat. We played and joked all the time. I cannot imagine another gal smacking my ass as she rides by me. She was an amazing person who actively lived her life. I’m absolutely devastated she is gone.”

In 2012 Amy joined the Belgium-based Young Telenet-Fidea team, one of the first of the major Belgian squads to carry women on its roster. Again, Amy was a pioneer. Belgium has never quite embraced women’s racing as America has, but Amy, alongside her teammates, was helping to change that. Frequently, throughout the last season, it was the women who delivered the most exciting racing of the day. The fans here noticed.

Like a lot of great cyclocross riders, she was ferocious on the bike. But the intensity with which she rode seemed to evaporate as she crossed the finish line, where she would be congratulating competitors who moments ago had been fierce rivals, smiling and waving at the autograph-seeking kids along the course. Whatever darkness was in her, she must have poured it all out on the bike, because off of it, she radiated warmth.

“I remember meeting Amy at the Koppenbergcross many years ago — a racer overflowing with happiness in bright eyes and a big smile who asked a fellow American to hold her bike for a moment,” said Chris McKenney, a SRAM manager based in the Netherlands who sometimes served as her mechanic. “Since then, I’ve pitted for her several times — Hoogerheide stands out as she went down at the start and was a half lap down. The desire to ride back to the group that day was massive, no giving up. That inner fire, big hugs, and smiles will be so missed.”

European champion Helen Wyman, a frequent competitor both Stateside and in Europe, called Amy special.

“Amy was always Amy; everyone knew her and everyone loved her,” said Wyman. “She was always smiling and nothing ever seemed to phase her. Living in Belgium can be really tough, but she was always so happy to just be doing something she loved. This is such a tragic loss. I can’t even begin to imagine what her family are going through right now. Amy was special, she will be missed.”

Everywhere she went, Amy Dombroski won hearts.

“I’ve been a friend since 2007, though I knew her as the local rising talent before that — she rode the first CrossVegas and then grew into a real close friend the last couple of years,” CrossVegas promoter Brook Watts told me on Thursday evening, a few hours after news of her loss broke. “I’ve carried crap across the ocean for her, worked a couple of Belgian pits for her, stayed in Begijnendijk with her. All the stuff you do for someone you really care about and believe in. When she was feeling down about the inequality in Euro ’cross racing I tried to bolster her by telling her she was a pioneer that pays the dues for those that follow.”

Another of those riders pioneering for equality in the sport, U.S. champion Katie Compton, spoke of a quality that gets right at the core of who Amy Dombroski was: her fullness.

“She will be greatly missed, it saddens me that we lost one of our own so young and tragically,” said Compton. “She was full of life and loved racing her bike and was living the dream in Belgium. I’m going to miss seeing her on the start line and feeling her enthusiasm for everything ’cross. My thoughts go out to her family and close friends, I can’t imagine how brutal this is for them.”

For me, Amy was more than a friendly face, good for a quote after a hard, muddy race. She was a friend.

As a reporter, we are supposed to maintain some professional distance from the people we write about. But most of the time, there are just four of us Americans out there in the Belgian fields: me, the reporter, and the three riders: Jonathan, Christine, and Amy. Separated from so many of our friends and families during northern Europe’s dark, claustrophobic winter, the familiarity of someone who also knows how it feels to be far from home is a welcome relief.

Amy came to our house in Brussels for Thanksgiving last year, the day before driving to the Belgian coast to prepare for the Koksijde World Cup. She brought an old family recipe — maple syrup-roasted sweet potatoes — and joined a bunch of other Americans all looking for that same taste of home on one of those days when we especially felt its absence. She charmed my then one-year-old son, talked about teaching her niece to ride a Strider bike.

A few months later, we shared a flight home from the world championships in Louisville, Kentucky. Amy sat up front and slept, I carried my son back and forth through the dark, empty aisles at the back of the plane, trying to help him to sleep. It was a hard flight, made harder by the ache of having said good bye to so many friends and family who had been with us in Louisville just the day before. But on the ground, there she was, the same sparkle as always, at a time when most people could barely drag themselves to the baggage claim.

We stopped for coffee — Amy, my wife, my sleeping son, and me — while she waited for her ride home from the airport. We talked a lot about saying good bye to the people we loved back home, how hard it was to be away from them for so long. We made plans for a post-season visit to one of Brussels’ legendary friteries. We never made it; Amy left Belgium for the States just a few weeks later.

She had returned to Belgium only on Tuesday, and was preparing for her 2013 European debut at the time of her crash on Thursday.

Here’s what we know: Amy Dombroski was 26, born in Jericho, Vermont. She spent her childhood racing on alpine skis at Burke Mountain Academy before she discovered cycling and fell in love. She won her first cyclocross national championship as an under-23 racer in 2006, a title she would claim twice more in her career. She wore a lightning bolt tattoo, a memorial to her late mother, on her wrist. She loved her family deeply and missed them dearly while away racing in Europe, but the racing was a dream and a calling, and she pursued it wholeheartedly. She believed in equality for women’s cycling and was a vocal and outspoken advocate for the women in the sport.

Amy won friends everywhere she went and everywhere she raced, on two continents, with her winning smile and warm spirit. Her loss is certain to leave a gaping hole in the global cyclocross community.

It has certainly left a gaping hole in mine.

Editor’s note: Friends of Amy have set up a memorial fund in her name to help her family and to be used in her memory. Donations can be dropped off at Pro Peloton in Boulder, Colorado, or mailed to:
Memorial of Amy Dombroski
c\o Wells Fargo Deposits
1242 Pearl St
Boulder, CO 80302

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.