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Two years ago, he was the next big thing, a young climbing ace. He signed a deal with Sky and there was a feeling of good things waiting for Joe Dombrowksi, a gifted ascender and a nice guy. It was just a matter of time.
Two years in, it’s been tough sledding. In 2014, he’s finished two races: the Amgen Tour of California, and Tour of Switzerland. The kid everyone thought would climb into the collective cycling conscience after his notable stint on the Bontrager-Livestrong development squad had all but disappeared in 2014. Something was wrong, but what?
Midway through the 2013 season, he noticed a problem. “My left leg had no power,” he told VeloNews. “Over the last year or so, it’s just gotten worse and worse. We had no idea what it was. I tried all these different things and saw all these different people and none of it did anything.”
His struggles were documented this season; a sore knee hampered him earlier this season. The real issue, though, was blood flow in his left leg via the Iliac artery. He had friends who’d had the issue, and multiple pro riders have been affected by the issue, though Dombrowski, 23, and the Sky team took some time to put it together.
“For whatever reason I guess I just didn’t think that was it,” he said. “In retrospect … anytime I would ride hard I had no power in one leg. My foot would go numb.”
After the Tour de Suisse this year, Dombrowski went to London and saw a vascular surgeon. Blood pressure tests on both ankles and an arm while riding a trainer showed a significant drop in his left ankle. “So then we knew straightaway, ‘OK, something’s wrong here,’” he said.
Further tests confirmed the problem. It then became a matter of when, and where he would have the surgery. In power terms, he was seeing a 10 percent drop from one leg to another. The artery had hardened and obstructed blood flow; he was getting some 50 percent of blood flow in his left leg from normal. A doctor near his Virginia home did the surgery two weeks ago, which merited a six-inch cut in his lower abdomen. In Dombrowski’s case, he was lucky. The damage was contained. The artery was cut length wise, laid flat, and patched over the damaged section, widened, and stitched it back together.
For now, it’s six weeks of no riding before he can gradually build again, starting easy. But it’s an answer, and one that was a long time coming.
“It was — it was really frustrating. As you can imagine if, every time you ride hard … if one leg just kind of goes numb and you can’t really make power on one side — it definitely detracts from your performance, you’re not going to ride as well,” he said. “But also it’s just mentally tough to deal with.”
This is a contract year for the young American, who has yet to sign for next season, either with Sky or elsewhere. And while it may have seemed he’d be in a down market given his injures, he has options.
“I haven’t signed yet. I have a number of offers on the table. And we’re still just kind of sorting through that. I’m hoping in the next couple weeks or so. I guess the good thing is I was definitely concerned with the timing of this,” he said. “I found out right after Tour de Suisse. And then I hadn’t signed yet, and I was like, ‘Well, how is everyone going to respond to this?’”
He’s been well received. After all, following the 2012 season, he was one of the most sought-after talents, thanks to a dazzling climbing performance up ATOC’s fabled Mount Baldy climb, where he finished fourth on the stage and announced his arrival loud and clear. Since then, nothing’s come easy.
“I’ve definitely learned a lot. You don’t really know what you’re getting into until you get there. Stepping away from this, I think the first year was pretty difficult, actually, beyond a lot of levels. Obviously there’s the racing, it’s a big step up … but also it’s a big lifestyle change,” he said. “When you have an injury there’s not really much you can do.”
He may race late this season at the Tour of Beijing, or the year may be finished. He’s looking forward now, though, and hopes to announce a decision for next season soon.
“It was pretty easy to fix. I think everything seems like it should go well,” Dombrowski said. “I should be back to 100 percent again. For me it’s a big relief just because I’ve sort of had a year kind of not knowing what’s wrong. Knowing that something’s wrong.”