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Joe Dombrowski knows how to speedily spin over mountains, but these days he’s even more adept at navigating his way up the pro ranks. Last spring, the 20-year-old Virginia native was a USA Cycling Category 3, mixing it up with the locals at office park crits and rural road races around the mid-Atlantic. This year, he’s earned podium spots at pro domestic and European stage races, quickly emerging as one of Trek-Livestrong’s best weapons in the mountains.
“There’s no doubt he’s a great climber,” says team director Axel Merckx of the six-foot-two-inch-tall, 150-pound Dombrowski. “He has a huge amount of power. His weight-to-power ratio is really impressive.”
Last weekend, the first-year pro gave Europeans a taste of his talents at the three-day Ronde de l’Isard in the French Pyrenees. On stage 2, he finished third on the 20-km category 1 finishing climb up to Superbagneres, just behind teammate George Bennett.
The next day, Dombrowski went on the attack, flying solo up the 25-km cat 1 Col du Portel. He was eventually joined by another rider and the duo stayed away for 90 km, scaling the Col de La Core along the way. The race came back together with 10 km to go, but Dombrowski managed to pull out a fourth place finish at the line. By the end of the day, he had garnered the most aggressive rider jersey for stage 3, the King of the Mountains jersey for the tour and third place overall on GC.
As a neo-pro, every race is a new experience, and no one seems as surprised by the results as Dombrowski.
“The race was a good confidence builder for me, as I really had no idea what to expect coming into the race,” he says. “I knew I had gone well in selective races in the States, but never having raced on the road (in Europe), I wasn’t sure how the competition was going to be.”
Trek-Livestrong was confident in Dombrowski’s untapped talents despite an inauspicious first day on the job, when he crashed out one hour into the first stage of the Redlands Classic in early April. Merckx eyed big opportunities for Dombrowski at Tour of the Gila later that month and tagged him as the team’s protected man for the mountain stages.
On stage 1 — his third official race with the team — Dombrowski delivered. On the cat 1 climb up the Mogollon to the finish, Dombrowski crossed the line third and garnered the best young rider jersey. Although he lost the jersey during the stage 3 time trial, Dombrowski repeated his performance on the final day, finishing third on the mountainous Gila Monster stage and earning sixth on GC.
Although Merckx see promising potential, the podium finishes were well above Dombrowski’s own expectations.
“It was a big surprise to me to be on the podium once, especially twice,” he says. “My goal going in was to finish top 10 on a stage. Anything beyond that was a bonus.”
It’s been a rapid rise through the ranks for someone who was a virtual unknown outside the mid-Atlantic road race community last year, but Dombrowski has been tuning his engine for years. He got his start racing mountain bikes in high school, competing in Junior Nationals in 2007 and 2008. He transitioned to cyclocross in 2008 and was quickly winning major junior races, including day 1 at the USGP Derby Cup. Later that year, he took 11th at cyclocross nationals and earned an invite to Euro ‘Cross Camp in Belgium.
Although Dombrowski trained on the road, he was reluctant at first to make the jump into the peloton. “I was into mountain biking at the time, so road racing seemed boring to me,” he says. “Once I started doing it and understanding it, I really started to enjoy it.”
Soon, local hammers and domestic pros began to take notice at races and on group rides. “We were on this one ride, and here’s this young guy just jamming it up every hill,” recalls Jared Nieters, cat 1 racer and owner of Haymarket Bicycles in Haymarket, Virginia.
“We all kind of laughed and figured he’d blow up eventually. At 85 miles in, we finished the final climb up Bull Run Mountain and he just knocked everybody’s socks off. It was pretty ridiculous the manner in which he dropped us. That’s when we knew he’d be the real deal someday.”
Dombrowski started college at George Mason in 2009, but chose to stay in the regular ranks rather than pursue collegiate racing. In 2010, he racked up solid regional results, including a win at the Virginia State Hill Climb Championships, where he bested pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop by more than two minutes.
As the buzz was building, a mutual friend connected him with Bart Knaggs, general manager of Trek-Livestrong. To bulk up his resume, Dombrowski headed to the Cascade Cycling Classic in July, where he picked up two top-20 finishes with no team support. His results earned him a trial run with Trek-Livestrong, which invited him to join the squad as a stagiaire at Tour of Utah.
“I was looking for a rider who fits his profile and I took a shot at it,” Merckx says. “That’s what we’re about; we’re a team that gives chances to kids that maybe people don’t know about.”
Impressed by his willingness to sacrifice for the squad at Utah, Trek-Livestrong moved to make him a permanent part of its 2011 roster.
With only a couple full seasons of road races in his legs, Dombrowski’s talent is still a bit raw, Merckx admits, noting that he needs to hone his handling skills and gain a better grasp of race tactics. Ultimately, Merckx envisions Dombrowski as a stage racer, which will require improving his time trial abilities. To date, Dombrowski has only competed in three time trials.
“If we can get him to improve his time trialing, he could be a great GC rider, certainly at a national level and maybe internationally,” he says. “It all depends on his reaction to racing in the next couple of years.”
Dombrowski is currently training in Girona, Spain, preparing for the five-day Fleche du Sud. Despite his promising early results, Dombrowski remains uncertain — and refreshingly excited — about what lies over the next climb in his career.
“Everything is happening so fast that I don’t even realize it until later,” he says. “If you asked me at this time last year if I’d be here now, I would have said, ‘No way.’ I keep surprising myself, so it’s hard to say what the future will bring.”