Two years ago, Joe Dombrowski lived at home in Marshall, Virginia, and was an engineering student at George Mason University. Today, he lives alone in a two-bedroom apartment near the port in Nice, France, and is a member of the Sky Pro Cycling team. It’s the kind of life change few can imagine and even fewer will experience. But that’s what happens when you win the Baby Giro, and finish top 12 at the Tour of California and Colorado’s USA Pro Cycling Challenge. Indeed, Dombrowski, a baby faced 21-year-old, is oozing GC leader potential.
Now, instead of being star struck riding alongside teammates such as Brad Wiggins (2012 Tour de France winner) and Chris Froome (2013 Tour de France favorite), the 6-foot-1, 140-pounder with a 385-watt lactate threshold is doing his best to soak it all in, learning as much as he can as fast as he can. But it’s certainly not been all smooth sailing. After debuting at the Tour of Oman where he finished a respectable 66th overall, he’s been a DNF in his last two starts, Tirreno-Adriatico and Criterium International.
“Overall things are going well,” said Dombrowski, whose next race is Spain’s Tour of the Basque Country, and who is on the long list for the team’s nine-man Giro d’Italia squad. “Of course DNFs are never part of the plan, but I have had a minor knee issue I’ve been dealing with. So with poor weather on the final day of both those races, and my job riding the front early on done, I pulled the plug early on both. Of course I always want to finish, but once the job is done there’s no sense making a shaky knee worse in bad weather.”
Prior to those races, RoadBikeReview met up with Dombrowski in his new hometown to talk life changes, new languages, and how he feels about the Lance Armstrong saga. Here are the highlights from our extensive and wide ranging conversation.
RoadBikeReview: Why live in Nice?
Joe Dombrowski: I didn’t actually plan for this, it was the team. I was planning on going to Lucca, Italy, or Girona, Spain, but Sky flew me here for a vacation after world’s last year. I spent a few days hanging out and really enjoyed it. Now the team is in the process of renting a house between here and Monaco that will be a mini service course and a place where our coaching staff can base out of. So whether it’s motor pacing, or if you need a mechanic or a soigneur, it’s close by. They wanted us young guys [fellow American teammate Ian Boswell also lives in Nice] to be here so we’d have easy access to support from the team.
RoadBikeReview: How hard was it to find an apartment?
Joe Dombrowski: Well, I had a lot of help. The team chef’s girlfriend lives in Nice, so they hired her to help us. She went around and took pictures with an iPad. Still it was a big hassle to get anything done since I don’t have French employment and the laws here are geared to really protect the tenants. So for example they didn’t accept my contract as proof of income, which meant I had to pay for a year of rent in advance. But it’s really nice, on the coast road towards Monaco, two beds, a living room, about a 1,000 square feet with a big terrace.
RoadBikeReview: How much?
Joe Dombrowski: It’s 1650 euro a month (about $2100US). It would have been much cheaper in Girona. [Fellow American pro racer] Danny Pate told me he only pays 350 euro for one bed in a three-bed house with yard.
RoadBikeReview: So how do you like Nice?
Joe Dombrowski: Honestly, at first I didn’t like it just because it was so hard to deal with basic things. Learning to deal with mail, getting internet turned on, all that. I actually flew my mom over in January, which was a big help. I could go ride during the day, and she could deal with going to the store to buy a rug or whatever. It was pretty impressive. She had never been to Europe before and speaks no French, but she managed to get new keys made at locksmith.
RoadBikeReview: How’s your French?
Joe Dombrowski: Not so good right now, but I have Rosetta Stone going. I’m about halfway through level No. 1. So it’s still not great.
RoadBikeReview: What are you missing most being so far away from home?
Joe Dombrowski: One big thing is just being always immersed in cycling all the time. Of course it’s great having the team here, but you miss being at home where you can unplug a little. Also you miss the conveniences of home. For instance, I eat out about three nights a week for dinner. Part of the reason is that I have no car or scooter, so I can’t go fill the fridge for the week. I’m just limited to what I can fit in the backpack.
RoadBikeReview: Where did these athletic genes come from?
Joe Dombrowski: Well, my mom and dad played sports, but now both are aerospace engineers. So I’m not really sure. I also have three sisters. One is older than me. She just got married and is a lawyer. The other two are younger. One is at West Virginia University studying mechanical engineering. The other is still in High School.
RoadBikeReview: Why did you choose Sky? You probably had a lot of options.
Joe Dombrowski: Yeah, I probably could have gone to any team in the world. I had offers from just about everyone, but some just made no sense. I wasn’t going to Katusha. The key was it probably had to be English speaking, so it was Sky, Garmin, GreenEDGE, BMC. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to turn pro this year. I came to the sport late and still felt like I had a lot to learn. But I decided I would make jump. Garmin could have been good, they have a lot of Americans and I like what [team GM] Jonathan Vaughters does in the sport. I also talked to BMC, Argos-Shimano, and then Sky. At the end, Garmin was probably my second choice, but it was just the support at Sky. The fact that they have coaches here in Nice, and having the team house here, and that support system. It’s what I was interested in. There wasn’t a big negative to any team and the money was the same basically.
RoadBikeReview: You got your start in the sport because of Lance Armstrong and his Trek-Livestrong team. How do you reconcile that with all that’s happened with him since then?
Joe Dombrowski: What he created in a team was the opportunity that got me where I am now. Also I know him personally a little so I almost don’t attach the person I know to his public person. It’s a tough situation. As we know, being a nice guy doesn’t have anything to do with being a cheater. Lots of super nice guys have cheated the whole way. The whole thing was disappointing. I mean, I always knew it was prevalent, but I didn’t know it was that prevalent. Everything was fake. And it went on for a long time. I mean you read about Michael Rasmussen doing things up to 2010. So how far in past is the past? It’s tough, but I do think things have changed a lot.
RoadBikeReview: You really believe that things have changed?
Joe Dombrowski: I do. I mean, I find data very interesting and I know that things have gotten a lot slower. You can look at VAM and watts per kilo numbers and they have gone down. Yet bikes are lighter, training is better, nutrition is better. So you would think that equates to things being faster, but they aren’t. The only thing you can attribute that to is a cleaner peloton. It used to be that window for cheating was very broad, but I think it’s slowly clamping down. There are always new things coming out and people will innovate on both sides of the battle, but I think that it’s been minimized so that the advantage of doping is a lot more minimal than it used to be. It’s not the same.
RoadBikeReview: Because of all its success, your team has been accused of impropriety. How does Sky address doping from within?
Joe Dombrowski: Well, you saw in October when we were in London at the end of season party. We all had to sign a document that said we’d never been involved with doping and some people had to leave the team because of their pasts. So I think the zero tolerance policy on this team is different. On Garmin, for example, you have people where that is a part of their past, even Vaughters. On the other hand I think he contributes a lot to sport, so it would not necessarily be fair to banish him when something was so prevalent. But what Sky is doing, with zero tolerance, I agree with, too. You have to draw the line at some point and say we’re not doing that anymore, because there are a lot of people still in the sport who didn’t do anything about it. You look around at [various team] management; if they were around in 1990s they probably doped.
RoadBikeReview: So all that said, how do you feel about the sport and your place in it?
Joe Dombrowski: Honestly I feel like I’ve been lucky thus far. I have a huge opportunity before me, and it is coming now versus a little while ago when things were a lot different. The past wasn’t that long ago, so my timing is good.