What happened to Joe Dombrowski in 2017?
The Virginia native, a star of the espoir ranks, winner of the Baby Giro over none other than Fabio Aru, has teetered on the edge of a WorldTour breakthrough for years. Always close but not quite there. A third place on the penultimate stage of the 2016 Giro d’Italia was his latest near-miss, showing once again that he has the talent for big things. The 26-year-old is approaching middle age by pro cyclist standards. There’s an inflection point, somewhere in his near future, where the complete realization of his natural talent turns from a question of “when” to a question of “if.”
Dombrowski powered through the end of 2016 with strong showings. The team even allowed him to fit in the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race before going to the Vuelta a España. It is rare for a WorldTour team to grant entry into a race outside the realm of road racing.
But between the end of 2016 and now, a whole different story was written. Dombrowski was virtually nonexistent when the road tipped upward late in the races this year.
His troubles came down to a knee injury and a training program that just didn’t work.
“JV’s [Jonathan Vaughters] coached me the last couple of years now, and we changed a lot in my training this year. And if I’m honest I think it just plain didn’t work,” Dombrowski told VeloNews. “I’m not trying to pin the blame on him cause it’s certainly not.
“That may have been a factor, but at the end of the day I’m the one that has to pedal the bike, right, so I think another important thing to do this offseason is to look at that and look at the last couple of years and see what we’ve done and look at things that have worked and things that haven’t worked and try to focus on the things that seemed to have worked because I feel like a lot of the changes we made ended up not being for the better.”
The Cannondale-Drapac rider crashed during a training ride early in the spring of this year and subsequent knee issues greatly derailed his training for a solid month. He began the Giro, his main objective for the first half of the season, on the back foot. He said he took nearly a week off the bike right before the Giro began.
Dombrowski began to find his form during the last week of the Giro. He pedaled his way into a few breakaways, moving beyond just pack fodder, but “not really firing on all cylinders.”
The one highlight of Dombrowski’s season came at the Tour de Suisse in early June. He finished third on the brutal mountain stage to the Tiefenbach Glacier above the town of Sölden in Austria. The potential is still there. That podium finish would be his only bright point of the year.
“I found that in cycling, kind of everything has to be just right to perform at a really high level in the races,” Dombrowski said. “It’s just interesting over years of racing how you observe sometimes a mistake is made, even in just preparing for the races, or in training, or diet, or whatever. Sometimes you can make a mistake in that preparation aspect and if one or two small things are not done correctly, then it can kind of throw everything off and it can be tough to get that right all the time.”
The early season knee injury and tweaks in training proved to be the mistakes that set everything off for Dombrowski.
At 26, now is the time for Dombrowski to start confirming his potential. Though his first two years at the WorldTour were stymied by iliac artery endofibrosis in his left leg, he’s had three solid seasons since, all with Cannondale. His trajectory was on an upward trend after overall victory and a stage win at the 2015 Tour of Utah and then the Giro stage podium.
But this year was a step in the wrong direction and Dombrowski knows it.
“The season in general hasn’t been great for me, so it’s been a bit disappointing,” Dombrowski said. “I think I hold myself to some pretty high standards and I certainly wasn’t happy with how the season’s going, but I think going forward, I am taking a good break this offseason and kind of looking at it as a good reset and I’m really motivated to hit the ground running next year and hopefully have another really good year.”
As Dombrowski begins his reset, he heads into the 2018 season with the added pressure of being in a contract year. Contract years have a way of bringing out the best in rider when they’re fighting for their job. However, he did mention he is in discussion with the team about signing a possible one-year extension this offseason. This would put him under contract until the end of 2019, giving him some breathing room to have a good turnaround year next year.
Whatever the case, Dombrowski needs to bounce back and learn from the mistakes of 2017. Another down year may just have the pendulum leaning toward the wrong direction.