Today is the day – the Queen stage of the Vuelta a España, heading unusually into France and the Col d’Aubisque. It’s one of the most-oft used climbs in the Tour de France but is not a mountain that springs to mind when you think of its Spanish cousin.
Calendars around Europe will have had September 3rd circled with big red rings for some time now, as climbers and GC contenders alike have anticipated this mammoth day in the mountains. Among those men looking forward to today’s feast of climbing is Joe Dombrowski, the talented American climber riding for Cannondale-Drapac.
Dombrowski is in Spain fresh off the back of a successful summer, one which saw him sign a new contract with the men in Argyle. Spring saw him excel in the Dolomites and Alps at the Giro d’Italia, taking a third place on the final mountain stage of the race.
Since penning his new two-year deal Dombrowski put in a strong all-round performance at August’s Tour of Utah, riding to eighth on GC while helping team leader Andrew Talansky secure a podium spot along the way. The duo reprise the same roles at the third Grand Tour of the season, and after a series of strong rides during the season Dombrowski has earned some extra wiggle room to try for his own results.
“I’d like to get up the road on these days [stages 14 and 15], and that can put us in a position to win the stage,” Dombrowski says. “But like we saw with Lagos da Covadonga [stage 10], the breakaway was caught but we had Andrew behind so I ended up waiting and pulling for him in the final kilometres. So it’s advantageous for us to have someone up the road too.”
Dombrowski, who turned 25 in May, was one of three Cannondale riders in the break that day, the others being Pierre Rolland and Moreno Moser. It didn’t end in success as Movistar’s Nairo Quintana charged to a decisive victory, but for Joe and the team it signified that things are on the right track.
“From the team’s standpoint it’s been a really good race. We’ve got two big objectives with the GC and for us to go for stages,” he says. “We’ve not won a stage yet but we’ve ridden really well in terms of putting us in the best situation to do that. I’ve been riding pretty well and enjoying it so everything’s going pretty good.”
What’s so special about this weekend then? Thirteen days into the race we’ve witnessed as many uphill finishes as other Grand Tours could muster over three weeks – ample opportunity for a flyweight climber like Dombrowski to excel.
“The Vuelta tends to have a lot of uphill finishes but a lot of the time they’re pretty short and steep. A lot of the time it’ll be just flat all the way to the final climb, and it being on the flat all day isn’t super suited to me.”
For a great number of the peloton more climbing just signals more suffering and pain, another day just trying to survive, but for Dombrowski this weekend equals opportunity and a chance to show what he can do. There’s suffering for him too of course, but roommate Ben King has been a help during the race, as each night a Spanish hotel room turns Virginian.
“Yeah we’re both from Virginia, so it’s nice to have somebody – not just an American – but somebody from back home at the race,” says Dombrowski. “It’s nice because so much of what we do is foreign, at least for us as Americans racing in Europe. So when you’re doing a Grand Tour it’s nice to be with somebody that you have a lot in common with – that’s super nice.”
Just a week before the start of the Vuelta, Dombrowski was a world away from the short sharp hills and featureless plains that characterise the race. He was back in the USA, racing mountain bikes at the famous Leadville 100 in Colorado.
Joe wasn’t the only roadie there either, with teammate Alex Howes and Giant-Alpecin’s Laurens Ten Dam also making the switch to fat tyres for the day. It all came about during a breakfast at the Giro d’Italia, according to Dombrowski.
“I was speaking to our press officer Matt Beaudin one morning. I said ‘oh yeah Cannondale can give me a new mountain bike and I’d do Leadville,’” he recalls. “He was like ‘It’d be such a great story – the team would love it, and Cannondale would love it.”
But thoughts of the Vuelta – primarily the close proximity of the two races, plus jetlag from the travel – temporarily put paid to the Leadville plans. At least until July.
“JV [team boss Jonathan Vaughters] sent me a text – it was just ‘Leadville?’ – he was all about it and for Cannondale it was a really interesting, marketable story,” says Dombrowski. “So we went ahead and did it, and it was honestly great. I grew up racing mountain bikes so it was kind of a fun challenge.”
“I don’t know that I’d say it was good preparation,” he says jokingly. “I wanted to win. I was close – I ended up coming second – but it was super fun and I think valuable for the team and me and my own ‘brand’.”
A return visit is something Dombrowski says he would like, and dabbling in cyclocross is a possibility too. We might have to wait a while to see Joe back racing on knobbly tyres though, at least not if his plans for the road pan out.
“If I came back and it was Leadville – Vuelta the way I did it this year then I think it’d depend on how I ride the Vuelta,” says Dombrowski. “Say I wanted to ride GC at the Vuelta – then I wouldn’t want to ride Leadville the week before, that’s for sure.
Joe laughs again, but his ambition is serious, and the subject of progressing towards a GC leadership role is something that came up during his contract negotiations this summer.
“I’d say I’m headed in that direction, but I’m not at level of Andrew [Talansky], Pierre [Rolland], or Rigo [Uran] yet,” he says. “I’d like to keep progressing and move towards being that sort of rider. I think working on having a well-rounded skillset is the best thing for me now, because if you ride GC in races you really have to be able to do everything in all sorts of different situations.”
“I’m actually coached by JV so it’s kind of a unique situation. Normally you’re not negotiating your contract with the same guy who coaches you, but I think that’s where he’d like to see me go.”
An odd situation maybe, but the arrangement seems to be working out quite well so far. Dombrowski might well be headed that way too, based on his current rate of progress. But before that there’s work to do in the Pyrenees – mountains to race, results to chase and a leader to pace.