Dombrowski aiming high in the Pyrenees

Dombrowski Giro 2016 CORVOS

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.”

Dombrowski Utah 2015 CORVOS
Joe celebrating overall victory at the 2015 Tour of Utah

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.

Contador plays down expectations ahead of Vuelta a España

Contador Vuelta Burgos 2016 CORVOS
Contador climbing to victory at the Vuelta a Burgos

Alberto Contador sought to play down suggestions that he is the main favourite for the upcoming Vuelta a España. The Tinkoff rider, who will be looking for a fourth victory at the race, said, “I can rest assured that this race is already on my palmares.”

Referring to his rivals, Team Sky’s Chris Froome and Movistar’s Nairo Quintana, Contador said: “I’m sure that they are looking for their first Vuelta title. Froome has been on the podium I think three times now, and he has a very strong team.”

“For Nairo it’s the same, since the last day of the Tour, we’ve heard nothing about him and he’s been resting and recovering for La Vuelta. I’m sure both of them will be here in optimal condition.”

But the Spaniard, who will be starting his final Grand Tour for Tinkoff tomorrow, sees another threat for the General Classification in the familiar guise of Quintana’s veteran teammate Alejandro Valverde.

“Everybody is talking about Froome, Nairo and me, but I think that there’s another favourite and that’s Valverde because he was very strong during the Tour and at the Vuelta he has more options,” said Contador. “He has lots of finals very suitable for him, also with time bonuses. The parcours is better for him than for me.”

Contador Tour de France 2016 CORVOS
The media scrum at the Tour de France

Contador, who was forced to abandon the Tour de France on stage 9 due to fever, continued to soften expectations when talking about preparation and race days. Asked about a possible advantage he might enjoy over rivals who finished the Tour, he said: “When I abandoned the Tour I was in optimal form. I was penalised because the crashes and bruising meant I had to stop riding.”

“My first proper training after the Tour was at Clásica San Sebastián and the Vuelta a Burgos, so I probably have less preparation for this Vuelta, and maybe less than other years. I don’t think I have an advantage.”

The recent Vuelta a Burgos was the latest addition to Contador’s palmares as he edged out Sergio Pardilla (Caja Rural) and Ben Hermans (BMC) to overall victory by just one second after a fiercely contested final summit finish. While it wasn’t a vintage Contador performance, it surely only signalled good things for him.

“A victory always gives you confidence, but the day after you must start from zero again and continue working,” he said of his fifth win of 2016. “It’s good for the team, but here the race is much longer, the rivals are different and we have a lot more stages so we start from zero.

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A third victory, at the 2015 Vuelta

He will not be starting from zero in terms of Vuelta victories though. His three victories (a 100% record in terms of starts to wins) see him lie joint-second on the all-time list, alongside Tony Rominger and one behind Robert Heras.

“I’m calmer now after three victories. That is incredible to me and that allows me to relax,” Contador said. “If I can I will look for a fourth victory but we will see, and we will go day by day and see if that’s possible.”

Another Vuelta victory would be a perfect way to send off his Tinkoff team, the last iteration of the CSC/Saxo Bank squad which started out in 1998 and is due to disband at the end of the year. While a number of the team’s riders – most notably Peter Sagan – have already announced their 2017 homes, Contador would not be drawn on where he will race next season. He has been strongly linked with Trek-Segafredo but today talked only of his commitment to his current team.

“At this moment I am a rider for Tinkoff. Tinkoff is my team and I will give 100% for this team,” he said. “The other reason [I won’t speak about my future] is that it’s the last big tour in this jersey, so the best thing is to do my maximum for this team. Next year will be another story and time for talking about the future will come.”