At the end of 2012 young American Joe Dombrowski had the world at his feet; he’d won the Baby Giro – ahead of a certain Fabio Aru – and placed fourth and tenth respectively in the Tours of Utah and Colorado – and there was a nice crisp Sky contract to be signed.
But his two seasons with Sky didn’t pan out as most had expected – with the reason finally tracked down to an iliac artery problem which he’s now had surgery on.
And he’s moving on from the British team to a new US amalgamation, Jonathan Vaughter’s Cannondale/Garmin team.
Joe gave VeloVeritas of his time to talk about his health issue, time at Sky and the future.
How does an iliac artery problem happen, Joe?
“It’s thought that repetitive hip flexion basically causes mechanical damage to the artery. The problem is not limited to cyclists. It also affects rowers, runners, and triathletes. In some cases, individuals have excessively long iliac arteries which are prone to kinking.
“Otherwise, the cause tends to be a hypertrophied psoas (The psoas (so-az) muscle runs through your hips to connect the lower portion of your back to the top of your thigh. ed.) that pushes the artery forward in the cycling position.
“The inguinal ligament crosses the artery in the groin and puts pressure on the artery due to the enlarged psoas. Over time, this pressure causes the artery to develop a fibrotic tissue inside the vessel and blood flow is restricted. It is being diagnosed more and more in the cycling community.
“Other than a lack of power and numbness in the affected limb, the symptoms are somewhat vague, so unless an athlete is working with someone familiar with the issue it can be a problem that is misdiagnosed for a long time.”
How long were you off the bike?
“I had six weeks doing no real physical activity. After that I did a couple weeks with a heart rate restriction.
“I just rode very easy for up to one hour each day.
“It’s about two months before you can ride normally out on the road, and about three months before you can get back into a more normal training routine.”
How do feel now, after surgery?
“Everything feels really good so far. Prior to the surgery I would see about a 40% drop in blood pressure in my left leg during cycling.
“After going through the testing protocol again post surgery everything is back to normal.
“On the bike, it feels good. I’m not exactly on flying form after so long away, but that will come back.”
How’s training going?
“Training is going well. I just did my first five hour ride.
“I’ve taken a conservative approach in my return. I knew I would not return to racing in 2014, and I didn’t want to take any risks by trying to rush back.
“They basically stitch a patch into the artery, so it’s not something you want to mess with prematurely.
“I’ve been back on the bike about six weeks now, and I am starting to feel good again in training. That top end is not there, but I’ve got plenty of time.”
Were there offers other than Garmin/Cannondale – why them?
“Yes, I had a number of other options.
“I wrote down what I viewed as the pros and cons of each option. I thought that writing it down, seeing it in front of me, was a methodical approach to making a reasoned decision.
“The overriding factor though, was my gut feeling. Luckily both bits seemed to fall the way of Cannondale. I think the appeal of Cannondale was a combination of environment, and what seems to be the potential for opportunities.
“Those were the most important points in the decision.”
Was the focus at Sky perhaps so much on le Tour that the neo-pros didn’t get the attention they require?
“It does seem to be a place where it can be difficult for young riders to break through. It’s not that it’s meant to be that way, but it is perhaps an unintended consequence of a heavy focus on the Tour de France.
“The team has a wealth of GC talent, so for developing GC riders there is a lot of crowding.
“With a heavy emphasis on stage racing, and especially grand tours I don’t think there is necessarily a lot of opportunities for the young guys.
“I believe riding your first grand tour is a big step in your development.
“I noticed this year that only one of Sky’s riders in their first two years professional rode a grand tour.
“It’s the team’s prerogative to have a heavy focus on grand tours, and that’s perfectly fine, but I can see where it leaves out the young riders.
“The flip side of that is that you get an opportunity to ride with the best stage racers in the world.
“In that sense, you could think of your time there as an investment in your future. I do not, in any way, regret my time at Sky. I certainly have learned a lot.”
What are your best memories of Sky – it always seems so serious around their bus?
“The team does give off a somewhat serious demeanour, but we have plenty of laughs inside the bus. It really is a good crew of guys.
“I had some great times in the team bus on the way to and from races. I also always enjoy training with the boys down in Nice.
“Some of us were based there year-round, but many of the guys came down for a few weeks at a time for camps. I love the roads in the mountains north of Nice, and it was great going out training with the boys.”
Which was your favourite ‘marginal gain?’
“Honestly, I always found the talk of Team Sky’s exploitation of “marginal gains” and “knowledge gaps” to be a little bit overblown.
“Perhaps in comparison to teams that have little control of the riders outside of the races, Sky seems as though they are eeking out every marginal performance benefit out there.
“Really, I think the team just employs a comprehensive support staff to get the most out of the riders. The focus is on the basics.
“Whether it’s training well, eating well, doing your gym work, or being prepared psychologically, there is someone at the team who is a resource at your disposal.
“Additionally, the level of organisation and communication in the team is top notch.”
Will you still base in Nice?
“I am planning to stay in Nice. Cannondale’s base is in Girona.
“I’ve spent time there, but I think I prefer Nice.
“Additionally, I am set up now. I have an apartment, a car, and a visa to live there.
“I don’t want to have to go through the process of setting up a place to live in another foreign country as I feel that would be a distraction in my winter and early season preparation leading into the 2015 season.”
What would your ideal programme be – and how close to it do you think you’ll be able to get to it?
“I would like to ride a grand tour, I would like to ride one of the American stage races, and I would like to ride the one week stage races with the focus on some of those one week races riding to the level I believe I am capable of.
“I think getting a grand tour in would be a big step in my development; I have yet to do one.
“Riding well in the one week stage races, is, in my mind, a nice way to get back to riding how I know that I can. At this point, I think that means climbing with the leaders at the decisive points.
“I will continue to work on my time trial, and my way of going about riding the race efficiently.
“Those will both improve with time and focused work.
“Fitting in one of the American races is always nice as it allows some time back in the US, the opportunity to race in front of American fans, and sometimes a chance to visit friends and family back home in Virginia.”
Will you ride any local cyclocross over the winter?
“I don’t know!
“Before I was racing on the road professionally, I raced a lot of cyclocross.
“Normally, by October or November going full gas on the bike for an hour is not exactly what I’m looking for.
“This year has obviously been different, so we’ll see. I have been getting out on my mountain bike a bit.”
When’s the first Garmin/Cannondale camp?
“We have a camp in the middle of November.
“I understand it is more of a get-together than a traditional training camp.”
Your progress up to Sky was rapid; a two season ‘stall’ must have been hard on the head?
“The last couple years haven’t gone exactly as I would have liked, and that has been a little bit difficult.
“When I was I recovering from the surgery I would watch the Tour and Vuelta with half-hearted interest and ultimately sometimes turn the TV off because I preferred not to watch.
“I’ve taken some hits but I have stayed positive through it, and it’s motivating for the coming season.
“Don’t write me off yet!”
Your old sparring partner, Aru is going well.
“Ha! Yes, I noticed!
“There has been no shortage of people pointing that out to me, either.
“I think Aru has a lot of class. Even in the amateurs he was already capable of climbing with the very best. He’s got a huge engine, and I think he’s a rare talent. It will be interesting to follow his progress over the coming years.
“His ride in the Giro this year was very impressive, backing that up in the Vuelta was equally impressive.”
What will happen regarding coaching now you’re going to Garmin/Cannondale?
“That is yet to be determined.
“At Sky, all the coaching was done within the team.
“There’s some talk of that at Cannondale.
“I expect that once I go to our first camp we will have more information in regards to race programme, coaching, and the way the team functions.”
Season 2015 will be a good one if …
“I think first and foremost I need to get a healthy and consistent season under my belt. This year I did not start until Tour of California.
“I went back to Europe after California, crashed out of Bayern Rundfahrt, and then went on to Tour de Suisse. My iliac artery problem was diagnosed after Suisse and we went ahead with the surgery.
“My season was effectively over after having finished two races. I think a good start would be to get back into the groove of climbing with the leaders in the single week stage races. I’ll continue chipping away at my various weak points, but I think that is the first step.
“I would also love to get a grand tour in, and I would love to win something!”