Cycling’s road forward
Can Joe Dombrowski ride out of Lance Armstrong’s shadow?
Nice, France — Tall and lanky, the young man is all limbs, each stretching out like spokes on a bike, thin but strong. On a picturesque morning in a picturesque town, he steps out of his apartment near the port and starts pedaling. He turns a corner, away from the water, and heads north, palm trees at his back, the Ligurian Alps in the distance and the morning sun poking through the old buildings along Boulevard de Riquier.
Joe Dombrowski, 21, stands 6 feet 2 and weighs just north of 140 pounds. He’s new in town, having moved here from his home in Northern Virginia just a few weeks earlier, but the route is a familiar one. It’s the same one the fallen hero used to take when he lived here, back before he was a hero and before he fell.
It’s only a coincidence, though, that Dombrowski, perhaps the sport’s brightest phenom, begins his pro cycling career in Nice. This is the same city in which Lance Armstrong lived and trained shortly after recovering from cancer, and just before winning his first two Tours de France. Today Armstrong is the sport’s dark ghost, his systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs, his lying about it and his ultimate forced admission hovering over everything. And Dombrowski is the young cyclist who could help lead the embattled sport from out of its self-inflicted wreckage, but only by pedaling his way out of Armstrong’s long shadow.
A full generation removed, Dombrowski keeps moving, zipping past a bakery, past a closed tattoo parlor, past the old men on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes and sipping espressos. Racing from the glistening Mediterranean toward the snow-capped mountains ahead, Dombrowski glides through narrow streets above the French Riviera, a beach vacation behind the young rider, a weekend ski trip up ahead. When the narrow road becomes steep — when the ride looks more like an unforgiving wall than an incline — he pedals harder, climbing furiously uphill.
“Everything slows down a bit,” he says of life on the bike.
In road cycling, you can ride on someone’s wheel, drafting behind them, following their pace and tracing their path. Dombrowski hopes his promising young career can somehow follow Armstrong’s path, finding triumphs and successes once thought unfathomable. But if he’s to do it, he knows his path must be different. And so he keeps pedaling, racing toward the very thing he’s trying to distance himself — and his beleaguered sport — far away from.
In the vernacular of American sports, Dombrowski is a barely-old-enough-to-drink, can’t-miss wunderkind-on-wheels who was just scooped up by the New York Yankees of professional cycling. Despite having one more year in which he could compete on the sport’s junior circuit, Dombrowski is making the early jump to the big leagues. He’s signed with Team Sky, the British outfit that boasted the top two finishers at last year’s Tour de France. In the vernacular of cycling, Dombrowski’s path is set; all he has to do is keep pedaling.
“He’s champion material, as far as I’m concerned,” said Phil Liggett, known to American audiences as the veteran commentator for NBC’s Tour de France broadcasts. “Everybody’s seeing him as the find of the season.”
“This is my dream. . . I need to just go all-out and try to do it.”
With dark-framed glasses and unassuming presence, Dombrowski looks more like a computer analyst than a world-class athlete. It wasn’t long ago that he was simply riding his bike on weekends along Skyline Drive through Shenandoah National Park. As he kept getting faster, opportunities opened up, prompting him to leave his home near Warrenton, abandon his studies at George Mason University and uproot his life.
“It’s definitely unique when someone like that comes along because it doesn’t happen very often,” said George Hincapie, a veteran cyclist who has ridden the Tour de France 17 times.
Not long before he moved to France, Dombrowski sat in the living room of his parents’ home and explained his meteoric rise. A friend at Fauquier High School raced mountain bikes, and a teenage Dombrowski would ride trails with him for fun on weekends. When he finally entered a race, though, he was hooked. Suddenly, Dombrowski found himself on the bike every day.
“It was a dream to make it a career, but only in the sense like, you might play high school football and you’d like to play in the NFL,” he said. “You have to be realistic about it.”
Dombrowski knew of Armstrong, but only from a distance. The brash Texan’s decade-long dominance in the Tour de France predated Dombrowski’s interest in the sport. Still, Armstrong’s success undoubtedly paved the way for Dombrowski and this new generation.
When Armstrong came out of retirement in 2008 to race again, he convinced his sponsors to help establish an under-23 developmental team that would compete under Livestrong, the banner of his anti-cancer foundation. The U-23 circuit serves as cycling’s feeder system, giving young riders a place to learn the trade and grow comfortable with the craziness inside a peloton, the large, unwieldy pack of riders in a race.
In spring 2010, a 19-year-old Dombrowski was invited to race with the Livestrong team. Dombrowski chatted with his family and, with all of three semesters at George Mason under his belt, the young economics major decided to put college on hold.
“To me, it was like, I can always go back to school,” Dombrowski said. “But this is my dream, to do this full-time. I need to just go all-out and try to do it.”
Dombrowski split the next two years riding with the national U-23 team, which allowed him to compete in races across Europe, and the Livestrong team, which was run by Armstrong’s longtime friends and associates. In fact, Armstrong himself would sometimes go on training rides with the younger cyclists.
Dombrowski realizes that on some level he’s a product of Armstrong’s success, illicit means and all. Would he be where he is today without his U-23 experiences riding under the Livestrong banner?
“That’s the irony, I guess,” he said. “The way I look at it, I’m grateful for the opportunity that he created in starting this development team and creating a path, especially for young Americans to make that leap to the pros. But at the same time, I recognize, guess what, if someone else had won the Tour de France and done it clean, they could have also created those opportunities and done the same thing.”
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images
Dombrowski made a big splash riding with Livestrong. Last spring at the Tour of California, he finished fourth on the Mount Baldy stage, beating some of the world’s top cyclists on a steep, difficult climb. Immediately, Dombrowski became an intriguing dot on the sport’s radar.
Four months later, Dombrowski signed a pro contract, and in January he was boarding a flight at Dulles International Airport, about to move an ocean away from family and friends, carrying equal amounts of hope and expectations with him overseas.
Armstrong once thought Nice was perfect, too. He arrived in 1998, purchasing a villa outside of town and inviting teammates to train with him. We know now this is also when his drug routines became more proficient and specialized. One teammate recalled walking into Armstrong’s villa, opening the fridge and spotting erythropoietin — a banned substance more commonly called EPO — next to a carton of milk.
This is not Dombrowski’s Nice. His fridge is sparse — fruits, condiments, leftovers. Before he moved here, Dombrowski researched as much as possible to prepare for the leap to pro cycling’s top level: language CDs by Rosetta Stone, a book about his new team called “Sky’s the Limit,” and even a book about the sport’s recent history, Tyler Hamilton’s “The Secret Race,” which recounted the author’s days riding with Armstrong, a period filled with EPO, testosterone and blood transfusions.
“Easy read, but it was a little depressing, like, ‘Wow, that’s what it was like?’ ” Dombrowski said.
Back then, riders gravitated toward anything that would give them more strength and improve their recovery time. EPO, for instance, increases the concentration of red blood cells, which helps transport more oxygen to muscles, making them more efficient and speeding up recovery.
When Hamilton was 21, he couldn’t have envisioned that world either. He said that during a cyclist’s first year — his “neo-pro” season — everyone’s wide-eyed and filled with promise, excited just to be making the jump. In Year 2 comes the realization that there are limits, and some cyclists find ways to push past those limits. A rider’s third year, Hamilton said, presents the fork in the road: Dope to compete? Or ride clean and begin planning an early retirement?
“It’s a hard decision to make when you’re young and you’re green and you’re trying to do the right thing,” Hamilton said recently. “Hopefully, Joe never has to deal with that question. Hopefully, the sport is cleaned up enough so those questions are taken off the board and he’s never even put in that position.”
Last year, the sport was forced to confront its past and answer for its sins. Nothing was sacred, least of all its biggest star. A detailed investigation by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency revealed the extent of Armstrong’s deceit and the culture of doping that ruled the sport. Back then, young riders saw no alternative. If they wanted a pro career, there weren’t many options.
“It’s different,” said Hincapie, a good friend and former teammate of Armstrong’s who has admitted to doping throughout his career. “The culture has changed. I truly believe they won’t face the same things the older riders from the past generation had to.”
The fork in the road: Dope to compete? Or ride clean and begin planning an early retirement?
Dombrowski believes cycling is among the cleanest sports today, and those close to the sport say young riders are entering a completely different competitive world than the one where Armstrong routinely wore the race leader’s yellow jersey and riders like Hamilton, Hincapie and Floyd Landis saw no options. “I look at the last several months as going back in time and revisiting the past,” said Liggett, the veteran cycling commentator.
Of course, cycling has annually declared itself free of doping, going back to at least the Festina affair in 1998, in which dozens of riders were linked to banned substances and cycling fans first got a peek at how pervasive doping had become. Other drugs — from cocaine to amphetamines — date back even further.
Tour de France winners: Few remaining heroes
Doping tainted the careers of all but three winners in the past 17 years of cycling’s most prestigious event.
Black and white photo: Rider has faced doping charges or tested positive for doping
Tour title stripped
Only three of the cyclists who’ve won the Tour de France since 1996 have enjoyed a career free of doping charges or positive drug tests. Two raised their hands in triumph on the podium — Landis in 2006 and Alberto Contador in 2010 — only to be stripped of the title, while Armstrong’s seven victories were vacated entirely. Some maintain the peloton is as dirty as ever and cyclists have simply adapted with new undetectable doping measures.
“With this Lance thing, I swear everyone thinks cycling is the dirtiest sport in the world,” Dombrowski said. “There was a time period where, yeah, the majority of the peloton at the top level was doped. As it is now, things have improved a lot. Are there still guys that cheat? Yeah. No matter what it is, whether it’s sports, business, whatever, people are always going to cheat.”
Armstrong left Nice when it seemed eluding authorities would be tougher. From Hamilton’s book: “In October , he phoned me, saying that he had had enough of the [expletive] French. He was selling his place in Nice, getting out, now. I should, too.” A French TV station aired footage of Armstrong’s staff disposing of syringes; they decided to move out of the country to Girona, where they knew “the Spaniards were far less strict about doping; no gendarmes raiding hotel rooms, no dumpster-diving reporters.”
Dombrowski is adjusting still, but he likes it here, a cyclist’s paradise where grueling physical trials are complemented by natural beauty. He keeps pedaling and feels he’s growing, getting better, stronger and faster.
Lionel Cironnuea for The Washington Post
“I see that at some point you have to accept — and I may have to accept this, too — at some point you see that you have a limit,” he said. “At this point, I don’t know what my limit might be. Maybe I can win the Tour de France. But maybe I can’t. So then you have to say, okay, I can’t, but I got to still be happy with what I can do.”
In a London bar, the best cycling team on the planet lined up drinks in front of the skinny “neo pro.” This was last October and Team Sky had gathered its two dozen cyclists and maybe three dozen more staff members for an orientation of sorts. For Dombrowski and Ian Boswell, the team’s other new signee, the night was more of an initiation.
Cycling is very much a team sport and the pressures to conform haven’t disappeared entirely. There was a pint of beer — that was easy. A couple of mixed drinks — a bit harder. And three shots that Dombrowski remembers tasting like gasoline. That was the last straw. Boswell and Dombrowski were supposed to race, but Dombrowski couldn’t get close to finishing. The music started playing and Dombrowski had to get in front of his teammates and colleagues and perform a striptease.
There was one other important rite of passage that week. His new teammates said it was time to remove his yellow rubber Livestrong bracelet — the iconic symbol of Armstrong’s fight against cancer — in effect, distancing Dombrowski from everything Armstrong had come to represent. Before he left London, Dombrowski was asked to sign the same form as every other Sky employee, a pledge essentially saying he’s never been involved with any form of doping.
Entering its fourth season, Team Sky is a mostly British squad that heavily recruited Dombrowski and faced a bidding war for the young rider’s services. While the impressive mountain ride at the Tour of California raised eyebrows last spring, his performance three months later, riding with the U.S. national team in Italy, dropped jaws.
The 10-day Girobio — commonly called the “Baby Giro” — is considered the toughest stage race for young cyclists, the junior race to the Giro d’Italia, one of pro cycling’s three grand tours along with the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. Dombrowski won a stage at the Baby Giro last June, a big accomplishment in itself considering many riders were five and six years older. He lost the leader’s jersey the next day, however, when a flat tire left him alone and dejected on the side of the road.
Dombrowski’s top amateur performances
|3rd overall||Tour of the Gila||2012|
|4th stage seven||Tour of California||2012|
|4th overall||Tour of Utah||2012|
|3rd overall||Ronde de l’Isard||2011|
|1st||Virginia Hill Climb Championships||2010|
But perhaps most impressively, on the race’s toughest stage — 105 grueling miles that called for more than 18,000 total feet of climbing — Dombrowski attacked with fervor, distancing himself from the others and winning not just the stage but the entire race. He became the first American to win the Baby Giro, and citing the huge comeback, Velo Magazine would name him the U-23 rider of the year.
Dombrowski returned home to Marshall, Va., a sleepy town with winding dirt roads and quiet, spacious homes. What was supposed to be a relaxing week off the bike was instead filled with phone call after phone call — four to five hours every day with agents offering their services and teams eager to discuss the future.
“I would’ve loved to have had him on the BMC team,” said Jim Ochowicz, president and general manager of BMC Racing Team, the top U.S.-based squad. “There were other teams interested in him as well. We’ll all be keeping a close eye on him in these first few years and watching his development.”
Dombrowski considered sticking with U-23s for one more year, figuring he’s still new to the sport and could benefit from more seasoning. But the more he talked to team directors, the more Dombrowski became convinced he could grow even more by competing immediately at the sport’s top level.
Some offered big money and others big opportunities. Dombrowski, though, settled on Team Sky. He signed a two-year contract in the mid-six figures, accepting slightly less money than some offers and almost ensuring himself a long wait before he could ever lead a team or even compete in the Tour de France.
“My biggest reason for going there was you have the best riders in the world to learn from,” he said. “The thing is, at 21 years old, do I want to go into some of the biggest races in the world as a leader? Or do I want to go there and have guys that I can learn from so that five years down the road, I can be a team leader and be well-equipped to compete?”
Dombrowski also took into heavy consideration Sky’s uncompromising stance against doping. While teams of the past often facilitated doping, today most squads make a public show about denouncing cheaters. Sky’s strict no-tolerance measure meant it had to part ways with some skilled people last fall, including Bobby Julich, a former Armstrong teammate.
Doug Pensinger / Getty Images
Dombrowski had no problems signing the pledge. He took about a dozen drug tests last year. He’s already had his blood and urine tested three times this year. Even after reading Hamilton’s tell-all book, after studying transcripts of the Armstrong investigation, after watching Armstrong’s televised confession to Oprah Winfrey on French TV, Dombrowski just can’t fathom ever cutting a corner.
“You look at a guy like Lance for example, who’s almost, like, motivated in an angry way, like wants to smash everyone: ‘I got to crush this guy,’ ” Dombrowski said. “But there’s also guys — it seems like some of the young guys, the new generation of American cyclists — who have a bit more of a laid-back approach. ‘I do this for what I can get out of it.’ I guess I identify with that more. It’s more about the gratification of achieving a personal goal than it is, ‘I have to beat this other guy.’ ”
Mostly via text message, he has to keep the sport’s bloodhounds aware of his whereabouts at all times. He could be tested at random at any given moment. Three missed tests would equate to testing positive and he’d be subject to punishment. In addition, his blood values — his “biological passport” — are checked quarterly for abnormalities.
“There’s a beauty in pure human performance, isn’t there?”
He’s not worried about any of it. It can be an inconvenience, but that’s about it. His focus is on pedaling. Last year, Dombrowski was the team leader; now on his new team he’ll be a worker — known as a domestique — setting a pace, fending off other teams, fetching water, helping with flat tires. He’ll do whatever he can to help the team’s top riders, such as Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome, the top two finishers in last year’s Tour de France.
Despite his age and inexperience, Dombrowski will likely compete in one of the three grand tours — the Giro d’Italia — this season, which speaks to how highly Team Sky thinks of him. Wiggins, the defending Tour de France champ, is targeting Italy and because Dombrowski is such a strong climber, he’ll likely be tapped to help.
In the eyes of casual fans, pro riders might always be suspect. But Dombrowski also knows the sport has a way of capturing the imagination. It has a simple, intangible quality that speaks to people.
“When you watch the Tour de France on TV, is it just because it’s entertainment? Or is it the beauty, seeing these guys suffering and struggling up mountains over the course of three weeks? There’s a beauty in pure human performance, isn’t there?” he said. “I think that’s what’s so great about cycling.
“I recognize that, am I going to race people that cheat? Yeah. But I hope that as cycling continues to get better, there are more people who can win the biggest races in the world by doing it the right way.”
Dombrowski rents a furnished apartment near the Nice port. He’s far away from his parents and three sisters, and the only American he knows here is Boswell, his new teammate. There are only a handful of English channels available on his flat-screen TV, so at times he finds himself watching the Winter X Games or Turner Classic Movies, programs he’d flip right past back home in Virginia.
Like many young world-class athletes, his days and routines are mostly consumed by his sport. There’s no time for dating or other favorite hobbies and pastimes, such as skiing. Dombrowski doesn’t speak French and most of his daily interactions revolve around the bike.
He wears his black Team Sky kit on the roads, and training rides usually take him past Monaco and into Italy. Weekend cyclists are able to mix with the professionals here, riding until the difference between pro and fan becomes all too apparent. “It’d be like if you saw one of the Washington Redskins out on the local football field,” he said.
Dombrowski is the son of two engineers — Dan and Valerie both work at Aerojet in Gainesville — and he approaches his highly technical sport in a doggedly mechanical manner. He logs onto his computer and breaks down each ride, the numbers on the screen serving as a code that paints a rich, detailed picture. He’s no longer a kid breezing through the Shenandoahs for fun; the sport at this level is a chess match where everything is quantifiable.
He’ll spend 20 to 30 hours a week on the bike and can later review every second of each ride. For example, he knows the fastest he’s ever flown on two wheels is 70 mph. His heart rate can soar from 45 beats per minutes to 190. A typical ride can burn 5,000 calories, which means he has no problem maintaining his linear figure.
“It’s just natural for me,” he said. “I’m just skinny.”
To be successful in road cycling — to win a Tour de France, for instance — cyclists must have three things: the ability to race solo against a clock (time trials), the skill to maneuver inside the peloton and finally — and perhaps the most difficult to understand — the capacity to race up steep inclines, maintaining power and speed all the while.
This is what Dombrowski does. His long legs never stop pumping, and he’s already known as a world-class climber. This is also the area of road racing that was most susceptible to doping. In long stage races, cyclists would use pills or injections or a fresh intake of blood to help them conquer mountain stages.
With barely 4 percent body fat and inexplicable power-to-weight ratio, Dombrowski has the ideal physiological makeup to climb naturally. Train as they might, many of the world’s best cyclists are no match for the mountainous stages of the grand tours. As NBC’s Liggett put it, “great climbers are born.”
“Nobody really knows what makes a climber,” he said. “You could have a slow heartbeat, you could have a huge lung capacity, you have to be able to suffer and you have to believe in yourself. Joe has already shown that. You have some great cyclists who simply cannot climb hills. They look at a hill and they’re defeated before the climb starts.”
Bryn Lennon / Getty Images
Essentially, the best climbers are light and produce an incomprehensible amount of power. “It’s just about being small and making good power for that size,” Dombrowski said.
He wears a high-tech gauge and his bike — a complex piece of machinery that weighs less than 15 pounds but costs upwards of $15,000 — is outfitted with its own electronics system.
No one is certain whether Dombrowski will grow into a rider who will excel in time trials. If he can’t, he may never be a serious Tour de France contender. But the sport’s brightest minds know that while you can teach a rider to improve against the clock, on the mountain you either have it or you don’t.
“No one will want to climb against him,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think you see a guy like Joe Dombrowski come along very often. It’s a special breed. . . . To me, it gets me excited about the sport, knowing that we’ll have someone like him to follow, knowing that we can have an American winner. He’s a phenom.”
Dombrowski’s still pedaling. Below, Monaco looks like a billionaire’s Lego fantasy, glowing under a midday sun. The Mediterranean is a hue of blue reserved for modern art galleries. Dombrowski barely notices any of this. He’s no longer seated on the saddle and is breathing heavily as he navigates his Pinarello Dogma bike up the narrow roadway.
There are a few dozen challenging climbs around the French Riviera but none like Col de la Madone, eight steep miles pointed to the heavens, eight torturous miles that feel like pure hell. Armstrong made the climb famous and said it was integral to winning the Tour de France in 1999. Armstrong still holds the record for the ride — a hair over 30 minutes — and later named a bike after it, the same Trek model Dombrowski rode as a U-23 cyclist.
“The Madone was the place that I went to really discover whether or not I was ready,” Armstrong has said.
The ride rises 3,000 feet from the start point in the town of Menton, between Monaco and the Italian border. The young cyclist keeps pedaling, winding his way along single-lane goat paths, negotiating the endless switchbacks and zipping past gorgeous views that no rider has time or energy to fully appreciate. The mountains tower over him and there’s barely a car to be seen.
Dombrowski had always regarded the Madone as a “mythical” ride, and in these early stages of his neo-pro season, it has become a regular part of his training regimen. He pedals and pedals, not racing a clock, not racing a ghost and not racing the past.
Though the steep mountain road would slow most vehicles, Dombrowski seems to somehow pick up steam. His long legs keep pumping. His heart is pounding 186 beats a minute. The bike approaches 20 mph. He won’t break Armstrong’s mark this day, but that wasn’t really the goal. Dombrowski is pedaling for just one thing: the future.
Bryn Lennon / Getty Images
Dombrowski made his debut with Team Sky in the Tour of Oman, Feb. 11-16. He finished the six-day stage race in 23 hours 47 minutes 31 seconds, placing 66th out of 137 finishers. Perhaps most important, with Dombrowski serving as a domestique, the stage race was won by Team Sky teammate, Chris Froome.