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The learning curve

3/15/2013
Joe Dombrowski leads his Sky Procyling teammates during Stage 5 of the Tour of Oman. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images

Life keeps getting faster for Joe Dombrowski.

The 21-year-old American recently raced the Tour of Oman, helping shepherd Chris Froome, the Sky captain, to the overall win. A year earlier, Dombrowski was racing at the small-scale SRAM Tour of the Gila, on an American development team, just two years removed from the start of his amateur road-racing career.

Today, he rides for arguably the world's best team, has recently relocated to Nice, France, and is getting up to speed with the European peloton, which is far less forgiving than its domestic counterpart. To relocate to the motherland of bike racing can prove a challenge, from laundry to food to language. Dombrowski seems to be easing in.

"I'm enjoying myself thus far. It's been a lot of changes for me in these last few months, but overall I think I'm handling it pretty well," he told VeloNews via email this week.

The ease of transition is part of the reason he picked Sky at the end of last season, when he had a ticket anywhere he wanted to go, thanks to his lanky climbing legs.

"After the initial announcement last year, a lot of people asked me why I didn't go to one of the American teams. I suppose it was a consideration, but what defines an American team now?" he said. "Cycling is so international that teams' nationalities are really only determined by where they are based out of. Often the teams' rosters are pretty mixed. The primary consideration for me was that the team was English-speaking, which Sky is, and beyond that I didn't really care too much about the team's nationality."

Cycling fans and media have been eager for a fresh face in the wake of the Lance Armstrong scandal, and there is perhaps none fresher than Dombrowski's. He's young, polite, and eloquent. He's also saddled -- perhaps unfairly -- with moving the sport forward when he has yet to notch a major pro result himself. He's been written of recently in the Washington Post and is frequently covered on cycling websites, such as VeloNews.com. The coverage sometimes surprises him.

"I've had an awful lot of media attention for a young kid that has yet to do anything noteworthy as a professional. Sure, last year I had a strong season. I showed well in the amateur races in Europe, and I raced well amongst the pros in the American stage races, but I think everyone knows that the European peloton is another level," he said. "I have time, and I'm more concerned with continuing to learn, develop, and fit in this year than I am with any personal results. I'm comfortable dealing with the media, but I'm not always so comfortable with being hyped up. Time will tell how I adapt to racing at the top level, and while I don't mind speaking with the media, and I recognize it is part of my job, I don't necessarily appreciate being labeled the great white hope, either."

With that burden of the next generation comes the task of cleaning up the previous generation's mistakes. And that's a big ask for a weary peloton. Couple the natural suspicions of cycling fans post-Armstrong with the fact that Sky is showing remarkable strength as a team, and people will have suspicions. For this, Dombrowski says he doesn't blame them.

"To be honest, I would say that the cynicism is somewhat justified. That's an unfortunate reality for young riders like myself, but it is the cost of cycling's past transgressions. How many times have cycling fans been lied to? There's a lot of data floating around out there pointing towards a newer, cleaner cycling. We can look at VAM (mean against velocity, or average ascent speed) and calculated watts-per-kilogram figures," he said. "Those metrics are tangible and directly comparable and we can see that racing has slowed down. Does that mean that doping doesn't exist anymore? No. It does mean that there are less guys cheating, and the benefits for those that are cheating are minimized to the point that the benefit is somewhat negligible, especially considering the potential cost. At the very least, it's a step in the right direction. I think it is the job of my generation to change cycling's cynical public perception. Perhaps that is an unfair weight on our shoulders, but I think that's reality."

Dombrowski got his first taste of the WorldTour -- cycling's top racing circuit -- in Italy last week at Tirreno-Adriatico. He's currently training in Nice, and will head to Criterium International later this month. Dombrowski's goal this season is to learn rather than to win.

"I think my first season will be a success if I can continue to learn and develop as a rider, fit into and help the team, and be comfortable living and racing in Europe. I've spoken with [Sky director Dave] Brailsford on this very subject on several occasions," Dombrowski said. "He keeps stressing to me that he doesn't really care too much about what I do on the bike this year, but that it is a priority that I am comfortable in a new environment. I haven't spent a lot of time in Europe before this year, so just the adjustment to living somewhere new is a lot to cope with, never mind learning to race at the top level."