Manual for Speed talked with Bontrager-Livestrong rider Joe Dombrowski (now riding for Team Sky) at the 2012 Tour of Utah. In this second installment, Joe explains his path from high school to the Bontrager-Livestrong development team.
At first I had no idea I was good, but I kept at it, I enjoyed it. In my junior year of high school I started getting serious; I wasn’t fast but I was getting better. That year I went to MTB Nationals at Mt. Snow and raced Junior Expert. I don’t remember how it went, but probably not super well. I had kit at that point but my legs were still hairy.
After graduation I went to George Mason University. My parents wanted me to go to college and I wasn’t serious enough about racing at that point to consider the alternative. They were fine with cycling of course, but I was 18 and they put the responsibility on me; I had to pay for bikes, find my own way to races, etc. In 2010, my freshman year at GMU, I started racing the local early season Mid-Atlantic Cat 4 road races. Three months later I was Cat 1. In July I went to Bend and raced the Cascade Classic. I was 18 and riding alone but I finished 20th overall in the Pro/Cat 1 GC and was 5th in the Young Rider Classification. That’s where I met Axel for the first time. He asked me if I wanted to race with the team (Trek-Livestrong at the time) at the Tour of Utah as a stagiaire. None of this felt normal.
Utah was cool, I got to ride with this team that had all the best guys: Ian Boswell (now on Sky), Ben King (Radioshack Leopard Trek), Taylor Phinney (BMC), etc. At first it was sort of awkward because the team is so young and so close—it’s different than any other sort of cycling team. Other teams have dudes who are dads and older guys and younger guys. They aren’t going out for Froyo every night as a team. I came into this team when they’d already meshed. I was the “new guy.” But it worked out well; we all got along and I rode pretty alright – 27th overall.
That same year I went to the lab at JMU to get some numbers run—we did VO2 max and lactic acid tests—and they said they hadn’t seen anything like it. They told me my VO2 max was 86, while a normal American is about 45 and Lance was 83. They told me I was in the top, you know, tenth of a percent. They told me I wasn’t normal. That’s when I thought maybe I really can do this. But even then I knew my physiology wasn’t a guaranteed ticket for success. Cyclists are machines, we have to be to some degree. But I love what I do, so much so that it’s not a sacrifice to give up a lot of things that most people would consider sacrifices, or to go through things most people wouldn’t. It’s what I want to do.
After the Tour of Utah in 2010, Axel offered me a spot on Bontrager-Livestrong in 2011. Of course I said yeah. I was planning on taking that next spring semester off anyway and this was a good opportunity. I hadn’t been doing this very long, so why not take some time off and give it a shot? I had no idea what I was getting myself into, I had no idea how hard it was going to be. At the time it all just seemed cool. I had no idea if I would be on the team the following year, I just wanted to see what would happen.
The confidence and self-belief builds over time. I have it now. Say you’re a kid in HS playing varsity basketball. Of course if you could make it to the NBA that would be great, but how many kids actually make it? In all likelihood, and on any given team, none. But that’s professional sports. Now that I’ve been a part of this learning curve for a for a few years, I’m starting to see the signs. I’ve moved out of “probably not” and “maybe” and even “probably” into “this is happening now.”