I met Joe Dombrowski in March of 2012 at the Redlands Cycling Classic when I began photographing the Bontrager Livestrong Cycling Team. I sat down with him after the first stage of the 2012 Amgen Tour of California to talk about how he started racing and what his first day on the pro tour was like. Joe went on to finish 4th in an impressive ride on the Queen Stage up Mt. Baldy and finished 12th in the Overall Classification.
How old were you when you started riding?
And were you riding to race or for fun?
I was just riding mountain bikes. For fun.
What is the first race memory that you have? Did you race mountain bikes?
When I was 16, I did my first mountain bike race. It was the Wednesdays at Wakefield. Wednesday night hour long mountain bike races. I raced in tennis shoes, a t-shirt, and shorts. I didn’t bring a bottle with me or anything. I just went out and did it.
When did it evolve? What was the moment that you decided it would be something that you would pursue professionally?
Well, the first year that I started racing on the road actually, in 2010. At the beginning of the season, I had a friend who put me in touch with Bart (who’s our manager) and then Axel (Merckx). There were some emails going back and forth and they thought I had a little bit of potential and it ended up being that in August Axel brought me on as a stagiaire for the team at the Tour of Utah and that was really eye opening for me. I had never really raced with support or anything so that was pretty exciting in itself. And that was when I first thought that maybe I could do this.
A lot of people talk about the talent you have, being best young rider recently at Tour of Gila and 3rd on GC there. You were plucked early on as someone who has talent? What role does having talent vs hard work play? How does it help you know what you’re good at and where to get better?
I had kind of a weird rise to where I am now in that it happened pretty quickly and my skills are still sort of catching up with my fitness. And I think in the past it has actually hurt me that I’ve been strong enough. Say, I’m coming into a climb and I am too far back and gaps start opening up I just ride across the gaps. And that’s fine when you are racing U23 races but that’s not going to work here. That’s why us being here is so valuable. You can’t spend extra energy here and make mistakes like that. Sometimes you can get away with it and ride on talent in some of the smaller races but here everybody is fast and doing what they need to do in the race. It’s a different ballgame.
What’s your training routine when you’re not with the team?
I have a coach at home, Jeremiah Bishop, who is a professional mountain bike racer. And its convenient in that he lives close by and we can do a lot of training together. I started working with him at the end of 2010. It’s a good relationship because I think a lot of coaches now are sort of distanced from their athletes, where as, with Jeremiah and I, it’s pretty hands on. There are some weeks where we ride together 5 days of the week. My training plan and goals are tweaked daily.
Do you ever not want to train? What motivates you when you don’t want to? Or do you just not let emotions play a part in it?
I just love to ride. Usually the case is my coach is telling me to not ride so much and he’s sort of holding me back. He always tells me he schedules me for 10% less cause he knows I’ll do 10% more and so it will usually be about exactly what he wants me to do.
Yesterday was your 21st birthday and you did not get to celebrate in the way other 21 year olds do. How do you look at the sacrifices you make to be a professional at such a young age? And even the sacrifices that are going to be asked of you as you rise up as a professional bike racer?
Well I guess it is a sacrifice but you are driven to become better and be the best you can. And in that, you develop routines. For me it’s almost the opposite. It’s a sacrifice to not do what I need to do. Occasionally you have to goof off and you can’t be all cycling all the time but that being said, once you develop good habits and a good routine its harder for you to break the good habits than it is to go the other way.
After today, after you’ve ridden the first stage of the Tour of California, has your opinion changed on what it means to be invited here?
It’s huge, I mean just a day in a jersey or if you can win a jersey here or be top 5 on a stage or whatever it’s a huge success. But if you think about it, for guys our age and in our position it really is life changing, you know. It’s the difference between your career going one way or the other. And it can happen pretty quickly. One day is all it takes and you can be off to the big leagues.
And how did today go?
It was good. I think we were all kind of wondering the same thing, like how hard is it actually going to be? None of us have really raced at this level before. And I may eat my words in a few days, but today was actually pretty manageable. And it was cool because it’s definitely a very different style of racing than U23 racing or NRC racing. It’s sort of like an on/off switch. When it’s off, everyone is talking and relaxing and we’re going slow. But when the big boys decide it’s time to chase and bring something back — it’s full gas.
Your excitement after the stage seemed pretty genuine to have experienced something you hadn’t experienced before. Almost something you won’t get back. It’s your first day at that pro tour level and rather than being discouraged, you said it was fun.
Just a few years ago I was watching these guys on TV and you can’t really see yourself bridging the gap between what you’re doing and what they’re doing. Even though what they’re doing is what you want to do. But now you’re in the race with those guys and, you know, you’re there. You can sort of see where, yeah they’re stronger and have more experience, but you can see where you can bridge the gap and you could be there someday.
It’s a huge step. What do you have targeted for this race? Is there anything you are looking to accomplish specifically?
I’m really pretty open-ended. Like I didn’t really come into the race with any particular goals just because coming into today I didn’t have any idea what it would be like.
Well, experience is a goal in itself.
Yeah that’s one of the biggest things. Just learning, you know. Looking at what the other guys are doing and taking something from that and learning. But that being said, I also have some performance goals. Like, for me personally, if I could go for a result on a stage or be in the best young rider jersey for a day, then that would be huge. Obviously Baldy is the most selective. As a climber, I think I’d like to go for that. It’s different than a sprinter in a sprint finish where if you position yourself right you could potentially win even though you might not be “the best” sprinter. With climbing it’s a little different. I mean the chances of me wining on Baldy are slim to none. That being said if I position myself well and have a good ride and can be up there with some of the top guys, I consider that a success. Being one of the youngest teams here and the smallest team here you have to be an opportunist. We are not going to win the overall and winning a stage is a possibility but it is going to be tough. So I think just coming here and enjoying learning while we are here and taking the opportunities as they come.
Is it ever hard to read the opportunities as they are happening? Do you think, oh that’s one and I missed it?
Well, hindsight is always 20/20. Sometimes you aren’t really sure and afterwards you look back and are like, yeah that was it.
Do you think that is something you will get better at with more experience?
For sure. I think each time you make those mistakes you have that take away and you keep it in mind for the future — don’t do that again.
How do you view the family of the bike race world? Here’s a group of guys and staff that you live with when you are together for a race and see all hours of the day. When you come to a race the whole family is there. What’s that like to come in and out of?
It’s really cool because there is that whole social side of it all, aside from the racing itself. And it’s great, within our team especially I think. Sometimes we think of ourselves as the hooligans of the peloton because we are usually joking around at the start, but once it is time to race we are pretty serious.
You guys do joke around, but I noticed when I photographed you at Redlands, that you are the first team out there ready to line up on the start line though. It shows a certain level of commitment and professionalism. Yes you all have smiles and laughs while you are there, but you guys do have a certain pride in being the first ones ready to go. You never give off that you aren#t serious about doing the right thing.
Right, it’s a balance.
Yeah, it’s a good balance. You guys seem pretty happy, which is refreshing. I have seen you guys pretty unhappy too now, like after the Redlands stage in the rain.
And it’s cool to see those ups and downs together as a team and watch you guys share all of that experience together. Especially when you guys are having new experiences, like being here in the pro tour for the first time. It brings you closer together. I mean, someday, you guys are all going to ride for different teams. How do you imagine that playing out? You can see it now with George Bennett. You knew him when he was on the team and you see him on a different team now. But he’s coming and talking to you guys at the start and giving Axel a hug and Reed (McCalvin – Bontrager Livestrong’s soigneur) a hug and sending Reed “Happy Mother’s Day” texts and whatnot. What will it be like when this group is all riding on different teams?
I don’t know. I was actually just talking to my roommate, Ian Boswell, about that. We’re sort of on the cusp. It’s really like in the next year or two, we are going to make the jump or we’re not. And we will all sort of go our separate ways. But that being said, even though you are doing your own thing with your own team, it is really cool to come to the races and see guys you haven’t seen. I was with George (Bennett) quite a bit today and got to talk to him and that was cool because last year I roomed with him more than anyone else and we went on massive training rides and raced together all the time.
Have you guys talked about how things have changed for him now that he’s moved up to Radioshack? Has he given you any insight now that he’s made the jump?
I always love to grill him with questions. He’s one of those guys that you see that was among us and then moves on. It’s not just about the races themselves. It’s everything, you know. I think the questions a lot of us have are more about everything else.
Well it’s a whole lifestyle. I’m really interested in that photographically – what you guys have to do on a daily basis and how you guys negotiate the lifestyle aspect of being a professional cyclist. And that’s the kind of stuff he can tell you about, being in Europe and all that comes with that.
I mean they’re living there now. He has an apartment there.
And that’s the expectation of a professional racer when you get to that level, that you will move to Europe and make that commitment.
Yeah, and it’s a lot to figure out. Not only are you stepping into what’s going to be your career and you are also moving to a different country. And figuring out how to get Internet in Spain and how to make your phone work in Spain.
Yeah phones are huge. Those were the questions I had when I went to Belgium. It’s the stuff you want to know. What are going to be some other future milestones for you? I think today was one, in a way. It was cool to see you have that first day on a race like this. What are some other ones that will come up or races you really look forward to one day racing?
It’s actually tough to say because my goals have evolved so quickly. What used to be a reach goal is now maybe an expectation. There are still things to dream about. Riding a grand tour would be cool. I mean obviously the Tour de France would be amazing.
Of the three is that your most desired?
Uh, I kinda
As a climber
I feel like the Giro has some nice things for you
Yeah, Yeah. And I like Italian food. And I haven’t done a whole lot of European racing. Last year was my first full season with the team and my second year racing on the road. So I really haven’t even raced that much. But I have raced in Italy a few times. I love the food, I love the people, the weather and they love insane uphill stuff.
Does scenery factor in at all? When you are riding do you see the scenery at all? Or you are only focused on this tight space in front of you in the peloton. Are there days where you are like, that was beautiful?
Yeah. There are times where it is full gas and you are starring at the wheel in front of you and you’re crosseyed and can’t see anything but then there are times where it is easy and you are just cruising out in some beautiful area and you get to look around a little bit and that’s pretty cool.
I think it’s one of the coolest things about cycling versus other sports; interacting with the environment. I’m constantly surprised by it. There’s so little you can control about the environment within the race. You can shut down streets but you can’t totally clean up the roads and you have to interact with the elements and the weather and whatever else comes your way and are quite vulnerable. It’s something that people that don’t know much about bike racing don’t think about. That was the beauty of it a long time ago and that hasn’t changed. Are you 100% committed to this being your future? You want this as your career, to be a professional bike racer without doubt?
Yeah. For sure. When I first started racing with the team in 2010 I went to school that Fall semester. Then in the Spring I decided to take it off. I had done three semesters and I could always come back. And that was sort of where I stepped over and said, this is what I want to do, and now I can’t really imagine myself doing anything different. You just get sort of set on doing that.
There is no conflict for you with anything else you had wanted to do.
No, no. It’s like 100% set on this.
Joe is currently racing in Italy in the Under 23 Giro. Emily Maye’s behind the scenes photos of the Bontrager Livestrong Team can be found at emilymaye.com/bontrager-livestrong/