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Joe Dombrowski Experiences The Agony And Ecstasy Of Cycling

Team UAE Emirates rider US Joe Dombrowski celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the fourth stage of the Giro d'Italia 2021 cycling race, 187 km between Piacenza and Sestola, Emilia-Romagna, on May 11, 2021. (Photo by Dario BELINGHERI / AFP) (Photo by DARIO BELINGHERI/AFP via Getty Images)
Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

Any win by any rider on any Grand Tour stage is worth celebrating. They come so rarely, they are never easy, and every single one requires a good dose of luck. But Joe Dombrowski's path to his thrilling win of Stage 4 of this year's Giro d'Italia was more arduous than most, a truth underscored by his agonizing fate one day later.

The lanky climbing specialist marked himself as a legitimate potential future star—the type of rider who could win the United States' first Tour de France since the Armstrong era—nine years ago, when he won two stages and the overall classification of the 2012 Girobio. Italy's "baby Giro" is one of the most prestigious junior races, and there Dombrowski was, smoking future Vuelta a España winner Fabio Aru on the famed slopes of the Gavia Pass. He parlayed his junior success and string of best young rider awards into a contract with Team Sky, the most dominant team of the 2010s, right when they were at the height of their powers. It seemed Dombrowski would learn under the tutelage of Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, and Richie Porte, and eventually morph into the sort of monster his pedigree and tutelage promised.

Instead, he finished just two races in the 2014 season and had to undergo surgery for an iliac artery problem. "My left leg had no power," he told VeloNews weeks after his artery was taken out, laid flat, and stitched back together. "Over the last year or so, it’s just gotten worse and worse. We had no idea what it was. I tried all these different things and saw all these different people and none of it did anything." Dombrowski left Team Sky for the American Cannondale outfit, and slowly worked his way back into form, winning two stages at the Tour of Utah in his time with the team. Cannondale named him to three successive Giro teams, mostly in supporting roles for Rigoberto Uran. Dombrowski was in a winning breakaway in 2016, though he finished the stage third. He also turned in a very impressive 12th place overall finish at the 2019 Giro, his strongest sign yet that he was slowly coming around to deliver on his promise.

Then, on Tuesday, the breakthrough came. Dombrowski was part of a 25-man breakaway that stayed away from the peloton over a bumpy, tempestuous day of racing, and he smartly followed sharklike veteran Alessandro De Marchi in what would turn out to be the decisive move. The American eventually dropped De Marchi on the slopes of the final climb of the day, securing only his third win at the top level and moving into second place overall.

Less than 24 hours later, on Dombrowski's 30th birthday, disaster struck. Late on the flat run-in to Cattolica, he went down at full speed as part of a crash that ended general classification hopeful Mikel Landa's Giro. It seems as if he followed the wrong rider at the wrong time.

Dombrowski somehow picked himself up and slowly rolled across the line in 180th place, over eight minutes behind the winner, with his face bloodied and dour. Luckily, Dombrowski didn't break any bones in the nasty fall, but his team (UAE Team Emirates) announced that he was immediately taken to the hospital for a "likely concussion." The next morning, they announced that he was out of the race after a pair of concussion tests revealed a worsening "balance impairment," which sounds like one of the most impossible ailments to ride through.

Crashing hard like that, for any rider, in any race, at any time, would be a cruel fate. Doing so on your 30th birthday, a mere kilometer from the time-loss cutoff, and one day after a monumental victory is so much worse. Dombrowski knows as well as anyone in the professional peloton how rare any win can be, and it's a real shame that he'll have to wait to build on his moment.

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