Those that raced cyclocross this past season in the Mid-Atlantic already know Joe Dombrowski. The eighteen year old Haymarket Bicycle/HomeVisit rider could be found in the front group of most MABRA races he entered this year. He usually finished on the podium and captured some impressive victories along the way.
While most of us have hung up the ‘cross bikes for the season, Joe is spending his second consecutive Christmas in Belgium racing bikes against the best cyclocross competition that the world has to offer. As an invitee to Geoff Proctor’s Euro Cross Camp, Dombrowski is living in the Team USA House—along with a group of U-23 and junior racers, as well as a handful of elite riders—and competing in up to nine races in 14 days.
We caught up with Joe to see how his second season is progressing, learn a little more about racing in Belgium and get some insights into life at the Team USA house.
How was your travel to Belgium? I saw where Jeff Bahnson’s bikes didn’t make it on the same flight as him. Any similar issues for you?
The travel was rough. Belgium was getting snow that they haven’t seen in years. I spent 14 hours in the London airport, which made for a total travel time of 37 hours without sleep. Jeff and several others were missing bikes, wheels, and various other pieces of luggage.
Take us through a typical day in which you are not racing. When do you wake up, train, eat, etc. How do you spend the downtime?
Geoff comes by each room and wakes us up in waves. Juniors first, U-23s next, and Elites last. He wants us to be on the same schedule on non-race days as we are on race days. I usually get up at 8:30.
Training starts after breakfast. It doesn’t get light here until 9:00, and we usually are on the bikes around 11:00. After training, I just try to keep the legs up and get a nap in if possible. Els [Delaere (House Directress and Head Chef)] cooks a delicious hot dinner each night.
With another year of racing under your belt, is there anything about Euro Cross Camp that is easier than it was in 2008?
I came into this year’s camp with a better perspective on the level of racing. It’s a bit of a shock when you first start doing big races here; this is definitely not a forgiving place.
Guys at the camp are racing juniors and U-23, right? Do you all travel to the race together? What’s the pre-race routine like?
The camp is mostly juniors and U-23s, but we do have three Elites as well though. Each group travels to the race together, and comes back together. If it is a late race, usually we are on the rollers in the morning keeping the legs loose. If the race is earlier in the day, we will grab breakfast and jump in the van and go to the race.
Usually we can get back from our race in time to watch the Elites race on TV.
From a venue and race atmosphere perspective, how do the events differ from the U.S. scene?
The venues are often in a more public setting. Rather than being out in some field, the Euro races are usually in or near town. The atmosphere is very festive, similar to what you would see in an American football game. Fans show up early and watch riders warming up in their tents while chowing down on race food and beer.
It gets rowdy come race time. Fans are drunk, the superstars are flying around the course, stuff happens.
How has your racing gone? Do you feel like you have good fitness?
I’ve done three races so far. I haven’t had quite the results that I wanted. Some of these have been due to poorly timed mechanicals, but my last race in Diegem was just a poor ride.
I think the fitness is in there. I just need to focus and try to pull out some good results this week. I still have a majority of races left.
You are racing U-23, right? Do those races go at the same time as the elites? What has that been like? How do you feel like you stack up with the other U23s? That has got to be a fast bunch.
Yes. Only the smaller races combine the Elite and U-23 fields. It really isn’t too different; I mean you would think “I’m racing Albert, Nys, and Stybar, this is going to be rough.” But really, I think the U-23 fields on their own over here are just about as fast.
At Middlekerke for example, a U-23, Tom Meussen, rode with Sven Nys at the front almost the whole race, and that’s the same guy you have to race in the bigger U-23 only races.
I would say pretty confidently that the top five from a big U-23 race here would take the top five at a USGP elite race. I would be happy riding in the 20’s or lower 30’s in some of the big races. That would be a good result for me.
What’s your start position been like? Are you staging at the back of the pack? Are all start positions predetermined or is there a scrum? What’s that experience like after the gun goes off? Chaos or pretty controlled?
I have consistently been called up on the last couple rows. Call-ups are based on World Cup points for the WC’s, and UCI points for everything else. I didn’t get any UCI points domestically this year, and I am really kicking myself for it now.
After everyone with UCI points is called, they start calling names fast. At some point, usually after the first sixty or so, it turns into a free-for-all. You have to be at the front of that push if you want a decent start position.
Over here, the race starts long before the gun goes off. You have to be one of the first to jump the call-up, and use your body and bike to block others trying to weasel there way in front of you at the start. It is often faster to run an early tricky corner and just push through the inside line. On the first extended run, you have to be prepared to defend your spot. Yesterday, at Diegem, there was a long run a minute into the race, guys were grabbing my back wheel and elbowing with their free arm. It’s a battle from the gun.
What have the courses been like? Looks like a lot of mud, muck and cold from the pictures.
The courses have more dramatic transitions than U.S. courses. Rather than just rolling, the courses here have very high-speed sections, with very technical sections in between. The run-ups often require use of your spare hand, and your butt is on the back tire on some of the descents.
Are you using the same gearing, wheels, tires that you did during the domestic season? If not, what changes did you make.
The only change is that I am running Dugast Rhinos for a better bite in the muddy conditions. I was typically running Dugast Typhoons and Challenge Grifos in the U.S.
We hear wonderful tales of bread, cheese and Nutella. What’s the training table for you guys really like?
All the food in the house is bike-racer friendly. Els definitely would not buy Nutella. However, there is a bakery, a house-sized vending machine, and a grocery store just a block away…
Have you been treated any differently, either positively or negatively, by fans or fellow competitors because you are American? Is there any misconception or prejudice about what kind of racer you may be? Or do you think enough Americans are on the scene now that you guys are an accepted group?
We have gotten royally flicked by the UCI commissaries at the call-up, but that’s about it. Proctor usually sticks to them like glue to make sure they don’t “forget” we have UCI points.
Any funny or memorable moments involving you or other campers you can share?
At Noordzecross in Middlekerke, Jerome Townsend was rolling in fifth into the first corner. He was elbowing some Belgian dude who was yelling at him. He looked over and it was Sven Nys.
Troy Wells running around in a Santa suit.
Did you guys do anything special for Christmas?
Els cooked a Christmas dinner with a dessert. That’s about it though. I have sort of “missed” Christmas the last two years now.
What’s the most useful Flemish phrase you’ve learned?
The only ones I know are the ones the crazy Euros yell at you when you don’t pull through, or chop them in a corner. Sometimes they recognize you’re an American and yell at you in English. They’re very vocal racers.
Anything else you want to add?
Thanks to Mom and Dad and everyone else who supports me so that I can continue racing.
Team USA House photos by Joe Dombrowski.