In 2011 American Amy Dombroski made the big decision to move and live to Belgium for the cross season, a season of highs and lows and lessons learned for the diminutive 24-year old from Vermont. And she is not done with her season with one final race coming up this weekend, final GVA race in Oostmalle, Belgium on Sunday.
After racing full-time on the road and mountain-biking with cross thrown in, Dombroski was ready to try her hand at a complete cross season. It was perfect timing with the new UCI rule that C1 event must also hold a women’s race. After a successful start to her season in the USA with a second-place at CrossVegas, a win at the Catamount Grand Prix and a top ten at the The Nor’Easter Cyclo-cross p/b Cycle-smart, Dombroski moved to Begijnendijk, a town about 40 minutes from Brussels.
Dombroski continued to do well with seven top 10 finishes in her next eight races including a sixth-place at the first World Cup in Pilzen, Czech Republic. All was going well, for the Crank Brothers Race Club racer until illness struck at the end of November. After a short break, Dombroski returned to racing but the break was too short and she never recovered. She had to make the tough choice of not only skipping the week of Christmas races in Europe but the USA Cyclocross National Championships in January.
She returned to racing with a 41st at the Hoogerheide World Cup followed by the World Championships where she finished 23rd, a result that she was satisfied with considering everything.
Throughout the season, Dombroski who has won U23 National Championships in cyclocross, road and mountain bike, has been learning, learning about herself and learning about the races. And she also learned that she wants to do it again next year with a new sponsor.
We sat down with Dombroski a few days before the World Championships in Koksijde to know more about Belgium racing.
What made you decide to come here and live here for the season after CrossVegas?
Part of it was, I’ve kind of been a bit ambiguous the last few years trying to decide between mountain bike, road or cross which one I liked better. I gave road a good shot with Webcor and did the first year we were in Europe and things like that and it was great. And then I gave mountain bike a shot with Luna and cross was always my favorite throughout all that. So I thought to myself, well I might as well do a real full season and part of a full season is that I’m going to go through Worlds and do the whole February race calendar. Also with 2013 Worlds being in the US, like every other US rider, it’s going to be a huge goal of mine and so it seemed like great timing to do it this season. And just made it happened, a lot of it was finding an apartment – I found through facebook through these friends of mine who own a cafe in Belgium and then they knew this other kid who rents this place out in the summer for road and he wouldn’t be renting it out for cross…. A lot of it was like wow I wonder what this apartment is going to be like when I get here but you can make things happen once you get here, and I knew that finding the support system that I have in Boulder would be really hard but again, once you get here you figure it out through racing and talking to people and that sort of thing.
Did you know anyone in the area before you got here?
I knew a couple. The people that I stayed with the last few years when I came over for weeks stretches, the live in another town and obviously there’s a bunch of riders here and I talked a little bit to Jonathan Page to see if I could find a place in the Oudernaarde area because I really like that area and there’s a lot of Brit riders there too.
A lot of people find it hard to move here, with the language barrier and a different culture. Did you have trouble?
I actually wanted to have more trouble with the language than I did because it would force me to learn it but I found that the majority of the population speaks great English. Once you hit the population of 50 years and older, they don’t really know English but for the most part I have not struggled with that at all. I guess the biggest thing is finding that support network. In Boulder, I had my massage therapist, I had a doctor I could go to to get blood tests done. I had just friends, just to go out to dinner in friends.
It’s tough. On the road, I get tired of my own company after three days now.
So it’s been hard not having that support system but you need to make sacrifices. The first part of my season was great and I think that’s because I was here, because the travel wasn’t bad, the only plane ride that I took was getting over here and I haven’t been on a plane since Vegas. That’s huge for me. On the other side of that, with flying it’s kind of forced rest, it takes a lot out of you so you’re like ‘oh I’ll take another recovery day’ and here, there are just so many races with the UCI changing the rules and the C1s all having a women’s race. There’s the World Cups, the Classics, the GVAs, the SuperPrestige and so it’s so hard to pick and choose because they’re all an hour drive away and they’re all these awesome races that you here about and you see them on the telly and so I’ve had had to learn the hard way that it takes a lot more rest and recovery.
Is that what happened? Is that why you think you got sick?
I think so yeah and I got sick and I raced through it. I took a few days off and I was like ‘oh I’m not great but I think I can race’, and when you’re racing in cold weather and wet weather you can’t do that and when you’re racing multiple times a week, you can’t do that. I went into the season with 35 races on my calendar, from September through February and I’ve never taken on that much. I knew it would be a learning experience and I think I can take that into next season and learn from it and pick and choose a little more, especially now that I’ve been to the majority of the races.
You said the beginning was great. Tell me about it.
My first race was Vegas and that went well, I carried it over and I think I was smart with the travel. I did Vegas and then I did two races on the East Coast and then I traveled over and I think I had a week and a half to two weeks before I raced again, so that allowed me tons of time to get some training miles in, get rested, get used to the time change and then did one Belgian SuperPrestige, the Ruddervoorde race and then the World Cups. At that point, I think I was pacing myself really well, and it was still earlier in the season, and I could feel that I could handle more in the beginning of the season than I can once you start to get run down through the season. So right now, it’s difficult to think back and remember how good that sixth-place finish was at the World Cup. It’s hard to remember that right now when I’m just like I’ve been feeling like I’ve been beating a dead horse for awhile.
So when did it start to not be as good?
It was in November that I got sick and I thought that I’d gotten over it and just didn’t.
How hard was it to not go to Nationals, to make that decision?
It was tough. One part of me was like ‘well I don’t have to hop on a plane now, that’s nice’ but I was really looking forwards to it. It’s different style of racing over here and I feel like I pushed myself harder than I’ve ever pushed myself in cross racing in the US and so I was really looking forwards to seeing how my power and motivation would transfer over. And I was also looking forwards to it so that if next year I do do the Euro program again and come over for Nationals and Worlds, to do a trial run of it this season. It’s the National Championships everyone wants to be at the National Championships but health needs to come first and it would have been more disappointing to go there and not be able to finish or something.
So what did you learn this year?
(sigh) What didn’t I learn? I think the biggest thing is listening to the body more. Everyone can say that, everyone says that, ‘sick is sick eh’, like the Belgians say that. And you can have people say ‘oh you need to rest more’ but athletes don’t learn that through listening to people, they learn it through being in a deep hole and finding their way out. I think that was the biggest thing. And then, I guess just the different courses. The courses are so challenging here, and there’s all these steep drops, there’s just so much that you need to be prepared for in it; where I feel at US races, you can go, and it’s pretty going to be straightforwards, there will be barriers, there will be a fly-over, that sort of thing. But there’s like these scary drops that really frightened me. Like the sand drops here, for sure. When I get up there, even after riding them so many times, I still get to the top of them and go ‘oooh okay’.
A little bit (laughs). One of the things I found myself doing was looking on youtube the night prior to a race, just so I know what I’m getting myself into. Back earlier in the season, one day was Zonhoven SuperPrestige and the next day was the Koppenberg, and the races couldn’t have been more different. Zonhoven was a bit like Koksijde, really sandy, tons of running, probably mostly sand and then the next day was Koppenberg where you didn’t get off your bike once. There’s just so much variety here. And then with the weather, you don’t know whether it’s going to be insanely muddy – this year we didn’t have many mud races it was pretty dry. So just I think I learned a lot from the different type of courses that you can get.
Note: Dombroski finished 9th at both the Zonhoven and the GvA-Trofee Koppenbergcross.
Do you think you’re a better racer?
I think so.
What does that mean? Do you have more power, more finesse, more….
I think the power just comes from the amount of training that you do and so I think the power is something that hopefully I’m getting better at every year, I’m hoping. And then, the finesse and just coping with different weather conditions, different courses. Like I said, there are really some courses that in the pre-ride I was really scared to ride and you get over it, you look around and ‘oh everyone else is riding it’ so I probably can.
What’s your favorite course?
I really like Hoogerheide, that was the first World Cup I ever did back in 2008, I think. That course is just familiar and I like it. Obviously I like Pilzen because I had a good race there (laughs) but yeah, I’d definitely say Hoogerheide when I think of a race, I always think of that.
Was Pilzen the highlight of the year for you, race-wise? Was it the best day at a race?
Yeah, it’s been awhile since I could say that I feel good on a bike, I remember Mo (Bruno-Roy) was there and she’s like ‘How do you feel?’ and I could honestly say ‘I feel good’ and that was a really good feeling. And then to follow that up with once of the best US results at a World Cup, I’m very proud of that and I think I followed it up with quite a bit of consistency over the next patch of races. I think there’s a lot to build from there.
What’s the racing like? All the C1s now have women’s races, do people care? Are people watching? Some are way early in the morning, compared with US racing.
Oh yeah, I miss that about US racing, is how into it people are and then I’m kind of torn being a woman racing because I think I learn a lot more over here and I push myself a lot more over here but in the US, you don’t find that support for women’s cycling anywhere else, you’re like a second-class citizen over here, you really are. Just seeing that this was the first year that they actually added women’s races to most of these and then they put us at 9:30am, 10am, it really makes you think why you’re doing it. And am I actually having fun? So I think that was a big learning lesson too this year, just realizing why I am doing it and I’m over here because I decided that I want to be a cross rider for the next few years. Which brings me to another thing. We started the Crank Brothers Race Club this year and they are now switching their focus to mountain bike and so I’ve decided not to ride with them but that was what I needed to really learn for myself is cross really where I want to be?
So now you’ve decided, it is cross racing. What is the future like for you then?
I really want to do another season like this season. First thing is trying to find someone to ride for that has the same goals in line with mine. I went to come back next year, it’s going to be a different approach because of the Worlds and I definitely want to be at Nationals next year. It will be a different approach to this year but similar. I think the way it started, do Vegas again, then do the first USGP and then fly over. And then, after that, as long as I can still have fun here, I’d like to keep on coming over.
You mention that women are second-class citizens so how can you make a living then?
There’s start money, it’s not great and so it’s hoping that you have the sponsor that can help you out too. All that said, the US racing is at a very high-level, I’m not knocking that in any way, I think that a lot of people need to remember that we can have five in the top 15 at the World Cup from the US and then you have Katerina (Nash). It’s a very high level.
Yep, it’s going to be tougher and tougher to be on Team USA for Worlds.
Yeah, every year it gets harder and harder. It’s great to see younger people coming into it, like Coryn Rivera was right up there at Nationals and so it’s getting a lot more competitive in the US and that’s great to see.
So what do you think you bring to a sponsor and a team then?
I think it’s more than just results, it’s about being a personality in the sport, and I feel that I bring a lot more to the table than, yeah I can put a good results out here and there but I can also write about it and I can talk about it. It seems that the social media is such a big part of it now and then if there is a company that’s interested in the US and Euro-marketing, that would be perfect but finding that is tough especially in this economy.
Are you planning to race any mountain biking or road this year?
I did some more road leading into this season and I really miss road actually, the team aspect of it. So I would love, in the perfect scenario, I would love to find a road team that I could do the later summer with who would also support me through the cross season. I think the road was really good for my head, and also I did the Aspen Women’s Stage Race and the Steamboat Stage Race, that was really good training leading into the cross season. That’s the goal. I like the mountain biking, I think it’s good for the technical skills, right now I think what I need to work on more is the power side of it and I think you get that a lot better from road, the day in, the day out stage racing.