Bontrager-LIVESTRONG's Joe Dombrowski is 21 years old, and riding in the biggest stage race of his life. After covering 478.9 miles (770.7km) over four days in this year's Amgen Tour of California, it was time for him to tackle the Bakersfield time trial. An individual event against the clock, the time trial is often called The Race of Truth, as there's no drafting, no tactics, and no faking it while alone on the 18.4 mile course. We followed Joe through his day, including in the team car to bring you an inside perspective.
Joe's day begins in a parking lot one block from the start house, under a tent loaded with bikes, trainers, coolers of water, and eight exhausted, sunburned young riders. Their team liaison from Trek, Matt Shriver, has done a recon lap of the course, and briefs them on what he's learned. Course profiles can be misleading, and can't account for wind conditions, or temperatures. Start times are posted in multiple locations around the team warm-up area. Joe leaves at 2:05pm.
The team trailer carries a Madone 6.9SSL and Speed Concept 9.9 for each rider, with a few spares, and dozens of wheels for varying stages, wind conditions, and rider preference. For the time trial, Joe ran a Bontrager Aeolus 7 D3 wheel up front, and a full disc in back, with Botnrager Race XXX Lite Tubular 700x23 tires. He runs no handlebar tape on the wings of his base bar. With no power meter on his TT bike, Joe uses heart rate and feel.
It 's a hot one in Bakersfield, and soigneur Reid had his work cut out for him keeping the riders from overheating during their warm-up. Stockings of ice, knotted and cut into packs, sit easily between shoulder blades while in the aero position. The team went through dozens during the stage in Bakersfield.
Joe begins his warmup on a stationary trainer, in the shade of the team tent. Half an hour of spinning with a few 30-second bursts open up his legs and get his cardio-vascular system prepared. He rides until he's sweating and breathing heavily, until his body knows the effort to come. What does he listen to?
"Something euro. And trashy." The bass thumped in rhythm with his cadence.
It's 95 degrees at the team tent, and over 100 in the valley through which the TT takes the riders. Hydration is more important than ever, though it's last night's hydration that was most important for today. It was rare to see the riders without a bottle in hand. It's not just water, but a sodium mix to ensure each athlete's body absorbs the fluids and his muscles don't cramp.
Descending Roads, Climbing Temperatures
As Joe heads for the start house, team director Axel Merckx pulls up next to the start to check in. He'll be following Joe with a mechanic in the back seat, ready for wheel or bike shanges. Axel is as focused as his riders; This is where he can learn the most about them, and help them learn the most as they continue their ascent of the professional ranks.
Inside the car, it's all business. A rider number list is taped to the dash, and the previous day's course profile is still taped to the steering wheel.
At 2:05pm, Joe leaves the start ramp and immediately descends into the valley. As he put it, "The start is easy, you just have to get up to speed and hit your terminal velocity as fast as possible to get down into the valley." He easily accelerates to over 40 miles per hour.
"The whole course is completely exposed. No shade. Brutal," remarks Axel. As Joe descends, the temperature rises noticeably. Joe uses heart rate to find a tempo at the beginning of the TT, but then does the rest on feel. While he uses power for training and road stages, Joe doesn't have a power meter on his Speed Concept. Fortuneately, he's very aware of what his body is telling him.
Although he had a slight tailwind on the descent, the wind in the valley swirls and changes direction frequently over the short course. "You have to watch for flags, trees, anything to help you gauge the wind," says Axel. The valley floor is dead flat, though Joe will eventually have to climb back out the same distance he descended. As the heat radiates off the blacktop, his pace slows a bit, but Joe looks comfortable on the bike.
"Joe has a good TT position, nice and flat," says Axel. "He's a good time trialist, he doesn't crack, just needs more power, which will come with time." When Joe's tempo lags, Axel gives a few encouraging beeps of the car horn, but has no other communication with his athlete. Joe knows how to listen to his body.
The encouragement from the horn pays off, and as Joe passes the halfway mark he sees his minute-man in the distance. It seems to fuel him; He accelerates, churning out a faster tempo, willing his lungs and legs to catch the rider ahead.
After the first catch, Joe can see his two-minute man in the distance, and immediately starts reeling him in, as well. Before the climb out of the valley, Joe passes the second competitor. Balancing the urge to catch the rider ahead of him with the amount of energy he has left usually takes years to learn, but it's clear that, even at a young age, Joe can toe the line without going too far into the red.
With the road open ahead of him, the skinny young rider accelerates up the climb, his whole body leveraging the bike. With 3k to go, it's time to put on the afterburners, fueled by screaming fans and thoughts of respite from the heat.
Around the corner and into the finishing straight, Joe checks his body position and grabs a few more gears, pulling out every last watt he possibly find in his legs. His cadence looks wobbly, as he approaches the end of this test, and it looks like he's paced himself perfectly.
Joe crosses the line in a time of 39:34, good for 55th against a field of world-class time trialists.
Returning to Earth
On returning to the team trailer, Joe looks shellshocked from the effort, and is completely silent for a few minutes while his heart rate slows and he sits drenched in sweat. With a pale, though sunburned face, he spins lightly on a trainer, coaxing his body back to life.
After ten minutes and nearly half a gallon of water, Joe's eyes light up again, and he seems to have returned from wherever his mind took his legs and lungs in those final three kilometers. After another five minutes, and a bottle of recovery drink, he's able to comment on his ride.
"I was hoping to roll a high 37 or 38, but I feel good about it," said Joe. "Having so many hard stages before the TT, for me, is somewhat advantageous. If you look at the sprint finishes, like yesterday, it takes a little more out of the bigger guys. Even though it's been all sprint finishes these first four days, it's been really tough."
The Bontrager-LIVESTRONG team has kept two riders in the top ten for most of the race, with multiple top-ten stage finishes in the sprints. What did Joe have to say about their improving finishing form, and throwing down with some of the world's best?
"In a race like this where we don't have very concrete goals, where we don't know what's even tangible, we have to be opportunists and take what we can when we can. It means that if we line it up at the end of the stage and go for the field sprint, even if we don't have the best shot at winning, just being there and trying is really important."
And what about Mt. Baldy, the infamous mountain-top finish where the race is likely to be determined?
"I'll be a little ways down on GC after today's time trial, but that could even play to my benefit on a day like Baldy, where that could get you a little more of a leash."
Those two points are what this whole race is about for the Bontrager-LIVESTRONG team: experience and opportunity. And they're finding it everywhere.
Joe would go on to finish fourth on Mt. Baldy, besting many seasoned professionals in what is the best result of his career. You can follow Joe Dombrowski and the entire Bontrager-LIVESTRONG team on Twitter at @joedombro and @BontragerLS, respectively. As always, @TrekBikes is your #1 source for live, inside info on all of your favorite Trek athletes.