Rolling around France, Italy and Spain on a bicycle may sound like a glamorous job, but being an American expat in Europe can be lonely for a professional cyclist. The days are filled with hours of solo training rides on unfamiliar roads and eating strange food cooked by people who don’t speak your mother tongue. In fact, your own mother probably can’t afford the cost or travel time to regularly come watch you race.
The USA Cycling team’s roster won’t be finalized until a few weeks before the actual racing begins, but several men and women from Virginia are likely to be competing here in Richmond in the UCI Road World Championships, which runs Sept. 19 to 27. For the riders, coming home this fall would mean more than just seeing Mom again. It means hearing the comforting background chatter of Southern accents, and eating a pork barbecue sandwich for lunch. It means racing on wide-shouldered roads devoid of dangerous European “road furniture” like the obstacles that define roundabouts, curbs and medians on the continent. It means seeing your entire extended family, in-laws and old school chums cheering from the roadside. And signs chalked in the road are more likely to read “Way to go!” and “Good luck!” rather than “Allez.”
“Fans will absolutely have the same kind of access they have in the European races,” says Paul Shanks, director of communications for Richmond 2015, which is helping to organize this year’s UCI Road World Championships here. “If you are walking against the grain for the road race, the cyclists will come by every 20 minutes. You will get to watch them practice on the roads the day before. Very few sports allow access to athletes like cycling.”
Cyclists who hail from Virginia, it turns out, have a bit of a reputation. “Nicest rider on the team,” people say. Or “One of the nicest guys in the peloton.” Here, we profile a handful of the nicest racers to watch for not just this September, but in pro cycling for years to come.
Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling Team
“As a rider, I’m mostly a climber,” says Joe Dombrowski. “I excel in mountain stages and stage races in general." (Photo courtesy: Slipstream Sports)
Joe Dombrowski, who grew up in Marshall, Virginia, is having the kind of cycling career of which pro hopefuls dream. He started mountain biking when he was 15, learning to bomb downhill and corner on the trails before he picked up a road bike at age 18. He entered George Mason University in 2011, but those few semesters were only a momentary distraction.
“I like school, but I had this opportunity to race with a development team so I took spring semester off,” Dombrowski says. “It went so well that I took the fall semester off, too, and just never went back. The next year was my last racing amateur, then I turned pro and here I am.”
“Here” is Nice, France, Dombrowski’s home base during his months of training and racing for the American-owned Cannondale-Garmin pro team. He turned pro in 2013, racing his first two years for Team Sky alongside 2012 and 2013 Tour de France champions Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome.
“As a rider, I’m mostly a climber,” he says. “I excel in mountain stages and stage races in general.” This means that 24-year-old Dombrowski is the rare rider with potential to win in a multi-day, multi-stage Grand Tour — such as the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana. He hasn’t raced one of those marquis European tours yet; for most of the last year, Dombrowski was sidelined after surgery to repair repetitive-strain damage to his left iliac artery. But this may be his breakout year. In May, he finished fourth in the AMGEN Tour of California, alongside other pros you can see making headlines in France this month. Soon after, he took second place the USA Cycling pro road race nationals in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Dombrowski, who spends his off-season months home in Virginia, hopes to be named to the USA Cycling Team to race in Richmond. “That would be a really great way to end the season,” he says. “This would be the one opportunity in my career I could race an event at this level and be basically at home, with friends and family.”
The course, he says, looks great. “You get to see downtown, historic areas, historic houses. There’s a wide-open portion, then the latter half is technical and punchy. That climb up Libbie Hill will definitely be a focal point.” Without a mountain to slay, the course doesn’t necessarily play to Dombrowski’s strengths, but he could easily be one of the strongest riders to survive the repeated climbs for an exciting sprint finish.
Cannondale-Garmin Pro Cycling Team
Ben E. King
Last year, King raced in his first Tour de France and, in quite an achievement for a first-timer, finished the brutal three-week race by placing in the top quarter of the field. (Photo courtesy: Slipstream Sports)
For 26-year-old Ben King, bike-racing time has long been “family time.” King has been riding since age 13 in Richmond and his hometown Charlottesville alongside his father, Mark, uncle Dan and younger brother, Jake. “It was fun growing up and going to local races,” King says. “Four guys in a Suburban full of PB&J sandwiches, just hanging out all day.”
Mark and Dan are still fixtures on the Richmond bike racing scene, and likely to race the “Conquer the Cobbles” amateur race held on the Worlds course during race week. Jake is currently racing for a developmental team in California. Ben turned pro seven years ago.
Last year, King raced in his first Tour de France and, in quite an achievement for a first-timer, finished the brutal three-week race by placing in the top quarter of the field. This year, King won a stage of the Criterium International, and hopes to be named to the USA Cycling Team racing in Richmond. King says that the years racing in Virginia prepared him well for top-level pro racing.
“Virginia is still one of my favorite places to train in the world,” he says. “I always look forward to getting a chunk of time in the Blue Ridge to beat myself up a bit and build form. It has everything you need to prepare for the hardest races in the world. An hour bike ride from where I grew up is a 40-minute climb that’s as steep and challenging as anything in Europe.”
King expects the World Championship race to be very tactical, which will require strong teamwork to win. “The distance is going to be a big factor, with the climbs over and over,” he says. “There are a lot of guys who could win on that course in a lot of different ways. You’ll have the strongest guys in the world launching moves early, and they’ll be hard to bring back. The sprinters will need their teammates to help chase down those moves.” As an all-around workhouse, or “domestique,” King would be one of those chasing and also trying to get into a breakaway himself.
“I do races like this all year long, all around the world,” King says. “Sometimes I feel like I get home and I’m coming back from Narnia. It’s hard to explain exactly what I’m doing. We can describe it, and our families can watch on TV, but it will be cool to have them see us race up close and personal on such a spectator-friendly course.”
Team Twenty16 Professional Cycling Team
Currently, Dvorak splits her time between a home in Crozet and Europe, including the USA Cycling Team home base inthe Netherlands.She hopes to be selected to race in front of a home crowd in Richmond. (Photo courtesy: Weldon Weaver)
Like many professional female cyclists, Andrea Dvorak came to the sport relatively late in life. She grew up in McLean, Virginia, and went to undergraduate and law school at the University of Virginia, graduating in 2006. “I didn’t even own a bike until college,” says Dvorak. She started her athletic life as a swimmer, then won a national triathlon championship while at U.Va., and spent part of 2003 training at the Olympic Training Center.
Although Dvorak raced at the club level at U.Va., she saw cycling mainly as a way to blow off steam from the pressures of law school. That all changed when, after she passed the State Bar Exam, Dvorak drove up to Vermont with a friend to enter a day race.
“There was a pro team there with a Canadian rider who was getting ready to compete for the Olympics,” Dvorak says. “And I did well enough to stay with her in the race.” Afterward, the Canadian rider’s team, Colavita, asked Dvorak if she wanted to race for them 2007. “I jumped at the chance,” she says. “It was something that if I didn’t do it, I would always wonder ‘what if.’”
Dvorak was lucky in that the Colavita team sent her to race internationally, uncommon for a first-year rider. “If I had just stayed domestic, I perhaps would have done the one year and gotten out,” she says. “But racing in Europe, that was the first time I was racing for the national team as well.” Currently, Dvorak splits her time between a home in Crozet and Europe, including the USA Cycling Team home base in the Netherlands. She hopes to be selected to race in front of a home crowd in Richmond.
“There’s team leaders, and there’s the workhorses behind them,” she says. “That is my forte. I’m a team player through and through. I will go 110 percent, and sometimes that means my race is over at the base of a climb just to ensure my team leader can get to the climb in a good position.” Dvorak’s parents, who live outside Washington, D.C., have never been to Europe to see her race.
Dvorak, who’s 34, estimates she has several more years in her pro career. “Women tend to have longer careers, perhaps because they start later,” she says, That late start is a problem she would like to help change. Dvorak runs the cycling-focused Miller School of Albemarle with her husband, Peter Hufnagel, where she hopes to build a strong female juniors program. “That pathway isn’t currently available to girls,” she says. “There’s a lot of racing for young boys, and that’s not the case for girls, even in Europe.”
Bigla Pro Cycling Team
Olds, 34, currently lives near Barcelona, Spain, where she moved four years ago to train. Note: Bigla Pro Cycling Team announced on June 25 that Shelley Olds left the team. We've included her profile here and in print, as the announcement came after press time. (Photo courtesy: Sport Photo NL)
Note: Bigla Pro Cycling Team announced on June 25 that Shelley Olds left the team. We've included her profile here and in print, as the announcement came after press time.
Shelley Olds was born and raised in Massachusetts, but we’re adopting her because she chose to attend Roanoke College over a Division I soccer career elsewhere.
“My brother went there,” Olds says. “That’s how I knew it was an excellent college. I wanted to go to a Division I or II school to play soccer, but then I saw it was all about playing soccer and not about experiencing life and getting a good education.”
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in health and human performance in 2003, Olds moved to California and traded soccer for cycling. She started racing on a track near her house, where she developed her trademark sprinting speed. In 2011 she turned pro.
“Worlds is my immediate goal,” Olds says. “And next year the Olympic Games, which would be my second Games.” In the 2012 Olympics, Olds looked sure to earn a medal as she was nearing the finish in a breakaway of four riders. Then she got a flat tire. After quickly replacing the wheel, she finished in seventh place. “It was horrible,” she says. “But unfortunately in cycling, that’s part of the game.”
Olds, 34, currently lives near Barcelona, Spain, where she moved four years ago to train. A cycling crash in March left her with a broken rib and five weeks of recovery time cut out of her racing schedule, a challenge she is training hard to overcome. “My focus is 100 percent on the road race in Richmond,” she says “It’s a perfect course for me. If I could design a course for myself, it would be this course.”
Airgas-Safeway Cycling Team
Unlike many young male cyclists, Gottlieb didn’t follow the traditional route of joining the U23 (under 23) national team. “I didn’t have the resources or connections to prioritize cycling,” he says. “It was just my parents and me, going in blind." (Photo courtesy: Christopher Johnson)
Twenty-four-year-old Kevin Gottlieb knows he has little chance of being named to the USA Cycling Team racing here this September, but the second-year pro has plenty of years ahead to make a mark on the sport.
With a military father, Gottlieb moved around a bit but went to high school in Alexandria and graduated from U.Va.’s law school in 2013. Unlike many young male cyclists, Gottlieb didn’t follow the traditional route of joining the U23 (under 23) national team.
“I didn’t have the resources or connections to prioritize cycling,” Gottlieb says. “It was just my parents and me, going in blind. Other guys get into the right networks and have the right people to give them advice.” They also tend to be homeschooled, go to cycling-focused schools or sometimes skip school altogether, something Gottlieb wasn’t willing to do. “It seemed like a big risk as a teenager to jeopardize schooling.”
Instead, Gottlieb raced for a year at the club level at U.Va., then joined the Kelly Business Services “elite” team and raced at that level during his college years. Immediately after graduation he was drafted by Airgas-Safeway, the domestic team behind veteran American pro cyclist Chris Horner. Gottlieb now splits his time between Alexandria and California, where the team is based.
“I work in a bunch of categories,” Gottlieb says of his riding style. “Maybe if Chris wants to be set up well for a climb, or be protected for a day I’ll be his wind blocker, or chase down breaks.” In 2015, Gottlieb will do 50 races in the US and in the Tour d’Azerbaijan, but not yet in Europe. “I would love to race in Europe, that’s the goal,” he says.
Cycling teams must be invited to participate in the larger European races like the Grand Tours, and as a domestic US team Airgas-Safeway isn’t likely to make the cut. But Gottlieb will have the opportunity this year to catch the eye of bigger teams at races like the Pro National Championships or the Tour of Colorado. “All my results come from breakaways,” he says. “I’ll have opportunities to get in breaks and my talents will be more visible to others outside the team.”
Jacob Tremblay (left)
Kelly Benefit Strategies Lateral Stress Velo Amateur Cycling Team
Jacob Tremblay and Chris Jones
Jacob Tremblay started racing seriously in 2008 and did well enough to advance in only two years from a Category 5 “beginner” level to a Category 1 “elite/pro” level. In 2010, he was recruited by the Baltimore-based regional elite team sponsored by Kelly Business Services.
As a member of the Kelly Benefit Strategies elite team, Chris Jones is one to watch. His excellent time-trialing skills — a solo race against the clock — may be his way to the pros. “A lot of cyclists have gone on to full pro from Kelly,” Jones says. “It’s a very good feeder team.”
(Photo courtesy: Ashley Driscoll)
Chesterfield resident Jacob Tremblay, who’s 33, has been racing in Richmond for years. His name is a familiar one on the top of results lists for regional crits and road races. Tremblay came to racing relatively late, buying a road bike for commuting when he was a college student at Radford. “I just fell in love with it,” he says.
After he graduated in 2005, Tremblay moved back to the Richmond area and joined longer training rides with other amateur cyclists. That led to local racing as a member of the Conte’s club team. Tremblay started racing seriously in 2008 and did well enough to advance in only two years from a Category 5 “beginner” level to a Category 1 “elite/pro” level. In 2010, he was recruited by the Baltimore-based regional elite team sponsored by Kelly Business Services.
Like all elite-level riders, Tremblay does not get paid by his team. He works fulltime as a teacher at Falling Creek Middle School. He estimates that he can train only 20 to 22 hours each week (instead of the 30-plus hours he would prefer); most of that riding is long distances alone on county roads. His ultimate goal is to perform well enough to get noticed by a pro-level team.
Just watching the race has a payoff for pro hopefuls, Tremblay says. “I’m most looking forward to seeing the guys ride recon on the course, how they go through corners, how they take the apex, if they scrub some speed going in. Are they out of saddle sprinting hard? You can learn from watching those things.”
After teaching for three years, Tremblay has earned a sabbatical. “I’m going to take the time off and give it my shot, my last year to train and race full time,” Tremblay says. “My hope is to win the elite U.S. national championship road race.”
If a pro team picks him up, Tremblay will race as long as he can. “I’m old for a cyclist,” he says. “Pro cyclists are retiring at my age.” If not, he hopes to build a cycling team within the Richmond school system, and introduce junior cyclists to the sport he loves.
Chris Jones (above, right)
Kelly Benefit Strategies Lateral Stress Velo Amateur Cycling Team
Richmonders will remember Chris Jones from his hometown win in last year’s USA Cycling Collegiate National time trial race. Jones, 24, graduated from Deep Run High School in 2010, and is currently studying for his master’s in education at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he has raced on the club cycling team.
Jones won’t qualify for this year’s world championships as he has aged out of the U23 class and hasn’t yet made a splash at the pro level. But as a member of the Kelly Business Services elite team, Jones is one to watch. His excellent time-trialing skills — the solo race against the clock — may catch the eye of a pro team. “A lot of cyclists have gone on to full pro from Kelly,” Jones says. “It’s a very good feeder team.”
With his busy schedule, Jones slips training rides in between classes, often hopping on the bike for a two-hour ride and then pulling up to his next VCU class sweaty, bike in tow. “It’s very quick, so I pretty much train alone,” he says. “I don’t have enough time to call someone and meet up with them.”
Jones is a powerhouse who likes to ride hard alone, in a time trial, or in a breakaway. Time trail skills are a valuable asset for teams looking for an overall rider who can win Grand Tours — although Jones isn’t looking that far ahead yet. “With cycling, you kind of have to take it day by day,” he says. “And I have already surpassed anything I thought cycling would give me.”
U2 (under-23 age class)
Airgas-Safeway Cycling Team / USA Cycling U23 Team
When most of his peers are midway through college, 20-year-old Justin Mauch is riding his bike five or six hours a day, seven days a week. (Photo courtesy: Christopher Johnson)
When most of his peers are midway through college, 20-year-old Justin Mauch is riding his bike five or six hours a day, seven days a week. “It’s basically train, have dinner, watch TV or a movie and then sleep,” he says of his cycling life, which takes him to race locations around
“Being away from home is the biggest challenge,” he says. “Hotel beds aren’t always that great, the food’s not great, but you have to get used to that.” Mauch races for both the Airgas-Safeway pro team and the USA Cycling U23 Team. He’s following the classic path of moving through cycling’s developmental levels and skipping college to do it.
Mauch went to Dominion High School in Great Falls and then took a semester of classes at Northern Virginia Community College before leaving school to pursue his racing career full time. “This is a better move than college,” he says. “At this age you can go for it. You can go to college when you’re older but you can’t chase a pro cycling career in the same way at an older age.”
As part of the USA Cycling U23 Team, Mauch is in the running to be selected to race in Richmond. But before that he has to post good results in this season’s races in California, New Mexico, Europe and Azerbaijan. Even for a talented young pro, the road to Richmond is not straight.
California Giant Berry Farms Team
Starting at age 10, King grew up racing with his family throughout Virginia. Today, he still lives at home in Charlottesville, races for the West Coast-based California Giant Berry Farms developmental team, and also holds a spot on USA Cycling’s U23 team. (Photo courtesy: Weldon Weaver)