Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Joe Dombrowski: America's Great GC Hope

Last week Joe won the Tour of Utah's penultimate stage by dominating the final Snowbird climb. He put over a minute between himself and the next best rider and set himself up for the overall.

For Paps and for every bike rider he knows, it was a huge, huge deal. That's because it's the first stage win at the UCI 2.HC level by an American this year. Others, including Tejay (at the Dauphine) and our own Ben King (at the Critérium International), have worn yellow jerseys, but only Joe...OUR Joe...took home the final yellow.

Of course, we knew he had it in him. We also knew the course suited him: elevation, no time trial, and the presence of Italians (see 2012 GiroBio).

Note riders two and three on the stage, Garmin-Cannondale's only Grand Tour stage winner this year (Davide Villela) and Fabio Aru, arguably Italy's second best stage racer, already twice on the podium in the real Giro and 5th at last year's super hard Vuelta.

For recounts of Joe's past, see Rouleur.

But if you're like me, you wonder what Joe could do if he gets his chance in Europe. That doesn't just mean he overcomes his injuries; it means they keep outing the dopers. Case in point--Tom Danielson.

Joe vs. the Volcano: Snowbird vs. Alp D'Huez
How does Joe's performance compare to the top riders of the Tour de France?

Let's look at the Alp D'Huez stage of this year's Tour. Thibault Pinot holds Strava's fastest time up the mountain. Pinot's ride, from a breakaway, was at least three minutes slower than Quintana's, who finished only seconds behind him. So keep that in mind as you view this:

Pinot's Alp D'Huez VAM (1,555) is comparable with Joe's from Snowbird (1,553), shown below:

Why Joe Might Have a Shot at Being the Best Climber in the World:
Climbing at altitude is significantly harder. Snowbird starts at over 5,000 feet, which is where Alp D'Huez finishes. That altitude can decrease power output, according to Joel Friel, 7-15% at 5,000-7,000 feet. This means Joe's power output on a comparable climb, instead of the 278w shown in Strava, would be somewhere between 297w and 319w (since this is close to my own pitiful threshold, I'm quite sure it's an underestimate--but in any case, the point holds).

More importantly, Joe's sea-level-adjusted VAM would be between 1,662 and 1,786. This is the range of Tour contenders. It's not Contador on Verbier-level, but it's Indurain full of more EPO than a gardener on a motorcycle.

Tim Kerrison, Sky's coach, described Froome's numbers on Stage 10 of this year's Tour prosaically:
“It’s about a 15.3 km climb,” said Kerrison. “Around 41.30 [in duration]. Chris’s average for the whole climb was 414w, and a VAM of 1602.”

Hey! If Joe is particularly poor at adjusting to altitude, he would've blown Froome away even as Froome blew Contador, Quintana, and everyone else away! Even if Joe was fully acclimated to altitude, he still would've had a higher VAM (at 1,662) than Froome's claimed VAM of 1,602! 

This Spring Joe actually held a higher VAM on Baldy (1,632) than his VAM in Colorado. Of course, that climb was almost ten minutes shorter, steeper (causing a higher VAM), and at much lower altitude. Joe may have won the race...had there been no Julien Alaphilippe, Sergio Henao, Ian Boswell, and noted climber...Peter Sagan.

That's where the question of Joe competing in Europe against the best climbers because a little less clear than throwing out some VAMs and saying, "ballpark!"

Why Joe Might Not Become the Best Climber in the World:
After Danielson's bust and some of the revelations coming out about micro-dosing, we could just assume Joe can't win in Europe because he's not taking drugs.

But let's put that question aside for the moment.

Let's also put aside the question of aggregated fatigue and length of stages and wind direction and gradient and the like--all relevant variables, but not really interesting, and possibly unknowable.

The biggest missing variable from Utah was competition: none of Europe's top climbers was present. Hell, had Peter Sagan been bothered to take off his California T-shirt and take a break from deadlifting pitifully small amounts of weight...he might have taken the win.

Joking aside, Joe is a better climber than he's shown--even better than he showed in Utah. He could've done more had anyone been within a minute of him. It'll take time for him to learn the tactics against riders like Froome and Contador, but he'll get there.

What's missing from Joe's quiver is a time trial. And until he gets that, he'll be the American Wout Poels--by all accounts, an amazing climber, but not a GC threat.

When Tejay and Talansky can take a minute or more from Joe in a 40k time trial, he'll never be America's best GC hope.

I'd say Joe has time to overcome this, but Tejay and Talansky are only two years older than Joe.

Still, Joe has the potential to be a better climber than Tejay, and he's probably already as good as Talansky at riding uphill. He's not America's best Tour de France hope, and he has a bit of work to do before he comes close. Still, if he continues to improve and given the right course--a climbing-heavy Vuelta or Giro--he could look for a stage or a modest GC position.

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