Thursday, October 3, 2013

Missing home, throwing a few elbows, and not conjugating verbs. An interview with Amy Dombroski about living and racing in Belgium.


I just read the news about Amy passing away. I feel like I got punched in the gut, though I'm absolutely certain that those who were close to her are feeling a pain I can't begin to comprehend. 

Amy was extremely kind and welcoming when I met her Belgium. I spent the better part of the day with her in Zonhoven, speaking about her life and career inside the small Telnet-Fidea RV that she shared with her teammates. We continued to correspond once she came back to the United States at the end of the season, and I last saw her in Louisville, where I gave her package of dried mangoes for good luck before her race.

This is an article that originally ran in Road Magazine, and was published here earlier in the year.




Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Part of cycling’s appeal to many in North America is its sense of otherness. Best exemplified by the lead character in the movie Breaking Away, many cycling fans have a passion for the sport that goes well outside the realm of competition. European culture, cuisine, coffee, wine and beer are as likely to be discussed in some North American group rides as last week’s classic.

Professional cycling, including the places where major races take place, allow those who watch European races (often through internet feeds that freeze for periods of time that can be measured by pages in a calendar) feel a connection—however transient— to the "old continent". Cyclocross, with its deep connection to Belgium and all that comes with it, is a prime example of how cycling fans can form bonds with activities and places several time zones away.

But to some, the connection to Europe is not imaginary, or merely intended as group-ride fodder. That’s the case for Amy Dombroski. The Vermont native just finished her second season in Europe, racing for Telnet-Fidea, one of the most dominant teams in the sport. 


I sat down with Amy after one of her races in Belgium, to talk about her experience racing there. I also wanted to talk about the difficulties of being away from friends and family while trying to achieve something that many dream about, but few have the guts or talent to actually try out: making it as a cyclocross professional in Belgium.  

I also wanted to talk to her about the fact that we all seem to loose the ability to conjugate verbs when we're in another continent.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

What has racing in Belgium been like for you this past season, versus the previous one?
Last season was my first season racing in Europe. I learned a lot. I had really high highs, but very low lows. In the end, I knew that if I just packed it in, and went back to racing in the US, it would have been a huge waste. In the end, I learned so much about racing here in Europe. For example this race, Zonhoven. In the US, a 'cross race is a 'cross race. There's grass, there's a little bit of sand…there's really not a lot to it.

But then I came here [to Zonhoven], and after one of the first turns is that huge descent down into those sand dunes. I got to the edge, looked down, and almost cried. I just thought to myself “how do I go down this thing?” That was early on in the season for me, one of the first races. So, after that, I had to start looking up races on YouTube the night before I went to them, so I knew what I was getting into.

Me, not Amy, eating sand in one of the sandy descents mentioned above.

So you were doing reconnaissance via YouTube?
Yeah, I had to, because the courses are so different. Last year, for example, this race happened, and then two days later was Koppenberg, where you’re constantly off your bike. Completely different from Zonhoven. So the courses are not only really challenging, they are also really varied. Learning the courses is really part of the learning experience, and of being here in Europe. So guys like Sven and Niels, they've been racing them forever; they know exactly what they need in preparation for each race. So that's just one tiny part of what I learned last year, but there's just lots of learning and experience that you gain being here.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition
Racing aside, what's it like living here for you? How was it last season?
Last year, I was alone. I rented this apartment in Begijnendijk, and I lived alone. I have friends who own a cafe in Aarschot, which is nearby. They found that apartment for me, and they set the whole thing up. It got very lonely, because to be honest, I don't have many friends here. Especially last year. This year, I'm staying with a couple from England. Tim Harris, he used to race road back in the Festina days. So it's better now, I have people to talk to other than the walls.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

I noticed that the four of the people who work for the Telnet-Fidea women's team are couples. Does that perhaps help give you some sense of stability, and family atmosphere within the team?
Yeah, they are two couples that drive the RV around. The two men are the mechanics, and the two women wash our clothes and do other general duties. We also have a third mechanic now who I brought on, since we have five women in the team.

So, does having these two couples with you at races help makes you feel a bit more at home?
It does, massively so. They are friendly faces to greet you, plus we sometimes have three to five teammates here [she looks around the relatively small RV]. So it gets tight, but it's nice because you have someone to talk to before and after the race. You can discuss the course, what tires you'll use, that sort of thing. Overall, having that team support, having this warm RV to sit in when it's wet and cold, it all makes a huge difference.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Was being away from family and friends one of the tougher parts of coming here to race?
My niece just turned one before I came here. My brother lives close to me in Colorado, where I spend my summers, which is really nice. So yeah, that makes it hard to leave. So really, Skype and FaceTime are the saviors. So it's tough, but at the same time I love what I'm doing. I love living here, and I love racing here. Some people hate it. You don't have typical coffee shops, grocery shopping is different…but I embrace all that. So maybe that's part of what it takes to make it here, the everyday life parts of it. It's not easy sometimes; the sun doesn't always shine here. In Boulder, it's sunny 362 days a year or something.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

At races in the United States, there's an obvious proliferation of Flandrian and Belgian flags. Some people sell waffles and drink Belgian beer, perhaps in an attempt to make the events feel more Belgian, more “authentic”. Now that you've been here, does all of that seem funny to you when you're back in the States?
Oh yea, it's funny! I love racing in the US. But it is funny to see that, because it's almost like America is trying to be like Belgium. But it's based on this question that Americans are now asking themselves: do they want their 'cross to be like Belgium, or should it be its own thing? Personally, I think the United States has something great going, but I understand the appeal of Belgium. I love waffles, and who doesn't like beer? Well, actually…I don't like beer, but that whole atmosphere helps bring people out in the United States. The beer, and the cowbells, I actually kind of miss the American version when I'm here a bit. But I guess I love both atmospheres.

Maybe for fun, Belgians could bring American flags to their races, and the beer tents could serve American food and Budweiser. Maybe like southern food with a side of biscuits or something…a kind of cultural exchange program!
Yeah! That's perfect. 

Aside from people, what do you miss the most from the United States while you're living in Belgium?
My mattress, because I have a really good mattress at home, and dried mango! Oh, and pumpkin stuff, they have nothing that is pumpkin flavored over here. In the US, there’s pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, they don’t have anything like that here.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Now that you're around a fair number of Walloons [predominantly French-speaking Belgians from the country's southern region]. Have you changed the way you pronounce the capital of your home state of Vermont? Do you pronounce Montpellier like the Perrier?
No! It’s still Mont-pee-lee-ehr. I haven’t changed the way I say certain words, but my intonation changes from being around Dutch or Flemish speakers. I end up speaking in a weird dialect. It’s some cross between British English, Irish English, Flemish…I don’t know what it is. Sometimes I hear myself talk, and I wonder, “Wait, why am I talking like this?” I just pick up on things I say, certain words that just sound funny.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Right after your race today, we talked briefly, and I heard you mention the price of “petrol” here in Europe.
Yeah! Things like that. Sometimes they’re shortcuts, ways that you can ensure people know what you’re talking about. I live with Brits; on the team there are Dutch riders, a Czech rider, a British rider. The mechanics are Flemish, with one being from south Brussels, so he has his own dialect. It’s like a car crash of languages that I’m living in.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Do you find yourself simplifying things at times, to the point that you don’t even conjugate verbs, and end up sounding like a robot? I catch myself doing that sometimes.
Oh yeah, the simpler the better sometimes. It’s not, “we’ll drive this car to get there”, it’s “we take car”. So I’ll simplify things like that to the Flemish mechanics, and then I’ll turn around and speak the same way to Nicky, the British rider on the team, who can clearly understand me. She’s like “I can understand conjugated verbs you know?” but I end up speaking to her like she’s a two year old. It’s like, “You shower”, “we drink”.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Speaking of languages, what's your favorite bad word in Flemish?
Godverdomme. The word has a lot of “grrrrfffhhh” [makes sounds like she's clearing her throat]. It's something I would never really say in English. It means, to hell with God. It's something you say if someone cuts you off. Another one is dome ezel, which means like a stupid cow.

I used godverdomme that the other day, because here, bike paths run parallel to roads, but they are always crisscrossing roads. They’re always turning, and I was trying to do these twenty-minute intervals. So I heard this guy honk at me, and he’s got a trailer on his car. The trailer is so close to me, it almost knocks me over. He then slams on the brakes in front of me, and I had it out with him. That was my big swearing session. I was happy I knew some bad words.

Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Was that an unusual incident based on your experience training in Belgium? There’s this perception that here, cyclists—pros in particular—are like gods. 

That was unusual, yeah. During my time in Belgium that was an unusual event. In general, the treatment of cyclists here is much, much better. Like if you’re on a group ride with more than fifteen people, you have the right of way, the laws of the road. So there’s a lot of respect.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

The similarity between your last name and Joe Dombrowski's is unusual, particularly for the small world of cycling. Do you both get asked if you’re related?
All the time! Right now, he's obviously the fast one between the two of us. At first, everyone thought that my last name had a "w" in it, because of his last name. So I started this whole "with no ‘w’ in my last name" thing, which only led to people then spelling his last name with no "w". But now it's back to both names being spelled with a "w", so I guess his name won out in the end.

How about meeting half way?
Maybe with a "v", and both using the same last name?

Joe Dombrowski (Photo: Manual For Speed)

Exactly, for the sake of convenience and efficiency. One last name for the two of you.
Right. But you know, I've never even met Joe. We've just gone back and forth on Twitter about our last names. I told him I wanted to claim him as my brother since he signed to Sky, to which he replied that he'd claimed me as his sister long ago.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Cultural matters aside, what’s the biggest difference in racing between the United States and Belgium?
Aggression. Aggression levels are really, really high here. In the US you can usually say “on your left” and safely get by. Here, elbows are always flying, whether you are fighting for fifth place, or thirteenth place. Here in Belgium, there’s also real aggression in the starts as well. I find that here, I have to pump myself up for the starts a lot more, to fight for position, and to get those elbows going. That’s especially true in the World Cup races. The last two, I had a real tough time going into them. I was sick, and in twentieth place, and I was still fighting hard for wheels. It’s like, really? In America, you don’t have that kind of depth.


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

Speaking of that, now that you’re racing here at such a high level, what do you think that the US could do to up it’s quality of racing in cyclocross? That seems to be a prevailing question these days.
I think a lot of what’s being done is going in the right direction. Things like clinics are really helpful, because they show people the skills necessary for ‘cross. But the biggest thing that’s holding Americans from being competitive at the European level is our courses. Clearly, the top end is amazing. Katie Compton, Katerina, Georgia Gould. We have the competition, we have the horsepower, but it’s those courses.

So take the course here in Zonhoven. You’d never have a course like this in America, because the courses need to cater to kids, and masters. I mean I’d be scared to see a drop like the one here in the United States. These huge Euro drops. There’s been talk of having additions to the courses for elite riders, and I really think that’s needed. Going back to the United States, I would never have to watch a race five or six times first to get a sense for the course, like I do here. It’s just so different. Over there [in the United States], there’s also no need to do reconnaissance rides the day before, whereas here, I came yesterday to see if anything had changed. So that, to me, is the biggest difference.

Do you think Americans could benefit from coming here to Belgium to race, even if its for short periods of time?
Oh, for sure. I made big gains when I came here for short amounts of time. But you also need to weigh in the jet lag. It affects some more than others. But coming here to race at this level, to experience these courses could really help Americans I think. ■


Amy's supporter club
Amy on Twitter
Amy's site


Photo: Cycling Inquisition

This interview was first published in Road Magazine, and would not have been possible without the kind help of Rouleur's Jordan Gibbons, who kindly allowed me to borrow his iPhone in the last minute, in order for me to record my conversation with Amy. You see, I forgot to bring a recording device, after leaving my iPhone in the hotel, thus being completely unprepared for what I was there to do. The true sign of a professional.


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Marginalia



Professional Cyclists, They're Just Like Us
Some five years ago, my wife and I came to a point in our lives where we had to make a difficult, but important decision that would affect the future of our existence. No, we weren't about to decide if we wanted to have kids. The decision I'm talking about was far more important. We had to decide which of the two weekly magazines we had subscriptions to should be cancelled, as we simply weren't getting to both on time, and they were beginning to pile up.

The choices? Simple: The New Yorker, and (drum roll please) US Weekly. Eventually, we heartily agreed that the New Yorker had to go, and thus began our slide into a cultural regression that remains to this day. The upside? I now get to read insightful features like: Celebrities, they're just like us. It's not just a title, it's a life lesson, one I thought about during rider sign in at the 2009 Tour de France stage that started in Andorra. There, I saw as many as five professionals have incredible difficulties clipping in, with one nearly running into a barrier as a result of looking down at his pedal.

Suddenly, I didn't feel so bad about my past troubles with pedals of the clicky kind.

Similarly, how many thousands of times have each of us had this exact thing happen?










Oh wait. No, I forgot. Yesterday at Milan-San Remo was actually the first time in this history of humanity that such a thing has ever happened.


PS: Pros also wear shower caps, just like us. 


4 comments:

  1. Which team sky rider is that? So funny.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Word is breaking that Amy was killed today by a truck driver while out on a training ride.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Sad. Sad. Sad.

    http://velonews.competitor.com/2013/10/news/dombroski-killed-in-training-crash_304886

    ReplyDelete

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