Nice, France — Tall and lanky, the young man is all limbs, each stretching out like spokes on a bike, thin but strong. On a picturesque morning in a picturesque town, he steps out of his apartment near the port and starts pedaling. He turns a corner, away from the water, and heads north, palm trees at his back, the Ligurian Alps in the distance and the morning sun poking through the old buildings along Boulevard de Riquier.
Joe Dombrowski, 21, stands 6 feet 2 and weighs just north of 140 pounds. He’s new in town, having moved here from his home in Northern Virginia just a few weeks earlier, but the route is a familiar one. It’s the same one the fallen hero used to take when he lived here, back before he was a hero and before he fell.
It’s only a coincidence, though, that Dombrowski, perhaps the sport’s brightest phenom, begins his pro cycling career in Nice. This is the same city in which Lance Armstrong lived and trained shortly after recovering from cancer, and just before winning his first two Tours de France. Today Armstrong is the sport’s dark ghost, his systematic use of performance-enhancing drugs, his lying about it and his ultimate forced admission hovering over everything. And Dombrowski is the young cyclist who could help lead the embattled sport from out of its self-inflicted wreckage, but only by pedaling his way out of Armstrong’s long shadow.
A full generation removed, Dombrowski keeps moving, zipping past a bakery, past a closed tattoo parlor, past the old men on the sidewalk smoking cigarettes and sipping espressos. Racing from the glistening Mediterranean toward the snow-capped mountains ahead, Dombrowski glides through narrow streets above the French Riviera, a beach vacation behind the young rider, a weekend ski trip up ahead. When the narrow road becomes steep — when the ride looks more like an unforgiving wall than an incline — he pedals harder, climbing furiously uphill.
“Everything slows down a bit,” he says of life on the bike.