Cyclocross Celebrity Amy Dombroski’s Loved Ones Cope With Her Passing By Helping Other Budding Racers
By Nancy Averett
The government shutdown was in full swing, so Dan Dombroski and his wife, Nicole, both engineers for the federal government in Denver, decided to go mountain biking. They dropped off their young daughter, Ali, at daycare and headed to some nearby singletrack.
The couple was enjoying the fast rolling trails and wide-open views when Dan’s cell phone rang. He ignored it. It rang again. Then the voicemail notification chimed. Still pedaling, Dan pulled the phone out of his pocket and checked the number. When he saw +44, the country code for Belgium, he felt a little knot of worry in his stomach. His kid sister, Amy, was in Belgium, but this wasn’t her number. He hesitated, then braked, and lifted the phone to his ear to listen to the voicemail. “Hi Dan,” a voice with a British accent said. “This is Dan Ellmore. I need you to call me back immediately.”
Ellmore was a friend of Amy’s, a fellow cyclist she’d met overseas as she pursued her dream of becoming a world-class cyclocross racer. Amy had been a star in the United States. She’d won five national championships—three in cyclocross, one in road cycling, and one in mountain biking—then in the fall of 2011 decided to move from Boulder to Belgium, the epicenter of cyclocross, to supersize her skills and compete against the world’s best.
From Ellmore’s grave tone, Dan knew something was wrong. It was the second time in his life he’d received a phone call like that. The first was when his and Amy’s mother had been struck by lightning and killed ten years earlier. He forced himself to dial Ellmore’s number.
That day was among the saddest in Dan Dombroski’s life. Amy had been hit by a truck and killed while out on a training ride.
Within days of the phone call, friends of Amy’s started a memorial fund in her name, and soon Dan and Nicole took over. They named it the Amy D. Foundation and made its mission to encourage and support young women through developmental cycling programs.
Today, just about one year after Amy’s death, they have raised more than $50,000 for the foundation, held their first cycling and mentoring program for young girls in Boulder, and chosen their first young cyclocross racer for sponsorship.
The couple hopes the foundation can eventually sponsor a team of young female racers in both mountain biking and cyclocross, and support and encourage the cyclocross team the to spend the season in Belgium. “Cyclocross in Belgium is like football in the United States. It’s their national sport, “ says Dan. “The vast majority of the best riders live and race and train in that area, which is why Amy felt she had to go there.”
Amy discovered that racing against the best wouldn’t be easy. During her first season in Belgium, she found the courses challenging: sandy, cobblestoned, muddy, or icy. She fell often. The competition was also far more aggressive than anything she’d encountered in the United States. Female European racers squeezed, banged, and rammed their way through the opposition, never stopping to apologize or even look back. “You have to have big balls to race here,” says Christine Vardaros, another American who competes in the Belgium cyclocross scene. “In America it’s just a road race on dirt. Here you actually have to do things with your bike. It’s a full-body sport.”
Amy also struggled with the logistics of living and competing abroad. Everything from grocery shopping to finding an apartment to figuring out where to go to the bathroom before a race was a challenge. “I felt like a fifth-class citizen, finishing in fifth place, tromping back to our minuscule van in the muddy field where my option for urination was to squat between car doors,” she wrote on her blog.
Her situation improved tremendously during her second season abroad when she became connected to Victor Bruyndonx, a congenial man in his seventies who peppers his speech with the occasional expletive and lives with his aging mother in a house in Heist-Goor, south of Antwerp. Bruyndonx agreed to take in Amy, who he nicknamed “the little mouse” because she was so petite, giving her free meals and lodging as well as training and fatherly advice. Such arrangements are common in Belgium to help young cyclists defray daily living costs and stressors so they can focus on their sport.
Bruyndonx convinced Hans Van Kosteren, manager of the Belgian team Telenet Fidea, to make Amy one of his riders. The deal meant she would have the team camper to rest and change in before races and a group of volunteer caretakers, known as soigneurs, to wash and fix her bikes.
Amy was thrilled. “It was something I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs because it meant I would be able to live and race in Belgium for another winter,” she wrote on her blog. “It meant my experiment of getting my feet wet in Belgium all last winter had worked. I had highs and lows through that winter, but I was noticed.”
The highlight of Amy’s 2012-2013 season with Telenet-Fidea was a second-place finish at a race in Leuven, Belgium. It was her first time stepping onto a European podium. All in all, she’d competed in 24 European races and her finishes had ranged from second to thirty-third place, but most were in the fifth, seventh, and eleventh range. She was pleased with her progress. “Getting closer to my goals,” she titled her last blog entry of that year.
Amy returned to Boulder as she always did for the off-season. She did some mountain bike races, and spent time hanging with Dan, Nicole, and Ali. She also fell in love with a local guy, Ryan Rozinsky, who she’d met on a mountain bike ride with friends. “We met in June and we pretty much just clicked,” says Rozinsky. “The whole summer, we were pretty much inseparable. I knew I was done looking, you know? I’d met the right person. I think she felt the same way.”
Despite the tugging at her heart, Amy decided to go back to Europe for one more season. Both Bruyndonx and a friend, Emile Van den Broeck, who had once trained world-renowned male cyclocross racer Sven Nys, felt Amy had mastered the technical skills and only needed more speed to become a regular on the podium.
The best way to obtain speedy legs is to “motor pace,” a regimen in which the cyclist follows just inches behind the back wheel of a motor scooter, forcing themselves to ride for miles at high speed. “A lot of times when you do it, it’s so painful you can’t even look up,” says Vardaros. “You’re seeing stars. Sometimes when I do it, I can barely keep my eyes open and I feel like I’m going to pass out.”
On Oct. 3 of last year, two days after she’d arrived in Belgium, Amy asked Van den Broeck, an experienced pacer, to take her out. They left his house in Heist-Goor at 4 p.m. About 30 minutes later, they encountered a narrowing in the road where only one vehicle could pass through at a time. Such narrowings are a common feature in Europe to slow drivers down. A truck entered the tapered space and Van den Broeck signaled to Amy that he was going to veer to the right onto the road shoulder. He expected her to follow. But she did not. Somehow she ended up directly in front of the truck.
Amy struck the passenger side, hitting the bumper and hood and then was thrown into the air, landing 100 meters behind the truck, according to Belgian news reports. She died on impact.
“I blame myself,” Bruyndonx says in his heavy accent. “Why? I push her to go. The last thing she was missing was a little bit of speed. You have to do that behind the car or scooter to get that, so I push her to go behind the motorbike and she died.”
Hundreds of riders—some of the biggest names in the sport, including Nys—came to her funeral. Numb with shock, Dan and Nicole flew across the ocean. After the funeral, they stayed to watch that weekend’s races. Nikki Harris, a British racer who was one of Amy’s teammates for Telenet Fidea, won on Saturday. As she crossed the finish line she made an “A” with her fingers.
When the couple returned home to Colorado, they were surprised to learn friends had raised $10,000 in the first week since Amy’s death through sales of “Amy D.” merchandise—socks, T-shirts, and stickers printed with a logo of a heart with a lightning bolt cutting through the middle of it, a nod to the tattoos Amy had on her wrist so she could look down at them while riding and think of her mother.
This was the money Dan and Nicole used to start the Amy D. Foundation, which they decided would be used to help young female cyclists develop. They knew Amy would approve of the cause, since she often became discouraged by the lack of parity among male and female riders. In Belgium, the most famous male crossers made thousands of euros per race; the women made hundreds. “It was definitely a frustration for Amy,” Dan says. “It was an issue she cared deeply about.”
Working on the foundation, he says, has helped him cope better with Amy’s death, explaining that it’s exactly the kind of thing she would done, had the situation been reversed. He was interviewed just six weeks after her death, and his voice cracked with emotion as he spoke about the foundation. “We just felt like Amy, if faced with this scenario, while obviously grieving, would have found a way to create something worthwhile and beautiful out of it. So we felt like we sort of owe it to her to do the same.”
How to Help
Donate to the Amy D. Foundation or buy some Amy D. merchandise to support the organization’s mission to encourage and support young women through cycling, inspire the celebration of healthy challenge, and empower the confident pursuit of lofty dreams. amydfoundation.org
Support young girls in cycling. This past summer, the Amy D. Foundation partnered with Little Bellas to run the “Amy D. Sunday Sessions,” a summer mountain bike riding program for girls ages 7 to 13 in Boulder, where Amy lived in the summertime. Little Bellas—created by Olympic Mountain Biker Lea Davison and her sister, Sabra, who also races professionally—offers similar programs in Vermont and California. littlebellas.com
Host a Screening of Women’s Professional Cycling Documentary Half The Road. In 2014, the documentary Half the Road: The Passion, Pitfalls & Power Of Women’s Professional Cycling was released. Directed by professional cyclist Katherine Bertine, it discusses both the joys of being a female athlete as well as the frustrations of competing in the male-dominated world of sports. halftheroad.com
Cheer On A Team Racing In Support Of The Amy D. Foundation. “A composite team wearing Amy D. Foundation kits will start the 2015 Tour of the Gila, allowing more women to participate in the event that activated Amy Dombroski’s road racing career,” according to Tour of the Gila’s website. “Four-time overall Gila winner Mara Abbott (Wiggle Honda) headlines the six-woman squad at the American stage race based in Silver City, New Mexico. The event runs from April 29th to May 3rd.” More info.