Joe Dombrowski's life changed two years ago after a head-turning climb on Mount Baldy at the Amgen Tour of California.
He'd like to enjoy another special moment in California next week in his return to racing after painful knee problems sabotaged his spring season.
One of America's most promising young cyclists will join a field of 128 riders Sunday in Sacramento for the start of the 720-mile tour that ends May 18 in Thousand Oaks.
A tour with two mountain finishes was created for Dombrowski, 22, whose job is to shepherd Team Sky teammate Bradley Wiggins through the difficult climbs. Dombrowski's task begins in earnest Tuesday in the "Queens Stage" from Lake Cunningham in east San Jose to the top of Mount Diablo. Before the final 10.8-mile ascent on the East Bay's landmark peak, the riders will pedal over Mount Hamilton on a day weather forecasters are predicting temperatures in the 90s.
Dombrowski isn't sure how his body will hold up. After a meteoric rise spurred by finishing fourth on the Baldy mountain finish in 2012, the Virginian was sidelined this season with throbbing knees. It forced him to withdraw from the spring racing season and seek help from Andy Pruitt, a Boulder athletic trainer and physician assistant.
Pruitt discovered the long-limbed cyclist has a big discrepancy in leg length that caused problems.
"It is going to take time to sort it out," Dombrowski said last week. "It made me realize I've been so lucky all long. I'd rather get on top of it now."
It seems as if Dombrowski has experienced a decade's worth of life as a professional racer in the course of two years.
After his strong showing in California, Dombrowski joined the U.S. national team for the prestigious Girobio -- the junior race to the Giro d'Italia. The cyclist became the first American to win the 10-day race that is a proving ground for young racers.
But the Baldy ride remains an endearing moment.
"I just hadn't been exposed to that level of racing before," he said of the world-class field in the Tour of California. "Once I found myself up there, you are almost confused and don't know what to do with yourself. It was a little bit surprising."
In 2013, he left the junior ranks to sign with Team Sky, one of the world's most respected teams. By then, everyone wanted the kid who had left George Mason University to pursue cycling.
Dombrowski didn't have an agent and was overwhelmed by the hard sells. He chose British-based Team Sky, accepting less money for a group he hoped would help him reach the highest level of cycling. Team Sky's Chris Froome and Wiggins won the Tour de France the past two years.
The 6-foot-2, 140-pounder cyclist moved to Nice, France, to begin his professional life 1 1/2 years ago.
On the surface, it sounds luxurious for a 20-something American. How could life get better than living in the French Riviera and riding a bike along the Mediterranean Sea or in the rolling landscape of Provence?
Dombrowski paints a far different picture. He arrived in Nice without speaking French or knowing anyone.
"It's a little bit of a stab in the dark," the expatriate said. "You don't know what you are going to get into. You rely on others' help and just run with it."
It has taken time to adjust.
"There's no TV, no Internet," Dombrowski added. "You don't have a car, you don't know how to get a car."
While dealing with such practical matters the cyclist immediately started a stricter training regimen. He was on his own except for another young American from Team Sky, Ian Boswell of Bend, Oregon.
"Having Joe on the team, it is nice to share the struggle with" someone, said Boswell, who speaks French.
Dombrowski has not had time to learn French but he has finally created a social network in Nice. He said feeling content and happy is an important element to racing successfully.
American veteran Danny Pate, 36, expects Dombrowski and Boswell to blossom.
"They're right there," said Pate, also a Team Sky member. "They're young riders who know a little too much for their own good."
Pate won't be surprised if Dombrowski challenges for the Tour de France title some day because of the tutelage of Team Sky's stars.
"Chris and Bradley ride like machines because they train like one," said Pate, who has appeared in seven Grand Tours.
His advice for Dombrowski: keep thinking big.
Dombrowski had to adopt that kind of spirit after leaving college to pursue his dream job.
"The plan was always just to take a spring semester off and go back to school," he said of his life's trajectory.
But once he started pedaling fast, Dombrowski never slowed down.
Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865 and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond.