The bike her refuge, Janel Holcomb remembers her father after Gila win

Former NRC champion rides an emotional solo journey to a stage win in New Mexico

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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SILVER CITY, N.M (VN) — At the end of Thursday’s difficult stage at the Silver City’s Tour of the Gila, Janel Holcomb (Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies) crossed the finish line solo, tears streaming, her left hand pointing to the sky, her right hand over her heart.

Holcomb celebrated her stage victory, a victory that came after she rode much of the day off the front of the race in two separate breakaway efforts. But she also remembered. She pointed to the sky in tribute to her father, who died in October 2012 after a long illness.

“All this emotion just came flooding in,” Holcomb told Velonews. “I was thinking about all these people, my team, Rachel [Heal, director]. I was thinking about my dad who passed away in October. It’s a brutal sport, but it’s also an amazing sport.”

Holcomb has ridden a long road since she won the National Racing Calendar overall title in 2011. Her father’s illness, which spanned the length of last season, drew her energy toward her family and away from cycling. She still rode a full season last year, but Holcomb did not achieve the same level of success that she enjoyed in her breakout NRC title run.

During Optum’s training camp earlier this season, Holcomb said she was grateful to have cycling as a refuge from the emotional stresses of her father’s illness. Though she could not devote her full forces to cycling, the sport and the people in it became all the more important to her. Over the winter, Holcomb pushed hard in her training with the goal of returning to her 2011 level this season.

“I did a good fall and winter of training, but until you get the result, you don’t know that the work is paying off,” she said. “I have a great coach and he keeps saying, ‘you’re better than ever. Just keep on, keeping on.’ It’s really hard until you have the confirmation of a race victory.”

Holcomb works with Arnie Baker, and she credits him with keeping her on an even keel with her training and racing. “I’m an emotional person,” she said, forthrightly. “My husband texted Rachel [on Thursday], ‘don’t let her cry in front of the cameras.’”

Holcomb’s feelings show plainly on her face and in how she races her bike. Both Baker and Heal are her touchstones. They reassure her, keep her focused, and help her turn her emotional energy into race victories.

“She fought hard for that one,” Heal said of Thursday’s victory. “She’s been riding well, and it was good to see it all come together on the day. A move like that doesn’t often work; it’s pretty cool when it does. I think everyone cheers whenever you see a gutsy move like that.”

Engineering to teaching to bike racing

Holcomb came to cycling late after a college athletic career as a runner. She studied chemical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic University in upstate New York. As graduation approached, Holcomb began to have doubts about her career path. She comes from a family of engineers, and it surprised them when she decided to pursue a teaching credential rather than take a research position in chemical engineering. Her teaching career took her to San Diego, and she bought her first road bike in 2006.

Road racing did not immediately spark Holcomb’s interest. In fact, her first experiences with riding the bike came with Team In Training, a fundraising organization for Leukemia research. Though Holcomb enjoyed riding the Team In Training events, it was not a perfect fit for her.

“My competitive side was coming to the surface in a context where it wasn’t ideal,” said Holcomb. “’We love you,’ they said, ‘but you don’t really belong here.’”

In 2007, Holcomb switched from charity rides to racing, and by the end of the season, she was guest-riding with the California-based Webcor team. The following year, she signed to race full-time with Webcor, which that year included world time trial champion Christine Thorburne, Katheryn Curi Mattis, and Erinne Willock.

Holcomb opened her 2008 season with a victory in the hilly Boulevard Road Race, a local favorite for hard, early season racing in Southern California. That year, she also finished second overall at the Green Mountain Stage Race and in the top 10 at the time trial national championship. Over the next two seasons, Holcomb steadily ascended the ranks and developed as an all-rounder with a talent for climbing.

In 2011, she signed with Colavita, and her collaboration with Rachel Heal began. A mellow, good-humored director, Heal raced the U.S. circuit, including the Tour of the Gila where she won two stages in her career, and holds the frustrating distinction of having finished second to Nicole Cooke at the British national road race championship on five separate occasions. Heal knows her bike racing. She also knows when to step back and let the women make their own decisions.

Fighting the wind for a breakaway

During Wednesday’s opening stage, Optum threw itself against the wind. The team desperately wanted a breakaway to stick and at least one of its riders to reach the Mogollon climb ahead of super-climber Mara Abbott (Exergy Twenty16). It didn’t work out, and the team reached the climb exhausted with little to show for its efforts. On Thursday, Heal’s riders took a more wait-and-see approach.

“Yesterday, no one wanted a breakaway as much as we did,” said Heal. “Today, I left it to the team to decide. They know what they’re doing.”

Just after the feedzone, Holcomb asked her teammates Denise Ramsden and Courtney Lowe to toughen things up. After Ramsden and Lowe each put in a dig, Holcomb countered. It looked like a good move, except no one came with Holcomb. “I was solo at 70 kilometers to go. I was like, ‘this is too early, this isn’t good.’”

Holcomb rode the descent alone, but once she reached the flat, windswept roads of the valley, she soft-pedaled. A select group of 15 riders came up to her. The group did not include race leader Abbott, and Holcomb soon joined the hard-driving efforts of Tibco-To The Top in the hope of keeping the group away. Holcomb took a hard pull, got a gap, and Tibco’s Chantal Blaak joined her.

“We looked back, and there was a gap, so we said, ‘let’s go,’” said Holcomb. “She and I just gutted ourselves over the Continental Divide.”

As they turned onto the final climb of the day, Blaak began skipping pulls and Holcomb decided it was time to go ahead alone. “I thought, ‘oh dear,'” she said. “Then I just went into climbing mode.” The profile for the Inner Loop Road Race is deceptive: It looks like a descent to the finish. In fact, it is all up-and-down with no space for recovery.

All along the difficult road to the finish, Heal and mechanic Mike Gavanagan shouted encouragement to Holcomb from the car. At 5km to go, Holcomb began to think she might make it. At 2km to go, she was feeling increasingly confident, but she kept pushing all the way until she saw the line. Then, Holcomb had time.

As the tears ran, Holcomb celebrated sweet success after a long year of troubles. Beautiful and brutal, life and cycling run into one another like the shades of a watercolor. And each day’s joys are fleeting, as Holcomb well knows: “Tomorrow, there will be someone else who is just as happy.”

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