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Just Go For It: An Interview with 2011 NRC Champion Janel Holcomb

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Janel Holcomb won the points race on the U.S. circuit this year when she won the National Racing Calendar individual prize. In fact, Holcomb and her Colavita-Forno d’Asolo won both the individual and team prizes in the NRC. For Holcomb, the victory came as a surprise. Certainly, she did not start the season with the NRC prize in mind. "I came to Colavita planning to be the ultimate team member. I was just honored to be on the team," Holcomb told Podium Cafe in a recent interview. "I definitely didn’t think about the NRC."

Holcomb, a former runner, is a bundle of energy, and with her Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team-mates, she rode the season with an attacking style. An ensemble cast, the team had no single leader, and used their strength in numbers to win throughout the year. Colavita-Forno d’Asolo frequently placed two or even three riders in the top ten and quietly accumulated the points necessary to win their second-straight team NRC prize. For Holcomb, the race for points came down to the final stage of the Cascade Classic. In characteristic style, Holcomb and her team-mates went on the attack and Holcomb won her title from a breakaway. It was a storybook ending for Holcomb and for her Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team, which will not continue next season.

Pull up a chair, my friends, and join me for a chat with Janel Holcomb, the 2011 NRC champion and former high school chemistry teacher.

The season began with a solid run of results for Colavita-Forno d’Asolo, and as yet, no thoughts of winning the NRC prize for Holcomb. At the early season Redlands Classic, Cath Cheatley won a stage and Teresa Cliff-Ryan took two stage victories. “To me, I just wanted to keep the momentum of all the team’s success. It felt like we were off to a good start,” explained Holcomb. At the Tour of Gila, the famously mountainous stage race in New Mexico, Heather Logan-Sprenger won the stage 2 Inner Loop road race, climber Andrea Dvorak finished fourth overall, and Holcomb finished fifth. “I was starting to feel really strong at Gila,” said Holcomb of her building form. Colavita-Forno d’Asolo’s ability to win with multiple riders proved the key to the team’s success throughout the season.

From Gila, the team headed to the Joe Martin Stage Race, a four day race in Arkansas. Because of injuries, only three riders started for Colavita-Forno d’Asolo. “Only having three riders, you just don’t think, we’re going to go into this and win,” said Holcomb. But Colavita-Forno d’Asolo seized the leader’s jersey on the first day when Holcomb won the first stage, a time trial. Holcomb lost the lead almost as quickly as she won it, though, when a mechanical put her down on time by the end of the second day. Holcomb came back and won the following stage. This time, she took the leader’s jersey for keeps. “It was one of these things, we were having fun and doing whatever we could with the three riders we had,” said Holcomb.

The win at Joe Martin also put Holcomb at the top of the NRC standings for the first time. “We were driving away from Joe Martin and... we’re all hanging out in the van and having a good old time,” recounts Holcomb. “And Rachel said, you know Janel, I think this win will push you into the lead in the NRC. And I just started laughing. To me, it was the most ridiculous thing in the world.” As the season unfolded, one race after another, winning the NRC became a considerably less ridiculous idea for Holcomb.

After her success at the Joe Martin Stage Race, Holcomb and Heal started thinking more seriously about chasing points. “From there, we kept saying, why not?” Holcomb said Heal certainly never forced the issue. “When we were looking at my schedule, Rachel wasn’t suddenly going to run me into the ground racing, but she would call and say, you know, we have these few weeks off, do you want to do Nature Valley?” When Heal called, the energetic Holcomb kept saying yes and the points steadily added up.

All the same, it was not all smooth sailing for Holcomb. At the Nature Valley Grand Prix, Holcomb suffered a nasty crash, and had to quit the race. The result meant a setback in her NRC campaign, and because the national championship race immediately followed Nature Valley, Holcomb went to nationals with less-than-peak form. “I had a pretty gnarly crash and I did the next two stages after that, but it was bad enough, and I was laid up in bed for a day, then went to Nationals super sick,” she said. Holcomb finished 53rd in the national championship road race several minutes behind race winner Robin Farina of NOW/Novartis.

Though the results did not come for Holcomb at Nature Valley, she did have the chance to race with Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team-mate and World Champion Giorgia Bronzini. Bronzini spent much of the season racing in Europe, but came to the United States for a few races, including the Nature Valley Grand Prix. “I was nervous as all get-out being on her team this year,” said Holcomb. As it turned out, Holcomb had nothing to fear from the Italian sprinter and Holcomb found Bronzini to be friendly and down-to-earth. “It was pouring rain for one of the stages, so we had our team set-up under some pavilions. It was a walk to the van... And she was the first person to grab two bins full of Ronnie the soigneur’s stuff to carry it back to the van,” recounted Holcomb. “She was a great person to ride with.”

With the season winding down, Holcomb arrived at the late season Cascade Classic stage race with the NRC title hanging tantalizingly close, yet still out of reach. Colavita-Forno d’Asolo rode with an aggressive racing style throughout the season, and the final stage at the Cascade Classic followed that pattern. The team was chasing the general classification and Holcomb’s NRC title. “It was totally nuts. I don’t remember any time when the race wasn’t aggressive. I know that on the first lap... that was the only time the field was together.”

Holcomb spent much of the race off the front in various combinations of breakaways. “I put in a solo attack, what the heck am I doing off the front of this race at the beginning of lap 2? Then, boom! Minutes later, Andrea [Dvorak] is coming across with this other little group.” Holcomb called the experience fun, but also at times, disorienting. “Then, we went again. And this is where in my head, I’m confused, like people who want to win bike races, they conserve energy.” Are we doing this wrong?

The aggressive day of racing netted Holcomb the overall victory at Cascade Classic, which boasted a stacked field including Clara Hughes, Kristin Armstrong of PB & Co. Twenty10, and Erinne Willock of Team TIBCO. Holcomb also took back the lead in the NRC standings. Plainly, the team was doing something right. Before the final stage, Holcomb and Heal had both calculated out the NRC points. “You know, Janel, I did the calculations, and I know what you need to finish in terms of GC to take over the NRC lead,” Holcomb recalls Heal saying before that final Cascade stage. Over the previous days, Holcomb had tied herself in mental knots over the various point scenarios. “I sat down with a paper and pen and started overanalyzing things. The engineer in me came out,” laughed Holcomb.

Now she faced a choice: To race to win at Cascade or race conservatively to conserve her NRC standing. “She said, ‘the question is, do you want to race this conservatively, and get enough points to take over the NRC lead, or do you want to race this race like it’s our last flippin’ race of the year and just go for it and go for everything, and go for the overall, just go for it?’” In a characteristic move, Holcomb decided to go for it, and her team-mates joined in the game. The team’s goal was to create a break that included Holcomb and Dvorak. Their aggressive tactic paid off when Holcomb and Anne Samplonius of NOW/Novartis went up the road, and survived to the finish. Samplonius took the stage win, while Holcomb achieved her goal of taking victory in the general classification.

After their successful season, the end of the Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team came as a surprise to Holcomb. “I didn’t know that it was the last year for the team. The expectation was that the team would continue,” she said. “It’s sad when something that’s good ends.” At the same time, Holcomb believes it would be difficult to match the team’s accomplishments in 2011. “You aren’t going to repeat something like that. Nothing lasts forever.” Holcomb has a contract for next year, but can not yet name the team. “I’m super excited for next year,” she said with characteristic enthusiasm.

Holcomb also made the long list for the 2012 Olympic team. It was an early gift for Holcomb who celebrated her birthday the day after the announcement from USA Cycling. Holcomb’s former Colavita-Forno d’Asolo team-mates Theresa Cliff-Ryan and Andrea Dvorak also made the long list. The final Olympic team roster announcement will come next season.

Like many woman riders, Holcomb came to cycling relatively late. She was a runner in college. She also has a chemical engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic University in upstate New York. Holcomb comes from a family of engineers and until her final year in college, she expected to join the family business. The oil industry offered the best jobs in her field, and qualms about the environmental consequences of the industry led Holcomb to think twice about her path. “I’m a tree-hugger,” she said. Holcomb had previously worked as counselor at an environmental education camp. She walked away from a research position in chemical engineering, and to the intense surprise of her family, Holcomb decided to pursue a teaching career.

Holcomb started cycling after moving to San Diego where she took a job teaching high school math, physics, and chemistry. Her first experiences on the bike came with Team In Training, who organizes training sessions and rides to raise money for Leukemia research. Holcomb soon realized that charity rides were not quite the right fit for her as a rider. “I started to get really competitive,” she said. Holcomb began working with a coach, who warned her that cycling was not an especially good way to make a living. “He told me, you could make more money working full-time at Walmart,” she recounted. Though the average Walmart employee may be making more money, Holcomb has no regrets about the path she has chosen.

Looking ahead, Holcomb hopes to ride more European races. “I’d love to be able to balance a good quality schedule in Europe with a good quality schedule in the United States,” she explained. Holcomb is especially intrigued by the the hilly races such as Flèche Wallonne, GP Plouay, and Tour de l’Ardèche. This past season she raced with the U.S. national team and helped Megan Guarnier win the Giro della Toscana. “That was a really fun trip. It was a really good experience with the national team to win that race,” said Holcomb.

Photos by Christopher See. All rights reserved.