MURRAY — A trail, a bike and a need for speed all spurred on Gabe Holcomb’s pursuit of a National Interscholastic Cycling Association championship in the junior varsity ranks.
After five races, he came up just short of his goal and finished in second place overall, but that’s not stopping him from looking ahead to next year as he prepares to join the varsity ranks in the mountain biking sport. Holcomb was one of three bikers from the Calloway County area to compete in the NICA series in Tennessee. His desire to race mountain bikes and the lack of a league in Kentucky led him to Tennessee. In just his second season as a competitor, he reached monumental heights with a second-place overall finish and two first-place finishes in races held in the series.
It was about three years ago that his family began to ride as a group activity after they all bought brand-new bikes to spend more time together. They started on the trails at Land Between the Lakes and since then, the whole family is hooked.
“It seems like once you get into the sport, you start to get hooked,” Gabe’s mom, Stephanie Holcomb, said.
Everyone gets in on the action at the races, from his mom and dad cheering from the sideline to his younger brother capturing incredible race footage with a drone and a mounted camera on Gabe’s bike. It’s a family affair and they all shared in the success this past season that saw him win a pair of races and earn the second-most points.
That wasn’t the goal when the family first started riding. In fact, they had no clue that a league existed for mountain bike racing. And since Kentucky doesn’t have a league, why would they? Sometimes it seems as though everything happens for a reason, and in this instance, it was a simple trip to the bike shop in Paducah.
“Turns out they had a high school kid Gabe’s age who worked there (at the bike shop in Paducah) and he raced in this NICA league on the team in Paducah,” Stephanie said. “Paducah and McCracken County have a composite team and it’s not associated with a specific school, it’s county-wide. He was just this friendly kid at the bike shop, and he told us about it and the first year we didn’t do anything.
“The second year … that was the year my older son wanted to try, so he and Gabe decided to try racing and so he only got to do it for a year because he graduated, and then Gabe decided to continue. So this is really only his second year racing, but he’s been riding before that.”
So, Gabe hooked up with the team out of Paducah/McCracken County and started practicing with them, and eventually decided that he was ready to race.
“We feel like we’re a part of the team even though we aren’t,” Stephanie said.
The only problem was that he’s from Calloway County and since Calloway doesn’t have a team, he was forced to race as an independent. That’s not to say there weren’t others from the area competing. In fact, Matthew Johnston, and Travis Tucker were both competitors from the Calloway County area, but they still weren’t enough to be a team.
The NICA league, based in Tennessee, involves five races with the top-four finishes counting towards an individual’s score.
“The NICA races are all done as a group start and kids compete on age,” Stephanie said. “It’s sixth through 12th-grade, so sixth-graders compete with sixth-graders, boys against boys, and the girls have their own races. It’s by grade until you hit 11th and 12th-grade and then they lump them into one big, giant, massive group and they just call that JV, and then the Varsity riders are the fastest of those kids.”
One thing that makes it difficult is that all races are group start, which means there are anywhere from 60-70 racers at the start line taking off simultaneously to attack each trail. This can create a bit of traffic and make it difficult to pass at times, especially when the rules don’t allow for intentional contact.
“You find an open spot where there aren’t any trees on the side, or you just kind of push them out of the way a little bit,” Gabe joked.
“Except that you aren’t allowed to push,” Stephanie said. “It’s a no-contact sport.”
“Not technically,” Gabe joked. “Nobody sees you, it didn’t happen.”
As tongue-in-cheek as Gabe might have been with that comment, the fact is that contact is unavoidable with that many racers on a single trail. If he experienced a little contact last year, it’s good because at the next level, it’s completely allowed.
Headed into the fifth and final race, Gabe was in a tie for first place in points.
“He had two, first-places and two, second-places and the other kid had two, first-places and two, second-places,” Stephanie said. “So it came down to that last race.”
Gabe came up just short, but the end result of a second-place league finish was still very impressive when the sheer number of riders is considered.
“The neat thing about mountain biking is that it’s an all-inclusive sport,” Stephanie said. “So it doesn’t matter how good you are, or how long you’ve been riding, or how good your skills are, how fast you are, how in shape, how big you are; your body size doesn’t matter, everyone participates in this sport. Every race, every practice, every event, and you’ve got really tall kids, and really short kids and all body sizes and they all get to participate and score points for their team.”
As Gabe enters his senior year, he hopes to compete at the varsity level and possibly earn a college scholarship to race at the next level.
“We got to go to Lindsey Wilson College this fall and they had a collegiate race that they invited the high schoolers to, and it was fun,” Stephanie said. “It was fun to see the college kids there and talk to them and find out more about it. Collegiate racing doesn’t have as many rules. In the NICA series and high school and middle school racing, it’s no-contact. You’re not allowed to push people around. You have to let them pass if they need to pass. But in the collegiate racing, they run them off-trail. They have some elbows going. It’s a little tougher, but fun just the same.”
No matter what happens, Gabe will continue to enjoy the trails, his mom will continue to enjoy riding, and his brother will continue to create visual masterpieces documenting Gabe’s journey on the circuit.
“I really like riding the trails, and being on the bike makes it more fun, in my opinion,” Gabe said. “My favorite part is the downhills. That’s the main reason I ride, so I can go downhill really fast. Other than that, it’s just fun to ride bikes.”
One day soon, the state of Kentucky will also have a league, but until then, Gabe will travel to Tennessee to compete in something he loves.
“We will get a league in Kentucky,” Stephanie said. “It’s been approved, and officially I think we do have a league, but we won’t start racing in Kentucky until 2021.”