Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tour de France Preview: Expect Surprises in 2010

June 30, 2010
Photo: Benepe(c) Martigny, the scene of the Verbier "pass"--Contador pedaling away from Armstrong.

The Tour de France will be starting on Saturday, July 3, with full daily coverage here on Benepe's Bike Blog. We will also be launching a new site Cyclists International: watch for our announcement on BBB.

There will also be daily video coverage on Versus (lifesaver!) through your cable service, but even if you do not have access, you'll be able to view the day's races on their site for under $30.00.

A lot will be brewing during this Tour and we predict there will be some surprises, not just in the realm of competition and in the daily post-race dope testing, but also in the continuing developments of doping investigations.

For one, Floyd Landis's allegations of doping have now inculpated major riders, sports directors and other team members who will be competing at the Tour, among them Lance Armstrong, team manager Johan Bruyneel, and his agent Bill Stapleton, and bike champions George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.

Ongoing investigations by the UCI and other control organizations could reveal more findings that could affect these players at any point in time over the course of the Tour's 20 stages.

Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title when his final tests came up positive for testosterone, a drug that enhances muscle strength. Landis also came out publicly in May saying that he doped in the past while he was riding for the US Postal Service team--while also implicating his fellow riders.

Though investigators such as David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told the New York Times that he does not think the investigation will affect the Tour outcome, already other agencies are involved that could tip that balance: United States Food and Drug Administration investigator Jeff Notvitsky who was in charge of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroids case will be pursuing any leads that implicate Armstrong et al in fraud while the Tour is on.

Any major revelations would undoubtedly disrupt the Tour and possibly change the balance of competition. My prediction is if this happens, it will be someone and some development we least expect.

Armstrong at presser after Stage 17, 2009 TDF (Benepe, (c)) 
The New York Times even went so far as to imply that the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) which controls both the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana, have not invited Lance Armstrong's team RadioShack to the Vuelta because of the ongoing investigation and the possibility that any findings at any time could disrupt the biggest Spanish bike race.

We don't buy that argument: We think it's simply because Alberto Contador, who went face to face with his own teammate Lance Armstrong in the 2009 TDF, is from Spain, and is most definitely the golden boy of the country. Since they now no longer share the same team Astana of last year, and Contador developed real animosity towards Armstrong during the 2009 TDF, there is no reason to embarrass the golden boy and indeed subject him to a possible personal humiliation on his own turf.

Could Contador, or even his team sponsor, Astana, have threatened to withdraw from the Vuelta if RadioShack was invited?

We can't confirm that, and no one would likely admit it, but you can be sure that a rider of Contador's pedigree would get what he wants in his home country.

Drug control, 2009 TDF (Benepe (c))

But this we are sure of: when we covered the TDF 2009 and traveled with a Spanish reporter, there was no doubt in his mind who was the best cyclist in the world. All of his reporting centered around Contador, as if Armstrong and the other riders did not exist.

And his reporting was if anything subjective: Contador could do no wrong, not even when he disobeyed the orders of his Directeur Sportif at Verbier, when he powered away from Armstrong to win the stage. Now we have to admit it was a bold move, and it's the kind of thing any young athlete might do when confronted with a star rider that they think they are superior to, but that doesn't mean it was correct.

Benepe(c) Andy Schleck and his mother Gabby at Bourg Saint Maurice, 2009.

So where does that leave the two giants prior to the start of the TDF, the biggest and most exciting bike race in the world? Armstrong has made a number of statements disclaiming his ability to beat Contador or even the brothers Frank and Andy Schleck in this year's Tour.

Which means most of the action will be between Contador and the Schleck brothers, with Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd battling it out on the flats. Hopefully none of those riders will be pulled into the developing doping scandal, or become new drug control positives as the race progresses.

If no new developments surface during the Tour (but we predict something will), Armstrong still has a strong chance of making it to the podium in Paris. His second place finish at the Tour of Switzerland,  which did not include rivals Contador, Ivan Basso, or Cadel Evans, but did include winner Andy Schleck, showed that he is using the TOS to bolster his fitness for the big event of the year.

This has been Armstrong's modus operandi in the past: practice up in the smaller races in order to be in form to dominate in the one that really counts. 

But in his characteristic way, Armstrong is not predicting a major win. In an interview with Eurosport this month Armstrong said “It will be very difficult because of my age, 38 years, the explosiveness of other guys, my difficulties in shining in the time trials in the past couple of years... To summarize, I would say that there are guys who are bigger favorites than me.”

As for the other competitors, on the flats you can expect Hushovd and Cavendish to be battling it out: no doubt Cavendish is still smarting from the foul call by Hushovd that cost him the Green Jersey for that stage and the Tour. Incidentally Cavendish's new book, "Boy Racer, My Journey to Tour de France Record Breaker", published by VeloPress, which we will review shortly, makes it clear how hard, and how passionately he wants that Green Jersey. So WATCH OUT this year for the speed demon Cav'.

Monday, June 14, 2010

A Great Hudson River Gem Is Gone

June 14, 2010
All photos by Jennifer Benepe (C).
Many cyclists are familiar with one of the Tri-State area's cycling paradises, Henry Hudson Drive.  Informally known as River Road, the 7-mile roadway is part of the New Jersey Palisades, and provides some of the most beautiful riding just a few pedal strokes away from the entrance to the George Washington Bridge on the New Jersey side.

Adding to their pleasure is the relatively low traffic on the winding, hilly road that takes cyclists along untouched river front to Alpine, NJ where they connect to Route 9W and points north.

As cyclists have whizzed by the boat basin below Fort Lee and Englewood Cliffs, little did they know another paradise was being constructed by hand day after day by a man named Daniel Holovach.

Every day Mr. Holovach came to his favorite spot situated on a mile-long pathway connecting the first picnic area, Ross Dock, to the second, Englewood Boat Basin. In between he built an oasis of flowers, which bloom throughout the spring, summer and fall.

Last Saturday a couple was standing by Mr. Holovach's garden, and he was not there. They were wondering when the new bench had been put in, and who had done it. It sat next to the stone garden that Holovach had constructed from stones that he had collected from the Hudson when the tide went out. Along with wooden sculptures he had made of driftwood, he had plans for a stone table that he would sit at and enjoy his little space by the river.

Who is the bench for? I asked. "It's for Dan," he said. "Dan? What do you mean?" I asked.  "Dan Holovach," he answered. It soon became clear, he had died.

Why it was only yesterday he was here. In the spring I has visited and taken pictures of Holovach's red tulips sticking their necks out gracefully, silhouetted by the river.  Holovach was 63 when he died of a heart attack. It was about four days after his death that he was found in his apartment, said his brother John Holovach of Wyckoff, NJ, reached by phone.

It should have been clear to me: weeds had taken over Holovach's favorite spot that he had cultivated carefully with gorgeous perennials, like French Lavender, purple Irises, and many other flowers that I do not even know the names of.

"People have gone done there and started to pull out the weeds," said his brother who said his older brother was a "modern day Johnny Appleseed." "We also planted a Dogwood tree in his honor," near the Snack Shack at the Englewood Boat Basin where Holovach used to park his truck. But clearly, no one had taken a real hand to the weeds, as they started to crowd out his beautiful flowers. A note wrapped in plastic and held down by little stones that had been left this spring on his stone construction read, "Dear Dan, thank you very much, from Ernetta and Ira, with all our love."

It was a note that had been written as if he were still alive, and perhaps, like me, the authors had thought he was still alive, as his garden bloomed from tulips and daffodils lining the hillside, to tiger lilies lining the river wall, and peonies showing their early buds.

A highly skilled carpenter, Holovach was also a consummate wood worker and left behind a cache of gorgeous wood sculptures he had carved from found pieces of wood.  He waited for an eternity before he could buy a fine Japanese tool to work with the wood, said his brother John. "Then he would shave off one little piece of wood that was so thin you could see through it, and at that point he became like Zen."

He also left thousands of photographs, and sentimental items said his brother. "He saved everything, even the baseball that I stuffed up as a kid." What's more Dan left behind scores of friends and admirers who loved what he did for the Hudson River green front, and he won't be easily replaced.

As it turns out, the love for Dan spread wide and far: the NJ Palisades Park donated the bench. John Holovach and his family donated the plaque.  And though the park does have other volunteers, no one can match his tenacity and dedication.

If you are traveling by foot, take a visit to Dan's place by taking any of the buses from the 177th St. bus station (on Broadway) to the first stop in New Jersey. Walk east towards the river along Bridge Plaza North, down a flight of steps and across Hudson Terrace to the north foot path to the George Washington Bridge.

Climb up slightly to the left of the foot path, and you will be on a dirt path heading north. Follow this for about half a mile till you come to a fork in the path, and take the right fork towards the river. You will need to climb down a series of steep steps that are fragments of the old Palisades Park when it was once a swimming and recreation area. Take those steps down to the roadway (Hudson River Drive), then pass under the roadway, continue down to the path which leads you to a few hundred feet south of the Ross Dock area.  Head north past the edge of the recreation area and children's playground and you'll see a little path heading north. Follow the path north until you come to Dan's Place.

By car, take the Palisades Parkway exit heading north off the George Washington Bridge. Take the first exit for Englewood. At the stop sign bear left. Take a left turn and head down the roadway towards the Englewood Cliffs Boat Basin. At the pin turn, follow the roadway right. At the bottom of the hill, take a left into the parking area. Walk south from the Snack Shack about 300 feet till you get to Dan's Place.

By bike of course you might want to bring a pair of shoes to walk the distance along the dirt path to the location, but you could easily do so with cleats on.

If you make a trip of it, the Snack Shack has breakfast and lunch, and features free WIFI, so you can sit and do your work while you enjoy the view and take in the small Dogwood planted by Palisades Park employees nearby.