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Tour de StrongLand goes to wire

Bill Shirley | For The Valley News Dispatch
Two riders make their way on route 380, near the Beaver Run Reservoir, during the Tour de StrongLand bike road race Sunday September 9, 2012.

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By Dave Yohe
Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012, 11:46 p.m.

After 24 years, the Tour de StrongLand never ceases to have new stories to tell.

This year was about homecoming, longevity and perfect conditions.

The premier race, Road Race I, came down to a sprint to the finish. It was Pittsburgh's Jared Babik, 36, who held off Zach Kovalcik, 29, by 1100th of a second for the title.

Babik posted a 1:32:05 to Kovalcik's 1:32:06.

Kovalcik, a resident of Portland, Ore., grew up in the Vandergrift area and graduated from Burrell.

Babik was in the lead pack for the entire race, but it was Kovalcik who worked the hardest through all of the 35.57-mile race.

“The group broke up pretty early. It was just six of us most of the time,” Kovalcik said. “There were two guys on one team who took turns trying to wear everybody else out. The last 10 or so miles, I had to pull everything back together. Babik hadn't done any work. He was a little fresher than me going into the finish.”

Perhaps the one person who has competed in all 24 events isn't an organizer or volunteer; he is a competitor.

Bill Holyfield, 56, of Fairmont, W.Va., has competed in every Road Race III event since its inception.

“We came up here to do a tour ride in Schenley Park. A couple people said they were going to put this race on over at Northmoreland Park,” Holyfield said. “The next year, I came up here. We came over to do the race, enjoyed it, then one year led to another. Now, 24 years later, I'm still coming back.”

Since that first race, things have changed for Holyfield, in both the race and the makeup of his traveling companions.

“I've gotten to the point over the years where I don't care if I win or not. I just want to finish,” Holyfield said. “I used to bring my kids with me. They loved to come. My wife still loves to come, but the kids have gotten older. Now, my nephews are starting to come with me. Eventually, maybe I can get them to do the ride.”

The person who may be most important to the success of the event is StrongLand Chamber of Commerce president and event organizer Allan Walzak.

Whether it is making sure everyone has enough to eat or helping sell raffle tickets, Walzak seems to be just about everywhere.

As much as he needs to be concerned with the bigger picture, Walzak, 66, of East Brady, does not take the little things lightly, even stopping to take in the weather for the event.

“This is what the riders like,” Walzak said. “Some clouds and no humidity. This is just great today.”

Despite recently announcing his retirement, effective in March 2013, Walzak's contributions to StrongLand events may not end with his tenure.

“I'll be hanging around,” Walzak said with a smile. “Even after I retire, my wife and I are still doing the canoe trip down the Kiski River. I'm going to work with anything they want me to work with and just have fun doing it.”

The overall winners of the other events Sunday were:

• Women's competition: Hannah Brewer, 28, Butler, 1:06:47

• Road Race II: Curt Brown, 44, Sewickley, 1:01:05

• Road Race III: Larry Willis, 38, Cranberry Twp., 31:40

• Mountain Bike I: Alex Kukieza, 50, Zelienople, 1:11:03

• Mountain Bike II: Daniel Antoniono, 17, Apollo, 37:02

Dave Yohe is a freelance writer.

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