Sunday, December 24, 2006

25 Greatest Athletes

This is actually an email that I sent out to friends a few years ago. Even though some things have changed over the last few years, I still feel pretty good about this list. Of note is the role that "alleged" use of performance enhancing substances has played in a number of my choices recent history. Regardless, the topic made me realize how much I enjoy writing about sports and can always be a great conversation piece for the holidays and those awkward conversations that are sure to take place. Happy Holidays!

Calling all sports fans,

In response to the list of the 25 greatest athletes of the last 25 years on, I have compiled my own Hall of Fame and would like to hear your thoughts. Granted, my list is somewhat biased (as they all are) due to my personal perspective and ability to guage performance, I feel that I have used a viable criteria to base my choices. I used the following criteria and weighted them accordingly:

1) Natural Ability - Genetic ability is the most important element of "athleticism" and is the building block upon which all great athletes are founded. Fundamentally, natural ability overrides all other aspects of athletics and provides the single greatest advantage in sports.

2) Competitiveness - Without competitiveness, natural ability cannot be maximized. Sheer will to win is the second-most important factor in athletics and separates the gifted from the legendary.

3) Impact on Sport/Culture - In order for an athlete to be truly great, he or she must change the way all other athletes in his or her sport are judged. The best of the best transcend their individual sport and inspire comparisons with athletes of different sports, as seen in this list. The ultimate legends have the ability to influence our culture as a whole.

4) Results - In a world of both team and individual sports, results are often a product of both ability and environment. In all sporting events there are certain elements that are beyond the control of the participants. Whether they be teammates, injury/illness or even luck, these factors often dictate results. In order to make this list one has to have had some measure of victory, but it is the least important component in my definition of a "Great Athlete."

I am pretty comfortable with the names on this list however, after number 10, I could rearrange the order forever. Here goes:

1) Michael Jordan - Quite possibly the best all-around athlete ever to walk the planet. He could have been a great professional football or baseball player as well. Competitive to a fault (read: gambling addiction) and a cultural icon. Can't touch the rings and MVP's either. Total package.

2) Lance Armstrong - Genetic freak. His heart is a third larger than the normal man and his VO2 max is roughly that of two people. Will to win and push his body to the limit is unparalleled in sports. Possibly the most inspirational human being on the planet today with regard to overcoming adversity. Changed the way people view what humans are capable of overcoming and accomplishing.

3) Wayne Gretzky - No one has ever dominated his or her team sport so completely for such a long period of time. The combination of balance, vision and instinct is off the charts. Made the NHL what it is today and is truly a cultural icon.

4) Pete Sampras - Best tennis player ever. Once again, probably could have been a professional in numerous sports. Has the whole package - size, strength, speed, skill and an absolutely killer competitive instinct. And a really impressive wife and list of former girlfriends for a weird looking guy.

5) Jerry Rice - The best football player ever. Freakish combination of speed, agility, focus, professionalism, work ethic and longevity. The records speak for themselves. We'll just forget the time with the Raiders, Seahawks and Broncos.

6) Eric Heiden - Won all 5 Olympic speed skating events at the 1980 Olympics. From 500 to 10,000 meters. Ridiculous. Will NEVER be duplicated. No one has ever been able to combine speed and endurance in such an overpowering fashion. No one has ever dominated an individual sport so completely on such a huge stage. After he quit skating, he became a professional cyclist and competed in the Tour de France. He dropped out and almost killed himself, but he got there nonetheless.

7) Magic Johnson - A 6'9" point guard. Do I need to say anything else? Quick, strong, huge. I hated the Lakers but had to admire and fear Magic. A pure leader, winner and cold blooded killer in the clutch. No one has ever been able to fill so many roles on a playing field. He then redefined how people view HIV and what the human body and mind are capable of overcoming. Cultural icon and leader.

8) Barry Bonds - With the possible exception of Willie Mays, the best combination of speed and power in the history of baseball. No one, in any sport, has ever been feared as much as Barry Bonds. His ability to completely alter the strategy of the game and capitalize on a pitchers mistakes is unparalleled. Of all the athletes in my top 10, he has the smallest margin for error and makes it look easier than anyone.

9) Dave Scott - 6 time Hawaii Ironman Triathlon winner. Placed second three times including 1994, at 40 years old. Placed fifth in '96 at 42. No sport requires as much dedication and labor as the triathlon and no one has been able to do it as well for as long as Dave Scott. There is also no event that tests the limits of human endurance and will more than the Hawaii Ironman. 2.4 mi. openwater swim, 112 mi. bike and a 26.2 mi. Marathon through scorching heat. Scott's personal bests in all three disciplines are world-class in their own right, only he did them all in the same day. Many times. Set the standard by which all other single day endurance athletes are judged.

10) Carl Lewis - The greatest track and field athlete ever. Four golds in four events in 1984. Nine Olympic golds and one silver spanning four Olympic games over twelve years. Total medals would have been even higher if the U.S. hadn't boycotted the 1980 Games. Numerous World Records. Voted World Athlete of the year in '82, '83,'84, World Athlete of the Decade ('80's) and Olympic Athlete of the Century. Completely changed the earning potential for track and field athletes around the world and set the standard for longevity in the sport. Also is responsible for the funniest moment ever on Sportscenter with his national anthem performance. I cried.

Here are the rest without detail:
11) Joe Montana
12) Martina Navratilova
13) Sugar Ray Leonard
14) Jackie Joyner Kersee
15) Greg LeMond
16) Mario Lemieux
17) Alex Rodriguez
18) John McEnroe
19) Tiger Woods
20) Michael Johnson
21) Larry Bird
22) Patrick Roy
23) Deion Sanders
24) Rickey Henderson
25) Bo Jackson

Let me know what you think.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Deep Sh*t

I believe the official depth for Boulder was 30" in the "Blizzard of 2006." Whatever it was, it took me a full hour to shovel our sidewalks. It was pretty fluffy though so I only got a minor hernia.

A little morning alpenglow action. Technically a work day but I wasn't quite ready to ride the bike to Lafayette and our fine German and Japanese automobiles were not going to be of much help either. When the buses stop do I. So a hearty thanks to Mother Nature for my first snow day in a very long time. Much appreciated.

These are actually pictures from a day after the storm and are exactly why I love Colorado and don't mind the snow. Sure, we got 2.5 feet in 24 hours and thousands of people got stranded...but it was basically a bluebird day the next morning. Busted out the old snowshoes and went for a 2+ hour run/hike/slog up around Wonderland Lake and then Dakota Ridge to the Sanitas Trailhead to Red Rocks and then back through Mapleton to N. Boulder Park where it looked like an Olympic cross-country course. There literally must have been 100 people skiing around the various tracks in the park.

This is actually Mt. Sanitas in the above photo taken from our front porch. I didn't do the summit the other day so I think I will get up there today. It usually takes about 15 minutes to get to the northern Dakota Ridge trail and then another 15 or so to bust up the front side of Sanitas to the summit but I have a feeling it will take a lot longer this time.

The Silver Bullet may not see much action for a while. Believe it or not there is actually a car under there. Good thing there is a nice view of the Flatirons at least. I'll dig it out next year.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Breaking Faking News: Ullrich To Race For American Team

In a bold move to continue his career as a competitive cyclist, embattled 1997 Tour de France winner Jan Ullrich has signed a contract to race for the Cow Town Cycling Club of Greeley, Colorado. The signing was made possible after the disgraced rider was kicked out of the 2006 Tour de France and fired from his former T-Mobile team as a result of alleged links to the Operacion Puerto doping scandal in Spain. A series of recent negotiations with numerous professional teams failed to result in a contract to race in Europe in 2007, leaving the German few employment options and opening the door for the small regional club from northern Colorado to make an offer. Despite the lack of a salary or even a bicycle in the deal, Ullrich was upbeat as he spoke to the press through his interpreter.

"I am very excited to race in America" Ullrich stated at a press conference held in the lobby of a local meat packing facility that sponsors the team and employs a number of riders.

"The Cow Town Cycling Club has openly declared that I am the leader and they will work for me in the races, which is something the other professional teams were not willing to offer. Well...that and a contract" the former World and Olympic champion confirmed. "Sure, none of us are getting paid and most of my teammates are beginner or Category 4 racers, but we have a cool jersey with a funny picture of a cow on it and I'm pretty sure the local bike shop will give us a discount on tires and stuff. So I've got that going for me. Which is nice."

When asked about his dismissal from the 2006 Tour de France and subsequent firing from the T-Mobile squad, Ullrich heeded the advice of his new mentor and strength coach, former MLB slugger Mark McGwire by stating "I don't want to talk about the past. I have never tested positive for a banned substance, well...except the Ecstasy a few years back. But I served my suspension and have not been arrested yet for all of the sporting fraud charges being brought against me in Germany. So basically...I'm ready to start racing again."

On the topic of retaining McGwire as his strength coach, Ullrich was somewhat reserved. "I know there are some people that question my relationship with Mark McGwire but I can tell you that he is a great coach. And man is that guy strong. Like freakishly strong. The other day after my interval training, he said I didn't generate enough power so he grabbed my bike and just broke it in half with his bare hands. I mean, this is military grade carbon fiber we're talking about and he just snapped it like a twig. It's almost like he's taken steroids or something. Wait...forget I said that."

When questioned about his 2007 racing schedule, Ullrich was realistic about his chances of racing in many European Pro Tour events. "While it is unfortunate that the Cow Town Cycling Club will not likely be selected to race in the Tour de France or Giro d' Italia this year, there are some good quality events in Northern Colorado, Wyoming and Kansas. "

Among the German's top priorities are the weekly Tuesday Night Meade Raceway Criterium Series and the Cheyenne-Fort Collins Road Race which usually attracts two or three local professionals from Boulder due to its prize of $250 for the winner and a $50 gift certificate to Chili's for second place. "I want to win that race for sure, but I really like the Awesome Blossom at Chili's so second wouldn't be all that bad" stated the man who many have called the most talented cyclist on the planet.

After undergoing a battery of tests measuring everything from blood hematocrit levels to VO2 max, Ullrich was cleared by Dr. Rocky Wilson to race for the Cow Town Cycling Club under the condition that the German would make himself available for random testing at any time.

Dr. Wilson addressed the on-going concerns regarding the use of performance enhancing drugs by stating, "Mr. Ullrich seems to be clean and in good health right now but here in Greeley we have a huge amount of crude steroids that we use on our livestock and I have to think that the temptation to shoot a little bovine testosterone might be too much for this guy to resist. I mean...he's a former Tour de France winner for crying out loud. You know he's good with needles."

Despite his current involvement in the Operacion Puerto scandal, Ullrich's current contract with the Cow Town Cycling Club will include three team jerseys, a water bottle and a 50% reimbursement on race entry fees for 2007.

Ullrich explained "I was making close to 3 million Euros per year with T-Mobile, but I understand that the Cow Town Cycling Club's budget is a bit smaller than that of a huge, billion dollar international corporation. With that in mind, I felt the jersey and water bottle deal was fair. The icing on the cake was when they threw in the 50% race entry fee reimbursement. Talk about a deal closer. By the end of the season I could be looking at $500. That's no joke right there."

When asked about the inclusion of Jan Ullrich on the Cow Town Cycling Club roster, Team Manager Randy Jamison expressed his ambitions for the upcoming year, "When you can add a multiple Grand Tour winner, Olympic and World Champion to your roster the expectations can change a little bit. Our guys are ready for the challenge of helping Jan win some big races. Well...maybe not that big, but we should definitely be able to dominate the local training rides and time trials in Greeley now."

Ullrich's season officially begins in early March with the Anderson Dairy Criterium in Lymon, Colorado.

Monday, December 18, 2006

The Tour of California Part 1

The Prologue of "The Inaugural Amgen Tour of California" (neither the riders or the announcers were seemingly allowed to just say "the Tour of California", it had to be the full-on mouthful) was held this past February 2006 in San Francisco, along roughly the same course featured in the Coors Classic events of the late '80's. The last prologue winner here in 1988 was none other than Davis Phinney, who went on to win at least five stages and the overall in what was likely his best performance and proudest race victory. Starting out across Embarcadero from the Ferry Building and finishing at Coit Tower, the course had a fairly flat start but then gradually steepened with each corner, culminating with nearly 15-20% grades for the last kilometer or so. The crowds were at least three deep along the latter stages of the course as spectators watched the riders flail all over some of San Francisco's finest inclines.

Bobby Julich was a strong candidate for the prologue win but ended up just off the pace. Bobby J kept a pretty low profile in this race even though he did manage a podium finish. It seems like he always kind of flies under the radar even though he is arguably the third best American cyclist of all time. Seriously, I'll hear arguments about the other great ones but Bobby J can make a pretty solid case for himself. You can kind of tell from this picture but one of the things that you notice about Julich both in person and on video is how easy he makes it look. The guy is seriously smooth on the bike. There is a scene in PRO when he bridges up to the break and looks like he's just cruising along the bike path on a Sunday afternoon. All the other guys are out of the saddle, rocking back and forth and he's just chilling with his hands on the tops and his mouth closed. Seriously smooth...and seriously fast.

Chris Horner rode strong and didn't need to bother with the TT space helmet, shoe covers or disc rear wheel. "Just give me the bike man, I don't need all that fancy stuff." I don't recall exactly where he finished on this stage - or in the overall for that matter - but that's irrelevant. I have determined that Horner is the most entertaining cyclist in just about every race he's in, no matter where he finishes. I don't know if it's the slightly maniacal grin he seems to have when ripping peoples legs off, driving at the front for Freddie in the sprint or annoying everyone by appearing to be able to go off the front at will, but the guy is just plain fun to watch race. Once again, like Bobby J, Horner is vastly underappreciated by most casual cycling fans. Outside of the guys that have had a fair amount of success in Europe, Chris Horner is probably the best American cyclist to have spent the majority of his career stateside. The recent stage wins in Switzerland and Romandie just confirm what everyone in the US scene already knew. Plus he's funny, brutally honest and eats hamburgers before and after shelling people. Cool.

Here is Jens Voigt trying to keep the ladies happy. Stuart O'Grady and Dave Zabriskie were right there and the crowd was all about Jens. "Hooly Mooly, these crowds in San Francisco are great" he said. Maybe not.

It's always weird when people just stand around and stare at the riders as they warm up. Everyone is usually really mellow and cycling fans in general are a pretty respectful lot, but still. Imagine if you were on your trainer at home or the excercise bike at the gym and there were like two-dozen people just standing around staring at you as you sweat. Not even talking to you but muttering things to each other and whispering your name, occasionally pointing to something either on you or your bike. I'm telling you, it's kind of weird. On the other hand, it is exceptionally cool that a fan can walk up to Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady and Dave Zabriskie and see how they warm up and prepare for an event like this. Can you imagine walking around the court as Shaq and D-Wade are shooting around before a game?

Leipheimer won the Prologue and got to start Stage 1 in Sausalito with the Race Leader's Brown... Jersey and fellow NorCal guy Mike Sayers seems to be heckling him a bit in this photo. "Come on man, the Gerolsteiner kit wasn't bad enough? What color do you call that?"

Levi was totally the star of the first few stages. As a Santa Rosa resident, he apparently helped with some of the course design and had a huge amount of support from the NorCal crowds. Mike Sayers doesn't get nearly the same amount of publicity but is also a popular rider in these parts among the people that follow the sport domestically. Now living in Sacramento, Sayers has been heavily involved in area High School and youth cycling programs throughout the state. I can't imagine how cool it would have been to race for a High School team. All I have to say is that Boulder High School would have won mad state and national cycling championships when I was there. By my count we had no fewer than 4 BHS Panthers hit the professional ranks and another half dozen or so that raced at a national level. I spent my first couple of years racing in California before moving to Boulder and I can safely say that it was like going from the Minors to the Major Leagues. The Juniors in Boulder are better than most Cat. 2's around the country. It looks like NorCal is trying to make a move though and I hope more programs like this start to spring up in other locations like the Pacific Northwest and Colorado.

The first stage began right by the Spinnaker Restaurant in Sausalito and made a couple of loops along Bridgeway before heading out to the coast through Mill Valley and Muir Beach, then up north along Highway 1 and back to Santa Rosa via Occidental. This section of Bridgeway is usually one of the most heavily trafficked roads for Bay Area cyclists because it is virtually the only way to ride between Marin and San Francisco. It's a great road, with a nice climb, spectacular views and it's basically a direct link from the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge and the Marin Headlands down to the start of the Sausalito bike path which leads off into Mill Valley and the rest of Marin. The problem is that, being in downtown Sausalito, it is also one of the most popular tourist destinations so there are always tons of cars and even worse, random fools walking out right into the street in front of you. Johnny Law has also taken to handing out hefty tickets for the cyclists that dare to "jump" a red light or ride too fast through the 25 mph zones so it can be a stressful route at times. It was cool to see the whole road blocked off for the riders and made me wish I could jump out for a few "clean" minutes on this beautiful boulevard by the bay. Oh well.

With the exception of the last few miles into Santa Rosa, this had to be one of the prettiest stages of the Tour. Having been fortunate enough to ride just about all of these roads at some point, I think that this stage was a great illustration of Northern California at its best. Starting in downtown Sausalito, looking across the water at San Francisco and the East Bay, Freddy Rodriguez joked that he could see his house in Emeryville from the announcers stage. It would have been cool for the race to actually go over Mt. Tam and down into Stinson Beach but they instead took the easier route along Shoreline Drive and the coastal cliffs of Highway 1. Almost every winter a portion of this road slides off into the Pacific Ocean and the pavement can be unpredictable to say the least but the riders managed to negotiate it without too many incidents. I know there are some mountainous sections in the Tour de France and other European races where there is very little room for error off the side of the road but Highway 1 must be one of the most dangerous. A high-speed get off here and you could end up shark food real quick. Well, okay, you probably wouldn't make it all the way to the water but I doubt the rocky cliffs would feel too good on the way down.

Once the race got far enough north, the course cut back east through the lush forests, hills and vineyards of Sonoma County on its way back into Santa Rosa. Argentinian sprinter Juan Jose Haedo of the Toyota-United team took a strong win in front of thousands of fans packing the downtown area and got a huge early result for the new squad. I have to say, Santa Rosa really showed up for this race and hometown boy Levi Leipheimer, who nearly teared up as he pulled on the leaders jersey for a second day in a row. Levi is a pretty easy guy to like and was an ideal first leader of this race. I wonder how much the emotion of the whole event being in his backyard took out of him later in the event. I know he wanted to win the whole thing but I think that having the leaders jersey in his hometown was probably good enough.

More on the rest of "The Inaugural Tour of California" soon.

Where I Am

This is where I am:

Boulder Rooftops

High, Higher and Really High Altitudes

Greenbelt and Flatirons

Where I'm From

This is where I'm from:

View of part of Mill Valley, Sausalito, SF and the East Bay in the background from Mt. Tam

Rolling down Shoreline into Muir Beach

Marin - Fog, Ferns, Redwoods and Trails

The Year 2006

Well, it is almost 2007 so I guess this had to happen eventually. I'm not entirely sure what the goal is here but we'll see how it goes.