Armstrong gets back in the saddle

As always, Lance Armstrong was thorough in planning, researching and chronicling his return to professional cycling. Nothing, it seems, was left to chance. In figuring out his chances to win an unprecedented eighth Tour de France next year, Armstrong weighed his options, talked things over with his inner circle, gauged the reactions and tore through it all as if he were searching for a needle in a haystack with a fine-toothed comb.

Everything regarding the public announcement and the return was orchestrated. According to author Douglas Brinkley, the hand-picked scribe to compose the story for Vanity Fair, Armstrong hired a film crew to document the entire process. From the initial announcement, through the training in Colorado and California, to the buildup races in the U.S. and Europe, all the way to the starting line in Monte Carlo on July 4 to the finish at the Champs-Élysées, movie makers will record it all.

Certainly there is nothing like watching a solitary bike rider pedal up an abandoned mountain road. Talk about riveting…

Facetiousness aside, what is fascinating is the nod toward history and perhaps even the self-indulgence Armstrong has about his place in the lexicon of the world in and out of sports. That’s not to dismiss the man – that would be dumb. Armstrong is a force of nature and a celebrity amongst celebrities. Not only is Armstrong the most decorated cyclist ever, but also he is the greatest benefactor of cancer research in the world.

As such, Armstrong tabbed Brinkley, the prolific presidential historian and executor of the literary estate of Hunter S. Thompson, to write the first version of this new history. Clearly a mere sportswriter was not big enough for this type of work.

Nevertheless, Armstrong says the comeback is personal. It’s about cancer as well as the lingering doubts that he won his first seven Tour de France titles unscrupulously. It’s also about a 37-year-old man being inspired by other athletes in his demographic, like Dara Torres, and their ability to perform at elite levels regardless of age. To prove himself (and his sincerity) this time around, Armstrong says he will entertain all questions from all outposts of the mass media and, just for good measure, will undergo a vigorous drug-testing program. The results, he says, will be posted publically on the web for all to see.

Openness seems to be the theme for Armstrong. Though clearly calculated – and not as if he didn’t submit to hundreds of drug tests as well as personal public consumption in the past – Armstrong is letting it all hang out. Seemingly there will be no filter.

And seemingly, there could be another motive. Armstrong’s first book was called, “It’s Not About The Bike.” That’s a pretty catchy title to sum up a guy who has an inner drive that exceeds his freakishly off-the-charts VO2 reading, who also, by the way, survived advanced cancer at the age of 25 when he was given less than a 40 percent chance to survive.

But maybe this time it is about the bike just a little bit. Maybe in that sense Armstrong is a little like Michael Jordan or Brett Favre in that the sport is actually embedded deep into his core being. Maybe the guy just loves to train and compete and live that “monastatic” lifestyle that he once described that made him “super fit.”

Maybe he just likes to ride his bike and win races. Maybe he just likes to do that better than anyone else in the world.

When asked if he could reveal something about Armstrong that no one else would know, ex-teammate and star-crossed winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, told me:

“I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows,” Landis told me. “People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it. 

“Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him.”

Anyone who has ever trained for a marathon, bike race or any other type of sporting/endurance event understands how it can turn folks in possessed creatures. The training gets into your blood and becomes an obsession like a drug or a disease. In the midst of all the training, with its loneliness, suffering, pain, sacrifice and forced asceticism, the athlete can’t wait for race to arrive. He just wants to be done with it and take a break – you know, maybe have a beer or a slice of pizza or something.

But go to the finish line of a race and people can see some athletes stumbling around not in the stupor of physical exertion, but instead the lost feeling of not knowing what to do next.

When the training and the race ends, then what? Where do we go from here?

For Lance it is back on the saddle again, which is where he always wanted to be.

More: “Lance Armstrong Rides Again” – Douglas Brinkley for Vanity Fair

All Brett, all the time Part II

I generally don’t believe in conspiracy theories. That goes for conspiracies within government as well as sports. For one thing, the organization and planning of the degree needed for such intricate subterfuge is often beyond the types that work in these businesses.

Plus, keeping secrets is way too difficult. From what I know about writing about politics and sports over the years is that those people leak like sieves. The worst-kept secret is that there are no secrets. As a result, it makes the art of deception and conspiracy rather difficult.

However, when I heard that Brett Favre – the most famous man on the planet if you believe the breathless dispatches from ESPN — had been traded to the New York Jets, well, I started looking behind the grassy knoll.

An attention hound quarterback with decades of fawning by the largest sports media outlet in the world headed to the largest media market in the country… nah, there can’t be anything behind it, could there?

Brett Favre in New York? Mere coincidence.

To be fair, accounts coming out of Wisconsin or Mississippi or 34,000-feet above the earth or wherever the hell Brett Favre is these days, indicate that he really didn’t want to get traded to the Jets. After all, the Jets were 4-12 last season, which is four games worse than what Favre’s Packers were during a dreadful 2006, but identical to the 4-12 2005 season Favre masterminded in 2005.

Hey, it’s not like the Jets are getting Doug Williams or Trent Dilfer [1]to replace Chad Pennington, who nearly guided the surprising ’06 team into the AFC Championship. And they certainly are not getting a Bart Starr in the twilight years in Favre. Make it more like Johnny Unitas going to the Chargers for one last go-around or Willie Mays with the Mets, flailing away on the turf at Shea during the ’73 post-season.

Sure, the New York media will give the big star some love when he arrives. New York loves a media event and a star, after all. But in New York (to paraphrase Lou Reed) there are no stars in the sky – they are all on the ground.

Maybe that’s why Favre reportedly preferred a trade to Tampa Bay? Sunny skies, warm weather, and plenty of things to do outdoors during the winter instead of sitting inside and watching the old quarterback flail around on the turf while attempting to turn the clock back.

***

Back in the old days when Sports Illustrated was the king of all sports media, they used to put out a special Olympic preview in the weeks before the games opened. Aside from the feature stories and the look into the American athletes’ chances in Los Angeles, Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, etc., etc., the magazine predicted the winners of the gold, silver and bronze in every event.

It was pretty cool, I thought. Sometimes they were even accurate with the predictions.

Wouldn’t you know it that Sports Illustrated still makes its predictions? Here they are.

After a quick glance, here’s what caught my eye:

  • Bernard Lagat taking the silver in the 1,500, but off the podium in the 5,000.
  • Kenyan Martin Lel atop the field in the Marathon. Strangely, of the 14 nations to take gold in the marathon, Kenya is not one of them. Incidentally, Lel and countryman Robert Cheuriyot are the best, big-race marathoners in the world, but I still say don’t sleep on Ryan Hall.
  • No American women in the distance events. Not even Deena Kastor, who took the bronze in the marathon in sweltering heat and humidity at the Athens games.
  • Tyson Gay over Usain Bolt in the 100.
  • Usain Bolt over everyone in the 200.
  • Jeremy Wariner over LaShawn Merritt in the 400.

Aside from Ryan Hall, Brian Sell, Dathan Ritzenhein and the other distance guys, it will be interesting to see how NBC covers Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang as he attempts to beat world-record holder Dayron Robles in the 110-meter hurdles. NBC went all out in reporting on Australian Cathy Freeman during the Sydney games, which is understandable. But along with women’s marathoner Zhou Chunxiu, Liu Xiang is the biggest threat to win gold for the host country.

***

Finally, Philadelphia Will Do’s Dan McQuade is chronicling the Olympics in blog form for Vanity Fair (yeah, freaking Vanity Fair!). Here’s his first post.

For the record, Dan is Luke Skywalker to my Obi Wan… well, probably not, but I’m going to say it anyway.


[1] QBs just like Brett Favre in that they have won exactly one Super Bowl.

All Brett, all the time

I have a theory. No, it’s not the one where I offered that everyone, at one point or another, has dined on a loogie at a restaurant. This new theory is totally different and much less solid than my other theory.

This one has to do with Brett Favre and ESPN, which based on the recent wall-to-wall coverage of all things Favre and the Packers, is almost like eating a loogie in a TV viewing sense.

Anyway, my theory is since the Olympics are set to begin and NBC has decided to devote 23 ½ hours of its programming per day to Olympics coverage, the so-called World Wide Leader is going to the dance without a date… so to speak. ESPN/ABC cannot show the Olympics – they can only attend and cover it like everyone else. So to turn away heads from the biggest sporting event in the world this year, ESPN has barraged the sports-viewing public with “All Brett, All the Time.”

No, I don’t think it’s anything as sinister as choosing to report a less important story. After all, the Olympics haven’t even started yet. However, a lot of newspapers have sent teams of writers to China to cover one of the more mystifying and intriguing set of Games in a long time. From what I recall, there was no such intrigue regarding the Olympics in Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney or Athens.

China, to those of us in the West, is still mysterious. That’s especially the case when one takes in account the political, social, environmental and human rights concerns. For Americans it’s kind of odd that we actually have someone to look down upon in those regards, but there China is, anchoring an entire continent with its sprawling landscape that is becoming more and more developed by the day.

Think oil prices are high now? Wait until the Chinese citizens in the outer provinces put down the bikes and get cars.

So with the writers heading for the Far East, the MLB season entering the so-called dog days and the football season still a month away, why wouldn’t ESPN try a little misdirection? It’s as if they are screaming, “Hey, don’t look at the biggest sporting event in the world – you know, the one where we are not the rights’ holders. Look over here – to Wisconsin, U.S.A. That’s where the real story is. Come watch.”

And like the Chinese government, ESPN adds, “If you choose not to, we will make you.”

OK, it’s just a theory. There are more holes in this argument than Swiss cheese, but it’s out there nonetheless.

Speaking of out there, my friend and all-around swell guy (and ex-Phillies writer), Marcus Hayes, is in China for the Olympics. He arrived Tuesday at 2 p.m., which was 2 a.m. Tuesday morning here on the East Coast… or 2 a.m. tomorrow — time zones always mess me up. Chances are he’s pretty jet lagged.

Nevertheless, Marcus will be updating a blog (do people even use that word anymore… seems outdated to me) for the Daily News and I suggest everyone read it.

OR ELSE!

Seriously, it might be the second or third place I go when I make my rounds through the Internets every morning. Meanwhile, I had hoped to do one of those Slate.com-esque e-mail exchange columns with Marcus and the Inquirer’s Phil Sheridan, but it seems as if they are going to be too busy.

Instead I’ll just tune in to the 23 ½ hours of daily coverage and write about it here.

In the meantime, Marcus reported that he made it to Beijing after a 14-hour flight. In response to an e-mail where I told him I was envious that he got to go to the Olympics and I get to go to Citizens Bank Park, our hero wrote, “You wouldn’t be so envious if you just spent 4 hours sitting across from a smelly Latvian with 4 spiked hairs.”

See, Beijing isn’t all that different than Philadelphia.

He also reported that he cannot read his own site because it has been blocked by the Chinese government.

Anyway, I told Marcus that it would not surprise me if he went to China and an international incident occurred. Marcus Hayes in China just screams “international incident.”

Better yet, remember Christopher Walken’s character in The Deer Hunter? You know, he went to Vietnam and never made it back because he went AWOL from a hospital in Saigon in order to play Russian roulette for money… for some reason I foresee a similar fate for Marcus.

OK, back to the Brett Barrage, which is kind of like Russian Roulette but only brain cells are in danger.

Read: Marcus Hayes’ Olympic Proportions site

Super Bowl predictions

George HamiltonI don’t hate the Super Bowl. I don’t know where that came from. I dislike the Wing Bowl, which I believe is one of the biggest reasons why the rest of the world hates America and why the rest of America thinks Philadelphia and Philadelphians are ugly. At least that’s what Americans told a slick travel magazine a few months ago.

But that’s a different story. In the meantime let’s just be glad that the Wing Bowl is a radio event because I saw pictures of the contestants, the deejays and the scantily clad women hired to flash the audience and… how do we put this delicately… um… bowwow.

Look, I’m not George Hamilton, but geez. Cover up, people!

Anyway, the Super Bowl is set to be played sometime this weekend. That means we will be deluged with many of the worst parts of America not excluding crass commercialism, marketing and consumerism. In fact, some folks claim they watch the Super Bowl just for the new commercials. Really. Now how pathetic is that?

“Please, please, please tell me what to buy and how to think. Yes, yes, I know that if I drink your brand of light beer I will be as fiendishly clever and debonair as those hipsters with their meticulously messy haircuts and cavalier outlook on life. Drink up!

“That Spuds McKenzie! Rock on!”

Like Major League Baseball, the NFL has an alcohol problem it doesn’t want to admit. But we’ll save that issue for another time – or at least until the city police decides to set up DUI checkpoints outside the Linc after Sunday home games. Meanwhile, the beer companies have a problem because they can no longer produce commercials like this:

Never mind the fact that the Super Bowl is to football fans what New Year’s Eve is to those on the pro party circuit – it’s strictly amateur hour. But be that as it is, you make sure you tune into the game. Missing it would is like being stuck at home while everyone else is having a rockin’ time with Dick Clark.

So to help out the football novices out there enjoy the game better, I sent out a mass email to some of the best minds in the sports business to provide a trenchant analysis of the big game.

Here’s the results:

John FingerComcast SportsNet/Raconteur
Giants
I think I watched three or four football games from start to end this year and they all involved the Giants, Patriots or Brett Favre. I like Favre because he seems crazy – not crazy like he should be institutionalized, or crazy like he painted the windows black and allowed a bunch of dogs kill each other. But crazy in a way that I bet he would drink a champagne glass mixed with whatever liquid was left on the table if there was enough cash in it. For instance, if we’re hanging out at a wedding with Brett and we combined a little champagne, a few floaters of beer, maybe a bit of a gin & tonic, eight olives and some sudsy bubbles left over from greeting the bride, I bet it would only take $11 to get him to drink the whole mix.

So yeah, I’m picking the Giants just to be different.

Todd ZoleckiPhiladelphia Inquirer
Patriots

Because Bill Belichick is such a humble guy, I can’t help but root for him.

Lance Crawford Comcast SportsNet/mountain climber
Patriots
I see the Giants keeping it close for 3 quarters, making one fatal mistake and losing by the final of 31-21.

Kevin RobertsCamden Courier Post
Patriots
I predict that during the halftime concert, Tom Petty will accidentally show a nipple. No one will care. On the field, the Patriots will win 87-2.

Courtney Holt – CSN/diva
Patriots
The evil hoodie strikes again! Brady and his boot (not Giselle) strike early and often against crappy Giants secondary. Randy Moss finally gets a ring and is disappointed to find it’s not a good substitute for his bowl. Eli will rest his head in the space between Strahan’s teeth and sob for 3 minutes, then hits the Waffle House off of 101 North with his fraud brother where they shoot a commercial.

Jim SalisburyPhiladelphia Inquirer
Patriots
The Pats will push the Giants off the elevator, 28-21.

Ellen Fingerteacher
You’re all winners!
Seeing as I am one of the many schmucks who works tirelessly to make sure No Child is EVER Left Behind, I would like to propose that the Giants and Patriots simply play football for three hours. Then, whichever team is behind when time runs out should get a chance to kick field goals until they catch up to the other team. Or, better yet, maybe they should play but not keep score. During huddles the defense should be told exactly what play the offense is going to run. And at the end everyone will get a Super Bowl ring, an endorsement with Wheaties, and boatload of self esteem.

Marcus Hayes – Philadelphia Daily News
Patriots
With the eyes of the nation and his brother upon him, Eli Manning reverts to his pre-hypnotic state, channels Kerry Collins and throws four picks. Patriots 35, Giants 17.

Dennis DeitchDelaware County Daily Times
Patriots
Patriots 38, Giants 27… I love the Pats and Moss on the fast track, particularly because Maroney has been giving their running game a little credibility. But the oddsmakers are in the zone with the betting line. The Giants will score some points, although I could see 7 or 10 of them coming in the final five minutes when it doesn’t matter.

I like the over, of course. I also like prop bets for nine touchdowns scored (+750) and Todd Zolecki throwing a beer on a Giants fan in a first-half drunken rage at a Manayunk bar, then sprinting out the door to his home to avoid being pummeled (-110).

Scott LauberWilmington News Journal
Giants
Giants 35, Patriots 32 … Eli Manning isn’t as bad as you think. Plus, it’s always more fun to pick the underdog.

Martin FrankWilmington News Journal
Patriots
New England 38, NY Giants 17… I have no clever reason, or funny anecdote. I just think the Pats are much better than the Giants and now that Belichick has had 2 full weeks to spy on them, he’ll probably know every single play Eli Manning is going to run.

Mother Nature 1, Everyone else 0

Brett FavreThe weather has a tendency to get a little chilly in the month of January as folks may have noticed from walking outdoors, watching football on television or from watching the little soft-shoe routine those suspenders-and-sports coat frocked slicksters pull off every night on the evening news. The weather is big business on local TV news. In fact, it is such big business that there are song lyrics that go:

“Murder and weather is our only news…”

If those lyrics don’t exist, they should.

Anyway, the middle part – the part about football, the outdoors and that nip, nip, nip at your nose – is the intriguing part. The truth is I tuned in to last Sunday’s Giants-Packers just to see how cold it was. Oh sure, I had a sneaking suspicion that Packers’ quarterback Brett Favre just might do something crazy enough to sabotage the game for his team, and in that regard I suppose no one was disappointed. But really, the outcome of the game was pretty meaningless. All I wanted to see what Favre’s breath turn from a plume of carbon dioxide and crystallize into a free-floating diamond-shaped ball of ice.

My guess is that it was something that other folks wanted to see, too. Actually, it appeared as if the only story of the game wasn’t Favre trying to get back to the Super Bowl one last time or Eli Manning attempting to copy his big brother and make it to the big game, but instead it was the coffee-sicle that formed in Terry Bradshaw’s mug during the pre-game show. Because, as it is, if it’s negative-three degrees without the wind chill in Green Bay, Wisconsin, the smart thing to do is hold the pre-game show out of doors. That way the frostbite that forms on Howie Long’s exposed extremities can be used as a tax write-off because technically it was a live experiment kind of like the stuff they do on Nova.

What, do you really think people cared if Howie broke down the Cover-2? Hell, the viewers at home wanted permanent scarring. It makes the frozen coffee go down smoother.

Now I don’t know where the idea that meteorology is a pseudo-science came from. It didn’t come from me, I can tell you that much. But what they don’t tell you during football games and TV weather reports is that cold weather hurts. It actually causes pain to a person more than a muggy scorcher in August ever could. No, cold temperatures don’t make one wake up screaming in the middle of the night and running off to find a doorway with your sleeping cap slouched to the side. That’s the move for an earthquake. But cold weather can freeze pipes and cause them to burst making floods or fires or both. Certainly that’s no picnic.

Interestingly though, the pain of cold temperatures in this part of the world only lasts a little while. At least that’s the way it worked out for me on Sunday and Monday when I decided to go out for a run. Hey, if they’re playing football all the way out there in Wisconsin, which is close to Canada and very near outer space where it gets as nippy as your Aunt Tilly’s gazpacho, I figured I ought to get out there and get my work in.

So out I went during the coldest part of the day, which, according to the Accuweather web site, was a raw negative-1 degree on the ol’ real feel index. Apparently such numbers are deduced when one accounts for the temperature, wind speed and direction, the time of day and on-base percentage. In other words it’s the Moneyball of weather. But the thing I learned about running around in ultra-cold weather was that it’s all about the wind. When the wind blows at one’s face it’s bad. When it blows at your back, it ain’t all that.

But you get used to it. At least that’s the way it went down on Sunday thanks to some effort and creative rambling. During a 60-minute effort the first few moments are the key. That’s when one decides whether to keep at it, thus proving oneself as an evolved life being that continuously takes strides at improvement. Or, it’s when one says out loud to no one, “This is stupid. I’m going back home so I can strip down, flop on the couch, order up a mushroom ‘boli and watch Rachel Ray… or whatever.”

beerClearly I’m evolved, but during the first couple of minutes as I negotiated through the neighborhood, I thought, “Wow! It’s cold! It’s really, really cold! Oh well, I guess it will be OK when I warm up.”

The notion of personal evolvement disappeared approximately five minutes into the run when I passed by a friend’s house, turned to look to spy someone moving around inside and realized that I couldn’t feel my face. Oh, I could touch it, but I couldn’t feel it.

“Is this dangerous?” I thought. “This feels like it could be dangerous. This isn’t dangerous is it?”

I realized I made a mistake when I put a gloved hand to my face and it felt like a bee sting. That sensation soon went away when my toes felt as though I had just dropped a canned ham on them. But oddly enough – after just 15 minutes of running – everything was back to normal. The wind had shifted, the swarm of bees that peppered my face had rubbed it with aloe and everything was back in order. The strut around the ‘hood was no longer dangerous. Instead, it was fun… as long as the wind remained where it was.

It looked as if the football players were out there having fun in Green Bay, too. Better yet, it didn’t look as if the cold temperatures changed much about the performances at all. Plaxico Burress made Al Harris look like his personal hand puppet, Tom Coughlin was typical full bore jackassery, and Brett Favre caught a late case of the crazies when his passes suddenly began to behave as if they were punts.

More than the Giants, the Super Bowl, or the Fox network, the weather was the winner last weekend. It showed that it will always be the topic of discussion in ways beyond the banality of, “Some weather we’re having, huh?” Yep, it got cold and none of that silliness about “Global Warming” reared its un-ironic head as the great misnomer of the past decade.

You know, global warming… kind of like jumbo shrimp.