Matt Calkins column: Do world’s best athletes… ride bikes?

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WASHOUGAL — Motocross riders frequently ascend more than 20 feet off of jumps.

But that is not why they are crazy.

Motocross riders consistently zoom down 50-foot hills at speeds nearing 40 mph.

But that is not why they are nuts.

No, what makes motocross riders certifiable isn’t the danger, daring or occasional death associated with their sport, but the fact that every now and then, one of them says something like this: “Yeah, basketball players have good ball skills, but are they better athletes than us? Hell, no. Never…Obviously basketball players are athletes, but I wouldn’t say they’re world-class athletes.”

Thursday, these were the words of AMA Pro Motocross rider Ryan Villopoto, who enters Saturday’s Washougal MX National second in the points standings. But the 22-year-old didn’t limit his comments to hoopsters alone.

Villopoto contends that when you factor in physical exertion, the elements, the year-round schedule, the training regimen, the potential for permanent injury and heart beats per minute — motocross riders are leaving all other athletes in their dust.

“I know the Tour de France is going on right now. That’s an intense deal. That might be the hardest sport. But do they do it year round? As for team sports, in football you might get some injuries. But it’s still a team sport,” continued Villopoto, adding that team-sport athletes have the luxury of relying on other people. “Basketball, you might get your heart rate up running up and down the court, but it’s like me saying (to a motocross teammate), ‘Take a couple laps hard, then get some water and take a little break.’ That’s the way I look at it.”

In Villopoto’s defense, he was asked to make a case for why motocross comprises the world’s best athletes. And in defense of motocross, the sport is about as underrated as Van Gogh was in his prime.

Unlike NASCAR or Formula 1, success here comes down to the man, not the machine.

It requires strength, endurance, flexibility, impossible balance, hours of training per week and acceptance of the fact that a particularly hard fall could land you six feet below the dirt.

Asked how he feels the day after a race, fellow AMA motocross rider Tommy Hahn said: “Like I got hit by a truck.”

Still, to say that the planet’s finest athletes ride around on two wheels? Some of those “team sports” folks would argue that’s way off track.

Dan Dickau, Vancouver resident and former Trail Blazers guard: “Wow. Dude is crazy. I don’t want to completely ruin motocross people, I consider them athletes in a different regard. You look at NASCAR and you gotta have great hand-eye coordination, and motocross riders have to have a great core. But (Villopoto) wouldn’t be able to run and have that hand-eye coordination at the same time like you do in basketball. I think most people would consider the most athletic people to be in football and basketball.”

Jason Scukanec, sports talk radio host and former BYU offensive lineman: “Hey, Joey Chestnut can claim he’s the greatest athlete because he can eat a bunch of hot dogs. Just because you can do things physically that other people can’t, does that make you the best athlete? If you put (Villopoto) up against an NBA player and have them compete in 10 other sports off the bike, I’ll take the NBA guy to win all of them… To me, he sounds like a guy who’s just bitter that his sport doesn’t get paid attention to.”

Actually, Villopoto sounds like a guy utterly convinced of his sport’s superiority. But Vancouver resident and former Major League catcher Tom Lampkin claims that when it comes to pure athleticism, he’s already seen the best.

“I’ve played against Bo Jackson and with Deion Sanders, and they’re the best athletes I’ve ever seen. I don’t know if they’ve ever ridden motocross, but playing two major sports at an All-Star caliber, I believe they could probably pick it up,” Lampkin said. “When I watched Deion, I just couldn’t believe that other humans were capable of doing some of the things that he could do. You just don’t see that. So, I’ll take Deion. And honestly, he’s such a humble guy, too.”

Deion Sanders? Humble?

Well, Villopoto’s mouth may end up getting him in trouble, but at least he only had the second most shocking comment of the day.

Matt Calkins is a sports writer for The Columbian. He can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or at matt.calkins@columbian.com<I>