This time, I'm prepared for the hail of e-mail. Bring it on, Lance worshipers. Come after me like the rats in "Willard."
Tell me once more that you TOLD ME SO! Tell me this proves yet again I WAS WRONG! Tell me I should finally pull my head out of my, uh, ego and PUBLICLY APOLOGIZE TO LANCE FOR SAYING HE ISN'T THE WORLD'S GREATEST ATHLETE!
Not only will I not apologize, but I will repeat with even greater conviction, in a perfectly reasonable tone, that Lance Armstrong is NOT! the world's greatest athlete.
This madness began the day Armstrong won the 2002 Tour de France. By late afternoon, it seemed that every sportscaster in America, flush with crowd-pleasing patriotism, was referring to our Lance as the "world's greatest athlete." As in awe as I was (and am) of Armstrong's achievements on a bicycle, the "world's greatest" distinction began to irritate me because it simply wasn't (and isn't) true.
What, I thought, about Japan's Ichiro? Or "our" Michael Vick or Kobe Bryant, to name just two?
I figured any rational, knowledgeable sports fan would agree. Apparently, very few rational, knowledgeable sports fans read my column.
When my Armstrong column hit the fan the following day, you would have thought I had accused Brett Favre of being a terrorist operative. Hell hath no fury like a cycling enthusiast and/or a Lance worshiper scorned. Talk about hell on wheels.
The more and better I defended my position on TV and radio, the more the Lance nuts attacked. Thousands upon thousands of e-stings kept turning my mailbox into a giant hive. Each time Lance won another Tour or award, the point-missing onslaught began anew.
A year ago it was: SEE, LANCE WON SPORTS ILLUSTRATED SPORTSMAN OF THE YEAR!
Last summer, it was: SEE, LANCE WON PAGE 2'S ULTIMATE MALE ATHLETE BRACKET!
Then, it was: SEE, LANCE WON SPORTSNATION'S MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR.
And now, it's: SEE, LANCE WON A.P. MALE ATHLETE OF THE YEAR AGAIN!
Yes, Armstrong just won his third straight A.P. award -- and only Michael Jordan has accomplished that. Armstrong deserved all three because his performance in his sport was better than any other man's performance in his. Yet none of these awards qualify him as world's greatest.
Seriously, in their primes, Armstrong was a better all-around athlete than Jordan? Right, and Bill Murray is a better actor than Anthony Hopkins. No one can play that funny-sad Bill Murray character as brilliantly as Murray routinely does. But Hopkins has astonishing range.
No one, obviously, can beat Armstrong on a bike. Armstrong is the world's greatest endurance athlete. His God-given ability to process oxygen -- his VO2 max -- is unmatched. Lungs of iron. Legs of steel. Heart, guts, willpower -- six straight times this piston-pumping machine has blown his Tour de France competition off the mountainsides. Armstrong dominates cycling the way Tiger Woods once owned golf.
Yet the athletic ability required to rule cycling is specific and limited.
Before we travel another kilometer, let me make this perfectly clear: Armstrong's medical history has absolutely nothing to do with this argument. Yes, he stared death in the teeth and survived cancer. Yes, he is a mountain-climbing beacon for cancer fighters the world over. Lance Armstrong is far and away the world's most inspirational athlete.
But this argument concerns strictly born-with, all-around ability. Not "greatest odds overcome." Not "greatest story ever told." Not "greatest guy or role model." God bless you, cancer survivors, but please don't fire off angry e-mails telling me I have no idea what it means to battle this disease.
Thankfully, I do not. But that's irrelevant.
And please don't accuse me of having a hidden agenda. Do not rationalize that I'm trying to undercut Armstrong's achievements because I believe he cheated. The allegations that he used performance-enhancing drugs -- denied by Armstrong -- are also beside my point. Yes, some Victor Conte could have enhanced Armstrong's abilities. But BALCO couldn't make him a better all-around athlete.
Armstrong isn't in Ichiro's multi-skilled league.
Ichiro, the Seattle Mariners' right fielder, broke baseball's single-season hits record last year. Ichiro has sensationally better hand-eye coordination, gymnastic body control, speed, quickness and throwing ability than Armstrong. Hitting 98 mph fastballs, sizzling sliders and deceptive change-ups is the most difficult endeavor in sports, and no hitter has ever been able to aim hits like called shots in pool the way Ichiro does. He's probably the fastest man in baseball, he routinely makes catches that would get 9s and 10s from Olympic judges and he has one of the game's strongest arms.
Quite a package. At just 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, Ichiro is about Armstrong's size. If Ichiro dedicated himself to training for a year on a bike, he could be much better at Armstrong's sport than Armstrong could be at baseball.
Armstrong poked fun at himself after his rather embarrassing attempt to throw out the first ball before a game at Yankee Stadium. And here's the punch line: After Armstrong read my first column, a source close to him told me he agrees he's not the greatest all-around athlete, saying, "I stink at ball sports."
That's right, Lance lovers: Armstrong himself is quick to admit he is lousy at baseball, basketball and football. Does this make him any less of a cyclist, or a man? NO! Though by now your eyes probably have glazed over with anger and your brain has defaulted into MUST ATTACK mode, try to remember that I said Lance was the world's greatest endurance athlete.
And that's tough for me, because I'm partial to marathon running. To me, the greatest single-day endurance feat is Kenyan Paul Tergat's world marathon record of two hours four minutes 55 seconds, set in 2003 in Berlin. Try running one sub-five-minute mile, then imagine running 26.2 of them. Try doing this on pavement, when you're striking with eight times your body weight. The pounding is so severe that they say great marathoners have only one great marathon in them.
Tergat is faster than Armstrong, who has shown only good speed in 10K (6.2-mile) races. Tergat has similar VO2 max. Tergat's sport requires him to maintain efficient mechanics no matter how tired he gets. Armstrong's bicycle ensures that he'll always have a perfect "stride" and his bike keeps him above the pavement -- unless, of course, he crashes. But riding a bike helps allow Armstrong to avoid pavement-pounding injuries through 20 Tour Stages in 23 days. No way Tergat could run world-record marathons on back-to-back days.
No way would I call Tergat the world's greatest athlete.
And please don't tell me I'm just some non-athletic, hot-dog-stuffed sportswriter who has no idea what he's talking about. For the record, I've run 10 marathons, with a best of two hours 47 minutes. And I at least started for my high-school baseball and basketball teams.
Still, after watching him win six straight Tours, I give it up to Lance. Once more: Greatest endurance athlete.
But Vick is much more all-around blessed. So is Randy Moss, who can fly and catch bullets. So is Kobe, and he's 6-7. Barry Bonds in his prime was much more multi-gifted. And who has ever been all-time greater than Bo Jackson, who dominated pro football and baseball?
Frankly, I could name dozens and dozens of "ball" sport stars who were, or are, greater athletes than Armstrong. But for each one, I would receive another 100 e-rants.
I thought marathon runners were consumed. But cyclists are the world's most zealous sports cult. Unlike marathoners, cyclists battle an inferiority complex. They cannot stand anyone suggesting they're not superior athletes. It's as if their manhood has been questioned. Maybe they're just self-conscious about those Euro riding costumes.
At least their idol keeps his ability in perspective.
Skip Bayless joined ESPN after a career as a sports columnist that includes stops in Miami, Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago and San Jose. He can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m., ET, on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column will appear weekly on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.