JIM WELTE. Writer. Editor.

San Anselmo sportswriter Austin Murphy keeps Lance-like pace

Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour de France champion who recently announced his comeback at the age of 37, famously shared a mountain bike ride with President George W. Bush a few years ago. An old buddy of Armstrong’s was a step ahead of him. One week before Armstrong and Bush bounded around the mountain biker-in-chief’s ranch in Crawford, Texas, in August 2005, San Anselmo resident Austin Murphy did the same – one of the countless “life experiences” Murphy has packed into his 24 years as a writer for Sports Illustrated.

A year later, Murphy and Armstrong dashed around a single-track course on the cyclist’s ranch outside Austin. Battling a case of pneumonia, Murphy crashed badly while reaching for his tape recorder during the ride and jammed the teeth of his crankset into his calf. “I bloodied myself nicely,” Murphy said coolly. “It was a memorable ride.” The 47-year-old Murphy, who spends as many as 200 days a year on the road, rattles off those “life experiences” with a casual nonchalance. He tells the tale of his trip in 1999 to Richard Branson’s Necker Island, where his job was to “document” the artful body-painting of the world’s most gorgeous models for SI’s swimsuit issue. Murphy found himself treading water in a pool while discussing the fall of the Berlin Wall with German supermodel Heidi Klum, who was sunbathing topless on a floating crocodile.

“For some reason, I can’t get that out of my head,” Murphy quipped The eldest son of eight children, Murphy’s dad worked for U.S. Steel, and the family moved 10 times during his childhood. He attended Colgate University then, in 1983 while Murphy was working for The Chronicle, a biweekly newspaper outside of Chicago, he caught the eye of SI’s editors with a humorous essay about disappointing his footballcrazed father when he quit Colgate’s football team. SI hired Murphy as a fact-checker in the spring of 1984,and he was soon promoted to the National Hockey League beat.

Before he graduated from Colgate, Murphy met his future wife, Laura Hilgers. They bumped into each other a few years later in New York City. Murphy was at SI and Hilgers was at Cosmopolitan. “The calculus had changed, and she agreed to have a drink with me,” Murphy said “That’s true, but I also was looking for a job at [SI parent company] Time Inc.,” Hilgers fired back.

In 1985, when Murphy was dispatched to cover Super Bowl XIX at Stanford between the 49ers and the Miami Dolphins, the seeds were sewn for a move to the Bay Area. Murphy had caught the cycling and triathlon bug while living in New York, and decided to rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge.

“I thought, ‘This beats riding the six-mile loop around Central Park,'” he said. Murphy and Hilgers have two children, Willa, 14 and a freshman at Drake High, and Devin, 12, born with football in his genes and destined to be a down lineman. For the six months of the college football season, Willa and Devin’s time with their dad is dictated by the whims of the parity-laden, topsy-turvy college game, which Murphy has covered for the past eight years. SI has let Murphy take two six-month sabbaticals to write books. In 1999, he chronicled the Division III football powerhouse St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. That tome, “The Sweet Season,” also touched on how the Murphy family’s move to central Minnesota for four months affected them, both good and bad.

But nothing impacted the Murphy family dynamic quite like the second sabbatical. The constant travel of a college football writer for a national magazine has never allowed him to be the model of domesticity. Hilgers had long since put her own writing career on the back-burner to raise the kids and run their household. As Murphy wrote, he wanted to “fight my way back into my own photo albums.”

So he wrote “How Tough Could It Be? The Trials and Errors of a Sportswriter Turned Stay-at-Home Dad.” Murphy’s Mr. Mom routine scored somewhere between a crash course and a train wreck. He gained invaluable skills and reconnected with his family, but “if it went on any longer we would have gotten divorced – it was a disaster,” Hilgers said.

Exercise is vital to Murphy’s ability to handle a high-pressure job, a hectic travel schedule, and his family. He has mastered the art of carving out time to squeeze in a ride, often out to Alpine Dam. As Murphy’s longtime friend and workout partner since 1997, Fairfax resident Gordon Wright knows the drill all too well. “I get that call every week,” Wright said. “He’ll say, ‘I’ve got Sunday from 2-5 open. Want to ride?'” That window usually works for Wright, especially during the college football season, when Murphy has just pulled an all-nighter to file his story about Saturday’s action in time for a Monday deadline.

“Austin will kick your butt. He’ll be self-deprecating and generous about it, but he will kick your butt,” Wright said. “But during the football season, after he’s been up all night writing, I manage to keep up a little better.”

As a cyclist himself, getting to cover the precipitous rise, utter denomination, retirement and now comeback of Armstrong has been quite a ride for Murphy. The two met at the 1995 Tour de France and hit it off, and Murphy had a front-row seat for Armstrong’s reign. The two haven’t spoken since shortly after Murphy’s story on the eve of the 2007 Tour, a piece that raised more doubts about whether the champ had doped during his legendary career. Armstrong didn’t think the story was fair, and the two hadn’t spoken again until Murphy was invited to hang with Armstrong when he announced his comeback in September.

“If he is going to be in the news this summer, and he is, then I want to be on speaking terms with him,” Murphy said, declining to answer the “did he or didn’t he” question. With college football in full swing and one of the world’s great athletes set to make a return to the stage, Murphy is as busy as ever. He’s also in the midst of writing a book called “The Happiness of Pursuit” with American cycling pioneer Davis Phinney, who was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson’s disease nine years ago, at the age of 40.

With all of that in play, Murphy counts his blessings: A great job, an enduring family, and some of the best bike routes in the country, just minutes from home. “We just enjoy each other’s time and company when I am around and we know that the season will end and we will get reacquainted – this is how we pay the mortgage,” Murphy said. “It’s a pretty good gig. Basically I’m in the toy department and I’m happy here.”

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October 26, 2008 Marin IJ