That's a hard question.
First of all, "from Santa Barbara" means to me that they were living here and discovered bike racing when young, say, under 18 years old. That has significant implications, because it excludes from consideration a whole bunch of really good riders who came from out-of-town to attend UCSB, including:
- Dylan Casey
- Eric Cech
- Dave Fiengold
- Matt Dubberley
- Adam Laurent
- Kieth Horowitz
- Lynn Brontzman/Gaggioli
...along with a bunch of really good riders there right now.
That definition also excludes some really good bike racers who have come to live in Santa Barbara AFTER already establishing themselves in the sport. Examples of those would include:
- Aaron Olson
- Kim Anderson
- Jacob Erker
- Erik Saunders
- Ben Haldeman
- Zach Walker
- Dave Lettieri
- Ken Hanson
So you might think that those exclusions wouldn't leave many riders to choose from. You'd be wrong. Santa Barbara has produced a remarkable number of home-grown talented riders over the years. Below is my list of the top-10, presented in no particular order. Of course this is all subjective, and your opinions may vary.
Adam Duvendeck -- A two-time Olympian on the velodrome, and multi national champion. Started bike racing as a junior with Echelon in the mid 1990s along with Aaron Musicant and Matt Abrams, the first crop of many great juniors coached by the next rider on the list.
Rory O'Reilly -- 1984 Olympian, former world-record holder in the flying kilometer, one of the fastest road sprinters in the US in the late 1970s and early 1980s before turning focus to the velodrome. Rode for the famous 7-Eleven team. In the picture here, Rory keeps a close eye on a young Greg LeMond.
Cody O'Reilly -- Rory's son and a favorite of the entire SB cycling community. Seems like only yesterday that Cody was a little tyke on the back of Rory's tandem, his tiny legs turning circles on a 150 mm crank installed just below the seat. Fast forward to today, and Cody is one of the fastest road sprinters in the US, and arguably the best all-around track rider in the country, having just won the Elite Omnium National Championship. Cody has improved every year for the last decade ...how good will he ultimately get?
Uthman Ray IV -- A Dos Pueblos High graduate who began his cycling career flying down hills in the dirt before turning attention to the road. Uthman quickly rose to Cat 1 and was a solid all-around rider for the couple of years he raced seriously. He's a smart guy who completed graduate school at UC Berkeley and has apparently put cycling on the back burner ...for now.
Larry Shields -- When I was a kid in NorCal just getting into bike racing, I only knew of two racers from Santa Barbara. One was Rory, and the other was Larry Shields. His reputation as a smart and savvy rider was well known, but clearly he had an abundance of strength too. A multi-time National Champion on the road as a junior and a podium finisher in the Elite ranks. The picture here shows Larry winning a National Championship after dispensing of a quicker Chris Springer with a crafty move in the final corner.
Kurt and Derin Stockton -- Brothers, both among a select group of the best road sprinters in the US during the late 80's and early 90's. Both rode as professionals for a number of teams and participated in all the big Pro races back east, with Kurt winning the USPro Road Championship in Philly in 1990. Both went on to successful careers on the booming downhill MTB circuit.
Chris Walker -- Most people don't realize C-Walk started bike racing as a junior back in the mid 1970s. He was a mediocre rider back then and soon hung up the bike for other interests. He returned to the sport ten years later (1987-88), and since then has put in, oh, at least a quarter million miles of training. I'm completely serious. Do the math... 20 years X 52 weeks/year X 250 miles/week. Probably a low estimate actually. He's been a podium finisher in some of the hardest, highest-level races in the country, including Tour of the Gila and the Killington Stage Race. He's won National RR Championships as a Master and Elite competitor, along with many Districts victories. Still, at 48 years old, he's one of the top roadies in California.
Daniel Ramsey -- When I first met Daniel he was an affable, slightly-gawky, enthusiastic puppy dog of a bike rider. Fast forward fifteen years or so, and he's now one of the most exciting bike racers you'll ever see. Nobody rides with more heart and grit than Daniel. If you think of US Domestic Pro bike racing as entertainment, then Daniel is a star. If you've never seen him roll one of his improbable solo break-aways with 100+ hungry riders nipping at his heels, well then you are missing one of the most heart-pumping scenes in bike racing. Sometimes he gets caught (e.g., annually at Manhattan Beach) and sometimes he pulls it off (Sea Otter; Tulsa Tough). Either way, it's always a great show.
Nieko Biskner -- A mercurial career if there ever was one. Nieko also started as an Echelon junior after doing some running at San Marcos High (5K in the 16's!) and when he began to really train on the bike, his talent was immediately evident. A big-boned kid at 6'5" he was still as good a climber as anyone in town, and when he got on top of a gear on the flats, well, following him was essentially motor-pacing. He finished top-10 in a Tour of Georgia sprint and recorded 1900+ watts on his SRM. That's a Mario Cipollini-like number. In the NRC San Dimas Stage Race one year, he powered a small break in the road race and was barely nipped at the finish by Chris Horner, who was the most dominant rider in the US at that time. Nieko's pro career only lasted a couple of years because he was pulled in lots of conflicting directions, including school and partying. Who can blame him... would you rather ride your bike a quarter of a million miles earning minimum wage, or hang out at night with good friends and pretty ladies, and learn about cool technology during the day?
So that's my top-10 list.
At this point, it's fair to revisit the original question, "Who's the most talented bike racer from Santa Barbara?" But this naturally leads to a more enigmatic question, namely, "What is talent with respect to bike racing?"
Every rider mentioned above has talent. For example, Adam was able to master all the technical and physiological details necessary to get maximum explosive power out of his body. Both Rory and Cody were and are able to live extremely disciplined lifestyles that ensure maximum productivity from their training efforts. Kurt and Derin had the bravery to fight at the front of thundering field sprints. C-Walk has the ability to religiously churn out thousands of miles in training. Daniel seems capable of tapping into raw emotion as a fuel source, digging deeper than most people realize is possible.
All those traits above are important, and clearly they led to success for all these Santa Barbara bike racers. To me, however, "talent" in the context of bike racing is defined as an innate potential for great success, and it's mostly a physiological aptitude. In my opinion, for raw physical talent, Nieko tops the list and I think he could have been a world-class bike racer.