BC-Armstrong-Man in the News, Bjt,1220

Man in the News: Armstrong races away from cancer and the rest of the world


AP Sports Columnist

PARIS (AP) – He suffers each day so he won’t forget, so everyone else won’t dare forget why he was spared.

Along the route from prodigy to cold-blooded professional, Lance Armstrong learned to love the work more than the reward, to recognize that pain is a precursor to glory. With each turn of the wheel, and with his tireless advocacy on behalf of cancer patients, Armstrong remains an inspiration to survivors worldwide.

The 19th and next-to-last stage of the Tour de France ended Saturday in Besancon, a two-hour train ride southeast of Paris, with Armstrong winning a fifth stage, his most ever, and still wearing le maillot jaune – the overall leader’s yellow jersey.

“I still remember when I put on the first one,” he said. “I was the happiest man in the world. That would have been enough for me to take to the grave.”

Instead, barring a crash or some other disaster, the 32-year-old Texan will roll into the capital and past the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday afternoon, then up and down the wide boulevard of the Champs-ElysDees inside the protective slipstream of his U.S. Postal Service team. Soon after, Armstrong will officially become the only rider to win the world’s greatest bicycle race six times.

All in a row, no less, and at an age when the careers of all the other great champions – Eddy Merckx of Belgium, Miguel Indurain of Spain and local heroes Bernard Hinault and Jacques Anquetil – were effectively over.

“To win six,” Armstrong said, even as questions swirled whether he would return to defend his title, “is very hard to put into words.”

He has raced ahead of the cycling world for so long that when he began riding the Tour, the United States and France were still staunch allies. He’s co-authored two books since, become a worldwide celebrity and a millionaire several times over. He’s fathered three children, struggled through a very public divorce and started an even more-public relationship with rock star Sheryl Crow.

Last year, Armstrong won by his narrowest margin, enduring two crashes, nearly falling a third time and surrendering a handful of stages where defeat once seemed unthinkable. This time around, he’s been hounded mercilessly by the media over doping allegations, spat upon by fans of his rivals and derided because of his team’s prowess, exhausting preparation and attention to detail. But none of it weakened Armstrong’s grip on greatness.

His mastery was such, finally, that Tour director Jean-Marie Leblanc huffed that Armstrong had taken all the suspense and much of the romance out of the race.

“I notice more and more riders adopting the Armstrong method. It’s an improvement in the way of comprehending the Tour de France – more professional, more rigorous, more methodical.

“In a word,” Leblanc added, “more American.”

For all that, Armstrong’s recovery from a deadly form of testicular cancer remains one of the most compelling comeback stories ever. Just eight years ago, after the disease had spread to his lungs and brain, his doctors, friends and family wondered whether he would survive, let alone recover and dominate an event that covers three weeks, two mountain ranges and more than 2,000 miles.

“We had a team dinner that year and when he sat down, Lance asked me to read off the menu because his vision was still blurry from the brain surgery,” said John Vandevelde, a two-time U.S. national champion and the father of current Tour competitor Christian Vandevelde.

“I’ll never forget the sight of him walking back to his room, dragging his IV hookup on wheels behind him. I thought it was the last time I’d see him, for sure.”

Everyone around Armstrong counseled patience back then, but he had a schedule in his head and two six-inch-long, quarter-inch-deep horseshoe-shaped scars creasing his skull as a reminder of where the surgeons had been. Yet he climbed back on his bike between doses of chemotherapy and resumed training faster than his doctors could imagine. Gradually, almost grudgingly, they all began working off his calendar. Barely three years later, he forced the cycling world to follow suit.

When Armstrong captured the opening stage en route to his first Tour win in 1999, he was embraced by a Tour trying to shake a drug scandal that had devastated the race the previous year. As a former road-racing world champion with no doping allegations in his past, he appeared to be just what the sport needed.

But when Armstrong followed up his two stage wins over flat courses with an uncharacteristically commanding performance up into the Alps, French newspapers suggested cycling had returned to doping as usual. The innuendo and double-entendres have dogged him ever since, fueled this year by publication of a book, “L.A. Confidential, The Secrets of Lance Armstrong” in which a former employee suggested Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs.

What those stories missed then, and rarely acknowledge even now, is how Armstrong turned himself into a champion by dint of hard work. He was winning 10-kilometer runs against grownups before he finished sixth grade and soon after, representing his hometown, Austin, Texas, in statewide swim meets. By age 15, he added bike racing to his repertoire and became a top-flight triathlete. Two years after that, he watched fellow American Greg LeMond win the Tour de France a second time and decided it was something he, too, could achieve.

Before his first Tour, Armstrong came to France in the wet and cold of winter and practiced every stage, applying the same maniacal training regimen that began during his arduous recovery to make himself as strong in the mountains as he was on the flats.

This past May, wearing a sweat suit and being trailed by U.S. Postal Service team manager Johan Bruyneel in a rental car to avoid attention, Armstrong returned to the Alps and trained over the mountain passes that comprised the most daunting stretch of this year’s Tour. Not long after recovering from jet lag, he amazed even Bruyneel by climbing the torturous stretch up L’Alpe d’Huez three times in one day.

To no one’s surprise, Armstrong used the lung-busting, 9.6-mile time trial up the Tour’s most storied ascent to decisively crush his rivals this year.

Pedaling smoothly at the outset, Armstrong was the last of the nearly 200 riders to leave at 1-minute intervals. Soon after, he kicked into a gear only he possesses – at one point turning the pedals an incredible 120 beats a minute – and overtook his last real rival, Italian Ivan Basso, who started 2 minutes earlier.

As he crossed the finish line, after cutting through a sea of frenzied fans, Armstrong inhaled deeply, the silver chain around his neck swinging rhythmically like a metronome above his unzipped yellow jersey.

Moments later, smiling, he said, “I didn’t think this would be the decisive day of the Tour.”

But he knew better.

Armstrong hadn’t undertaken all that suffering in the spring – all the suffering, really, stretching back to a hospital bed in 1996 – for nothing.

AP-ES-07-24-04 1521EDT

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