World champion cyclist and cancer survivor (and, as of January 2013, confessed cheater) Lance Armstrong has won the gruelling Tour de France bike race a record seven times - consecutively - making him the greatest Tour rider ever. Immediately after winning the seventh, on July 24 2005, he retired from professional cycling, very rich and only 34, so with a long life still ahead of him. We'll have to wait and see what he does with it; he's certainly done a lot so far.
Lance was born in Texas in 1971. He didn't know his father, and was raised by his mother, Linda, who he clearly adores. He was good at sports from an early age, competitive and strong, and he won the Iron Kids Triathlon at 13 and became a professional triathlete at 16. But it was cycling that captured his heart. While still in high school the ambitious teenager won enough races to qualify to train with the Olympic developmental team, and by 1991 he was the U.S. National Amateur Champion. He finished 14th in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, disappointing himself and many others; he had thought he could win.
Interestingly, at 16 Lance was tested at a research lab. They measured his VO2 max, a gauge of how much oxygen you can take in and use, and his numbers remain the highest they've ever seen. Also, he produces less lactic acid than most people, which means he feels less pain when he's winded and fatigued. So Lance is capable of enduring more pain and physical stress than most people, a capacity that would, in time, be tested to the limit.
In the meantime, Lance entered the pros, and at first had it hard, finishing 27 minutes behind the leader in the Classico San Sebastian. But in 1993 he gained the World Champion title and even won a stage of the prestigious Tour de France, though he did not complete the full stage race. His team Motorola was ranked fifth, and Lance continued to do very well alone and with the team, winning more races and stage victories, often a lone American among European racers. Lance was not a consistent top winner, though. Today he says that's because he didn't have enough tactical and strategic understanding, and would harm himself with antics like attacking too early in a race and burning himself out.
In 1996 Lance wasn't doing so well. His performance at the Atlanta Olympics was less than stellar, and the reason soon became clear: in October of that year the golden boy of American cycling was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He had had a lump in one testicle that had persisted, along with growing fatigue, sickness, and pain, but he ignored his symptoms until his body was riddled with cancer, figuring, I guess, that they were caused by his cycling and that he could "take it". When he began coughing up blood and finding his testicle so swollen and sore that he couldn't ride, he finally called his neighbour and doctor, who got him to an oncologist the next morning. The news was devastating: Lance had advanced metastatic cancer, which it later turned out had spread to his lungs and brain. He was to go in to surgery the next day to have the testicle removed, followed by a very aggressive course of chemotherapy. He would become infertile (because of the chemo, not the surgery), and should go make a sperm donation right now, tonight, in spite of the horrifying news, for it was his last chance. So he did.
In the next few weeks Lance had three serious operations, including brain surgery, and began chemotherapy. In his autobiography It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life (with Sally Jenkins), Lance writes movingly about the pain of the massive chemotherapy infusions that he was subjected to, of "being slowly eaten from the inside out by a destroying river of pollutants." It was awful, but it worked, and though his doctors admitted afterwards that statistically, they thought he had little chance of survival, survive he did. Within five months the debilitating treatments were over, and Lance could begin to think about his life again.
He had gone into the diagnosis a famous and well-paid athlete with big corporate sponsors and a bright future; he emerged in a different light. No one thought he would ride again, and no one wanted to sponsor him, to have him on their team. His old team, Cofidis, had dropped him. And you can't blame them. Formerly a big, muscular man, Lance had lost a lot of weight and looked positively gaunt. He did build up his strength in preparation for his eventual return to racing, but he has never regained his pre-cancer weight. Cancer changed his body, and this loss of weight, ironically, would help him to do so well in the hard mountain climbs of the Tour de France.
But not yet. Before getting back in to racing, Lance began an eponymous foundation to promote awareness and early detection of cancer and support cancer research. In 1998 he announced his professional comeback and raced in a charity event to benefit cancer in Austin, Texas, which he won - and married Kristin Richard, a woman he had met through his foundation (and who looks remarkably like his mother).
The US Postal Service team took him on, and backed by his coach Chris Carmichael and team director Johan Bruyneel (himself a former pro cyclist), Lance began training aggressively. He was determined to race and win, and scored victories in the Tour de Luxembourg, the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfarht in Germany, and the Oregon Cascade Classic. He finished fourth in the Tour of Holland, and made a big splash by placing fourth in the difficult and elite Vuelta a España.
The big race, though, was the 1999 Tour de France, which Lance, remarkably, won. He was only the second American, after Greg LeMond, to take the prize. But the Tour had recently been plagued by drug scandals, and rumours were rife that Lance achieved his victory with pharmaceuticals, not brains and brawn. Angrily denying the stories, Lance continued to win the Tour decisively again in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 (not so decisively, this one, but he still won), 2004, and 2005, donning the yellow jersey of the race winner in Paris each year. He is tested for drugs after each stage win and frequently throughout the year, and passes every one.
How does he win, then? His training and preparation are legendary; he is said to ride the mountain stages like Alpe d'Huez three or four times each year, so that he knows each of the fabled hairpin turns by heart when he has to ride them during the race itself. In the Tour he usually wins the time trials and is a great climber who can keep up with the leaders with his fast cadence and then leave them behind in the final few hundred metres, them gasping, him sailing away. Though he's not the best sprinter, the assistance of his strong team and the margins he gains in the long distance time trials and mountain climbs ensure his top placing in the Tour.
Lance has made the startling claim that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him, something that I suppose could only be said by someone who's had the terrible disease and survived, cancer-free. He's lucky to have been able to marry and, thanks to that sperm donation, have three children, a son and twin daughters. (He and his wife are now divorced, and he's been keeping company with musician Sheryl Crow.)
The impression I have from having watched his Tour victories and read his autobiography is that cancer was good for him. The ordeal matured him and forced him to care about more than himself and his racing. He feels that he belongs to a community of cancer patients, and he reaches out to them in a way he never reached out to strangers before, with compassion and empathy. It's nice to see a man emerging triumphant and tempered from such an inferno.