Cancer was arguably the best thing that ever happened to Lance Armstrong. The world champion cyclist's career can be divided into two distinct periods: pre- and post-cancer. In the first, he was a brash young rider who won by sheer force and drive, but who did so arrogantly and without respect for his sport. After beating the odds and surviving testicular cancer, Armstrong came back to racing a humbled and thoughtful rider who channeled his energies, learned to depend on his team, and won an astonishing four grueling Tour de France races.
Armstrong was born September 18, 1971 near Dallas, Texas. His mother Linda, a secretary, was just seventeen years old when he was born, and her husband, Gunderson, left the family when Lance was two. When Linda got a better job, mother and son moved from a low-income suburb of Dallas and bought a home in Plano, Texas. Linda's second husband, Terry Armstrong, was a born-again Christian and strict disciplinarian who could not tolerate the rambunctious nature of a growing boy. Lance never bonded with his adoptive father. His mother, with whom he remains very close, was always his greatest influence.
In addition to an adversarial relationship with his stepfather, Armstrong did not fit in in Plano, where kids who were football players and whose parents had money were in favor, and he was neither. In fifth grade, he found a way to channel some of his energy and angst when he won a distance-running race at school. He then started swimming at the City of Plano Swim Club, where, after a rocky start, he found a place where he fit in. Because of his lack of skill the twelve-year-old was assigned to a class of seven-year-olds, but Armstrong swallowed his pride and soon began to swim quite well. Under the guidance of coach Chris MacCurdy, he started to train, swim, and win competitively. At age thirteen, he was riding his bike twenty miles every day to and from school and swim practice, which started at 5:30 in the morning and met again after school.
Saw His Future in Grueling Race
Hanging out at the local bike shop, the Richardson Bike Mart, Armstrong saw an ad for a competition called a triathlon, which was a combination swim, bike, and running race. The event, a junior triathlon called Iron Kids, seemed like a natural fit for Armstrong. His mother encouraged him and saved money to buy him the racing clothes and bike he needed. He easily won the race, and soon signed up for another. He had discovered something that he could excel at; he found he thrived at suffering through the grueling competitions. When his mother told Armstrong she was divorcing his stepfather, the boy was ambivalent; it would be a relief to be rid of him, but it also meant his mother would have to struggle to support them on her own.
In 1987, at age fifteen, Armstrong entered his first non-junior triathlon, the President's Triathlon. He finished the course a respectable 32nd in a field of much older, more experienced athletes. He declared his intentions to be the best in ten years time, which was a clear indication of his natural cockiness. In 1988, he placed fifth in the event. He entered as many triathlons as he could, often lying about his age to qualify. The older athletes called him Junior. He soon started entering cycling contests as well, and winning against more experienced riders. His prize winnings made Armstrong a contributor to the family income, which also motivated him. At age sixteen, he was earning about $20,000 a year in race money. After an astonishing cycling race win in New Mexico in 1989, Armstrong was invited by the U.S. Cycling Federation to train with the U.S. Olympic developmental team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to compete at the Junior World Championships in Moscow.
Armstrong found in Moscow that he had a lot to learn about the tactical aspects of European racing, but his natural talent and competitive drive was clear to both European and American officials and team managers. When he returned home from Moscow, Armstrong, who was set to graduate in a few weeks, found out that the administrators of Plano East High were counting his time away as unexcused and were not going to let him graduate. Frantic but determined, Armstrong and his
mother found a private school that would let him transfer and graduate on time, if he made up his work over the summer. Soon after graduation, Armstrong was invited to join the U.S. national team.
Coach Tried to Rein Him In
The U.S. team coach, Chris Carmichael, recognized Armstrong's aggressive, headstrong nature and sought to rein it in and teach him the skills of international cycling competition. At the 1990 World Championships, his first race with the national team, Armstrong ignored Carmichael, who had instructed him to pace himself and remain with the "peloton," or pack of cyclists, on the 115-mile course. Armstrong went full force, and pulled far ahead of the peloton. As he tired though, the pack caught up with him and the riders who had conserved their energy pulled ahead. Still, Armstrong finished a respectable 11th, the best finish ever for an American in the race. Armstrong, who was nicknamed the Texas Bull, had many similar experiences, but never seemed to be able to learn from them.
|1971||Born September 18 in Texas|
|1984||Wins his first triathlon, a junior event called Iron Kids|
|1987||Enters his first non-junior triathlon|
|1987||Competes as a professional triathlete|
|1989||Qualifies to train with the U.S. Olympic developmental team in Colorado Springs, Colorado|
|1989||Competes in the Junior World Championships in Moscow|
|1992||Turns pro after Olympics in Barcelona, Spain|
|1992||Finishes first professional race dead last—27 minutes behind the winner|
|1993||Becomes youngest world road-racing champion|
|1993||Wins first stage in the Tour de France, but drops out|
|1993||Is member of first U.S. team, Team Motorola, to be ranked top-five in the world|
|1994||Fails to win a single race|
|1995||Finishes Tour de France with one stage win|
|1996||Drops out of Tour de France in July with a cold|
|1996||Is diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer in October|
|1996||Undergoes operations to remove affected testicle and lesions in his brain|
|1997||Cancer goes into remission in January|
|1997||Signs modest contract with U.S. Postal Team after being dropped by French Cofidis team|
|1998||Marries Kristin "Kik" Richard and returns to racing|
In 1992, Armstrong won his first two major races, the First Union Grand Prix in Atlanta and Thrift Drug Classic in Pittsburgh. He also raced on the U.S. Olympic team at the Games in Barcelona, Spain, finishing 14th in the road race. Soon after, he entered his first professional European race, a tough, one-day race called the San Sebastian Classic, which was also held in Spain. The crowd laughed at him as he finished last, 27 minutes behind the winner, in the driving rain. Two weeks later, he took second place in a World Cup race in Zurich, Switzerland. Armstrong plowed ahead in the international circuit, competing well in races, but not winning favor. His brash and disrespectful attitude offended many European riders and fans. "I raced with no respect. Absolutely none," he admitted in his autobiography. "I paraded, mouthed off, shoved my fists in the air. I was still the kid from Plano with a chip on my shoulder, riding headlong, pedaling out of anger." In 1993, he won the Thrift Drug Triple Crown: first place in Thrift Drug Classic, K-Mart Classic, and Core States and took first place in the U.S. Pro Road Race.
Armstrong was becoming proficient in daylong events, and had placed second in the eleven-day Tour DuPont. With this respectable but meager experience behind him, Armstrong plowed into his first Tour de France. The 21-year-old, first-year pro had no concept of the respect that the grueling, 21-day, 2,300-plus-mile race through the French and Belgian countryside and mountains deserved. He lasted eleven days, dropping out in 62nd place. He came back one month later to win the 1993 World Championships in Oslo, Norway. At the awards ceremony, he pulled his mother up onto the podium with him. His first big, international win fueled Armstrong to work harder. His team, Team Motorola, finished the season ranked in the top five in the world—a first for an American team.
Cocky But Unable to Go the Distance
A powerful, muscular rider, he continued to excel in one-day races, but usually faded early in multi-day competitions, though he placed second again in the Tour DuPont, the biggest race in America, and almost a prerequisite to the Tour de France. He did not win a single race in 1994.
Competitive road-racing cyclists must be multi-talented. Riders must be able to endure long stretches of paced cycling, and also be able to power up steep mountains. Most cyclists are better at one or the other, but to ever compete in the Tour de France, he must be a master of both. Armstrong trained in the Rocky Mountains and European Alps to make him more proficient at the climbing portions of multi-stage races. Armstrong finally proved himself in the Tour DuPont in 1995 by finishing in first place.
Armstrong finished his first Tour de France, in 1995, a humbled man. His Motorola teammate, Fabio Casartelli, was killed in a crash in the 15th stage of the race. Armstrong dedicated his 18th-stage win to Casartelli, but admitted after the race that he had learned more about life and death on this Tour than he had about cycling. At this point, he was ranked seventh in the world and was making about $750,000 per year. After the season ended, he trained harder than ever to come back even stronger for the 1996 season.
An early season crash set Armstrong back in his training, and he was finishing second in races he'd expected to win. Then, Team Motorola announced it was quitting its sponsorship, leaving the Motorola riders teamless. This season would be key for Armstrong if he expected to land a contract with another team. The pressure made him perform well at the European spring races, and he won the Tour DuPont for the second year in a row. When he crossed the finish line, exhausted rather than exalted, he should have known something was wrong.
Awards and Accomplishments
|1984||First place, Iron Kids Triathlon|
|1991||First place, U.S. National Amateur Championships|
|1992||First place, First Union Grand Prix|
|1992||First place, Thrift Drug Classic|
|1992||14th place in road race, Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain|
|1992||Second place, World Cup race in Zurich, Switzerland|
|1993||Thrift Drug Triple Crown: first place in Thrift Drug Classic, K-Mart Classic, and Core States|
|1993||First place, U.S. Pro Road Race|
|1993||Second place, Tour DuPont|
|1993||World road-racing champion|
|1995-96||First place, Tour DuPont|
|1996||12th place, Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia|
|1998||Fourth place, U.S. Pro Championships|
|1998||Fourth place, World Championships|
|1998||First place, Tour of Luxembourg|
|1998||First place, Sprint 56K Criterium|
|1998||First place, Cascade Classic|
|1998||First place, Rheinland Pfafz Rundfahrt|
|1998||Second place, First Union International|
|1999-2002||First place, Tour de France|
|2000||Third place in time trial, Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia|
Sportsman of the Year
The man doesn't sit still. His wife knows why, too.
She met him when he was a pale-yellow version of himself, half gone from chemo and scared to die. "I got to know Lance when he was standing on the edge between life and death," Kristin says. "It was awesome to be part of. I felt like he showed me the view from that cliff. That bonds two people. And if you get to come back down from that edge, it changes your life. You never want to miss out on anything fun or beautiful or scary again."
So he does his Texas Tornado thing. He motocrosses Baja with Lyle Lovett. He drives like he's racing Steve McQueen. He wakes the kids up to play. He puts Luke in one of those little trailers behind his bike. (O.K., Luke, we're going to take this downhill at about 70 miles per hour! Hang on!) He pounds out a hand-cramping number of letters to cancer patients and learns to surf in Hawaii. Anything to prove he'll never waste that second chance.
Source: Reilly, Rick. Sports Illustrated, December 16, 2002, p. 52.
Armstrong was ranked fourth in the world at the start of the 1996 Tour de France but feeling sick and out of breath, pulled himself out of the race by the sixth day. He refocused his energies to finding a new sponsor and preparing for the 1996 Olympics, held on home turf in Atlanta, Georgia. He finished a disappointing 12th in Atlanta,
but managed to sign a two-year, $2.5 million contract with French team Cofidis. His performance in the fall World Cup season was disappointing, as well, and he retreated to his new home in Austin, Texas to rest.
Pain Tolerance Delayed Cancer Diagnosis
Armstrong noticed swelling in his right testicle but did not seek medical attention until he started coughing up blood. What he thought would be a routine visit turned on him when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Accustomed to enduring pain, Armstrong had ignored his discomfort for so long that the cancer had spread to his abdomen and lungs. At the time, he was most concerned with not being able to race again.
Doctors removed the testicle, and Armstrong began aggressive chemotherapy treatment. The situation turned critical when doctors found the cancer had spread to his brain, and on October 25, 1996, he underwent brain surgery to remove two tumors. His tolerance for pain served him well through his battle with cancer, and he was given a 40-percent chance of survival. Luckily, his sponsors and the Cofidis team remained behind him, though legally they did not have to. After a while, Cofidis started to back away from Armstrong and, while he lay sick and curled up in his bed, renegotiated his contract.
After a few short months of surgery and aggressive and debilitating chemo, Armstrong's cancer was in remission. He returned home bald, scarred, weak, but alive. His doctors were cautiously optimistic about his recovery and possible return to racing, but Armstrong found himself, for the first time in his life, looking at life as more than a race to win, and did some soul searching. He then founded the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help cancer patients and survivors. He met Kristin "Kik" Richard working with the foundation. The two were married in 1998 and have three children.
Armstrong's doctors cautioned him to train slowly, and it became clear he would not ride in the 1997 season; they would not allow him to race until his cancer had been in remission for a full year. Dropped from the Cofidis team, Armstrong resolved to come back stronger than ever. The U.S. Postal Team took a risk on Armstrong by signing him when he was unable to race, but for it he took a drastic cut in pay. Armstrong placed 14th in his first race back, Spain's Ruta del Sol, a remarkable finish considering he had also just beaten cancer. In France soon after, he dropped out of a race midway and returned to Texas in an inexplicable funk. After watching Armstrong languish in front of the TV for weeks, his coach, Chris Carmichael, told him to announce his retirement or get back to training. After an intensive training camp in the Appalachians, Armstrong recovered his will to race.
A Most Remarkable Recovery
Armstrong finished fourth in the U.S. Pro Championships in June 1998. After a first place finish in the Tour of Luxembourg and taking fourth in the World Championships, Armstrong was back in full force. Wisely, he avoided the 1998 Tour de France, which was plagued by a doping scandal. 1999 was going to be his year.
On July 4, 1999 Armstrong, leaner and stronger than ever, started the Tour de France with force. After taking the lead early on—and donning the race leader's yellow jersey—competitors were sure he would drop back. He hung back for a few stages, but regained his lead on the ninth day, where the race entered the grueling Alps region. Speculation of performance-enhancing drug use dogged him, but his drug tests came up clean. The race was his when he crossed the finish line in Paris on July 25, 1999. He was only the second American to win the Tour de France. The first was Greg Le Mond. His repeat 2000, 2001, and 2002 wins of the Tour de France were nothing short of miraculous. The "Golden Boy of American Cycling" amazed his friends, family, and fans by first conquering cancer, and then the world's toughest race. In 2003, he'll set out to tie Spaniard Miguel Indurain 's record of five Tour de France wins.
Related Biography: United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team
No cyclist wins the Tour de France on his own. On each team, there is an arrangement of cyclists who strategize to bring the team leader to the finish line. At times, the leader will ride behind a teammate, "drafting," and cyclists often flank their leader to protect him from collisions with other riders. "An individual can make a silly mistake, but when he's got a great team around him, it's hard to make a mistake," Armstrong admitted to Bonnie DeSimone of the Chicago Tribune. The United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team consists of twenty riders from around the world. Seventeen of the twenty riders, including second-place Tour of Spain winner Roberto Heras, must have Grand Tour experience. Armstrong's 2003 team includes Viatcheslav Ekimov, George Hincapie, Benoit Joachim, Floyd Landis, Pavel Padrnos and Victor Hugo Pena, who raced with him in the 2002 Tour de France. Each must be talented enough to win, but who forfeit their own glory for that of their team and leader.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY ARMSTRONG:
(With Sally Jenkins) It's Not About the Bike, Berkley Books, 2001.
Armstong, Lance (with Sally Jenkins). It's Not About the Bike. New York: Berkley Books, 2001.
Thompson, John. Lance Armstrong. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2001.
Abt, Samuel. "Armstrong completes a tour de force." New York Times (July 29, 2002): D1.
Abt, Samuel. "The French (mostly) adore Armstrong." New York Times (July 30, 2002): D5.
Abt, Samuel. "Getting things right, so no one can follow." New York Times (July 29, 2002): D5.
Anderson, Kelly. "King of the hill." Sports Illustrated ly 29, 2002): 32.
Brown, Justin. "Cycling is all pumped up about its doping problem." Christian Science Monitor (July 26, 2002): 12.
DeSimone, Bonnie. "Armstrong hasn't hit his finish line yet." Chicago Tribune (July 29, 2002): 3.1.
"Easiest rider." People (August 12, 2002): 68.
"Pedaling to the top." Christian Science Monitor (July 30, 2002): 10.
Pugh, Tony. "Postal service bets on a winner with Lance Armstrong." Knight Ridder Tribune Business News (July 29, 2002): 1.
Reilly, Rick. "Lance Armstrong: For his courage and commitment—not to mention his fourth straight Tour de France victory—SI salutes the ultimate road warrior." Sports Illustrated (December 16, 2002): 52.
Richburg, Keith. "Moving to the four; leg-strong Armstrong wins another Tour de France." Washington Post (July 29, 2002): D1.
Ruibal, Sal. "Once again, it's Tour de Lance." USA Today (July 29, 2002): C1.
Ruibal, Sal. "Tour course for 2003 OK with Armstrong." USA Today (October 25, 2002): C3.
Lance Armstrong Official Web site. http://www.lancearmstrong.com (January 15, 2003).
Lance Armstrong Foundation. http://www.laf.org (January 15, 2003).
Sketch by Brenna Sanchez
September 18, 1971 • Plano, Texas
Lance Armstrong is one of the most celebrated athletes in the world, making history in 2005 by winning the prestigious Tour de France bicycle race for the seventh consecutive year. But he is more than just an amazing cyclist with phenomenal endurance; he is also a survivor who has inspired millions of people around the world. In 1996, Armstrong was diagnosed with cancer, and with the same fierce focus he brings to competition he tackled his illness and won. Since then, Armstrong has become a leader in the cancer community through the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which focuses on educating the public about early cancer detection and raising money to find a cure for the disease that kills more than half a million people in the United States each year. As Bill Saporito commented in a 2004 Time article, "Given Armstrong's insane commitment to winning, cancer had better watch out."
Lance Armstrong was born on September 18, 1971, in Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. His parents divorced when he was just a baby, and his mother, Linda, who was only seventeen years old when she had Lance, was left to raise her son alone. When Lance was three, Linda married Terry Armstrong, who formally adopted him. Linda and Terry later divorced, once again leaving mother and son on their own. Linda was devoted to her only child, and although money was tight she worked long hours as a secretary to make ends meet. Her determination and dedication proved to have a lasting impact on young Armstrong, who today credits his mother for instilling in him his drive and motivation.
Linda bought Armstrong his first bike, a Schwinn Mag Scrambler, when he was seven years old. He immediately began to ride it every day and soon proved that he was a natural athlete. In addition to biking, Armstrong took up running. When he was in the fifth grade he began running six miles a day after school, and soon was entering long-distance competitions on weekends. Armstrong also tried team sports like football, baseball, and basketball, but found that he was better at activities, like swimming, that required endurance. When he joined the local swim club, Armstrong would ride his bike ten miles to early morning practices, then pedal to school. After school he would jump back on his bike and ride ten miles back to the club to swim more laps.
"If you worried about falling off the bike, you'd never get on."
Barely in his teens, Armstrong was already competing in amateur cycling races. He also began to enter triathlons, contests that combine swimming, biking, and running—all of his favorite activities. At age thirteen, the skilled Armstrong took home the top prize at the IronKids Triathlon, which includes swimming 200 meters, cycling 6.2 miles, and running 1.2 miles. In 1987, when he was sixteen, Armstrong turned professional in the triathlon. Because of his amazing success, that same year he was invited to be tested by the Cooper Institute for Aerobic Research in Houston, Texas. Researchers measured the amount of oxygen his lungs consumed during exercise and discovered that he truly was a phenomenon: Armstrong's oxygen levels were the highest the clinic ever recorded, which meant that his lung capacity, so critical for endurance, made him a natural athlete.
Although he was taking home top prizes as a triathlete, and raking in almost $20,000 per year by age seventeen, Armstrong's real love was biking. He began training with more-experienced riders and quickly rose in the amateur ranks of cycling. Armstrong drew so much attention that when he was a senior at Plano East High School he was approached by the U.S. Olympic development team and invited to train in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Going to Colorado for six weeks would mean that he might risk not graduating, but the opportunity was too tempting. After taking private make-up classes, Armstrong did graduate from high school on time in 1989.
Armstrong did not remain an amateur for long. In 1990, he became the U.S. National Amateur Champion. The following year Armstrong competed in the Tour DuPont, which covers 1,085 miles over eleven days, and finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, which was admirable given his young age. Later that year he won Italy's eleven-day Settimana Bergamasca race, and in 1992, Armstrong competed in the Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. Although he came in a disappointing fourteenth, scouts and sports analysts predicted great things from the American newcomer. In 1992, when he turned professional, Armstrong was asked to join the Motorola cycling team.
Life as a professional cyclist was not without its speed bumps. In his first pro race, Spain's San Sebastian Classic, Armstrong came in last out of a field of 111 participants. Two weeks later, however, he wowed the racing circuit when he placed second in the World Cup, held in Zurich, Switzerland. Armstrong went on to have an impressive year in 1993. He earned the Triple Crown of cycling when he won victories at the Thrift Drug Classic, the Kmart West Virginia Classic, and the CoreStates Race, which is the U.S. Professional Championship. In July of that year, the young cyclist made his debut (first appearance) at the race that would make him a future celebrity, the Tour de France.
The Tour de France is a three-week, 2,287-mile race that takes place in twenty stages, with competitors winding through the French countryside and pedaling up and down steep mountain landscapes. It is considered to be the most prestigious cycling event in the world and is a grueling physical challenge. According to Mark Gorski, manager of the U.S. Postal Service cycling team who spoke with Thomas Sancton of Time, "The Tour de France is like running a marathon every day for twenty days. Very few sporting events are that demanding." The twenty-one-year-old cyclist, however, felt up to the challenge. Although he did not finish the race, Armstrong did win one of the stages, making him the third-youngest participant ever to do so.
In August 1993, Armstrong easily took the title of World Champion at the World Road Race Championship in Oslo, Norway. He was the youngest person, and only the second American, to hold the title. Over the next few years, Armstrong's star continued to rise in the cycling world. He placed high in race after race, and in 1995, he took home the prize from the Tour DuPont. That same year, although he came in thirty-sixth place, Armstrong finished his first Tour de France.
A different kind of battle
By 1996, the twenty-four-year-old Armstrong was at the top of his game: He won his second Tour DuPont, and he signed a $2 million contract with the French-based Cofidis racing team. A bout of bronchitis (a lung infection) forced him to drop out of the Tour de France in early summer, and a weakened Armstrong had a disappointing twelfth-place finish at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia. By the fall of 1996, he was still feeling tired and weak. He complained of pain in his testicles, and when he began to cough up blood Armstrong became alarmed.
On October 2, 1996, just weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, the young cyclist was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had also spread to his lungs, abdomen, lymph nodes, and brain. Doctors predicted a slim a chance for recovery—less than 40 percent. Armstrong, however, was not ready to give up. He read everything he could about the disease and changed his diet, giving up coffee, dairy products, and red meat. After consulting his doctors, Armstrong decided to forego the traditional treatment for brain tumors, which is radiation. Side effects from radiation can include a loss of balance and a scarring of the lungs, which would mean that he would probably never race again. Instead doctors performed surgery to remove the tumors, and then administered an alternative and aggressive form of chemotherapy.
Between rounds of chemotherapy Armstrong continued to ride his bicycle as much as he could, and he never lost his determination to return to professional racing. At the same time, he was on an emotional roller coaster. As he told Time in 1999, "I had the same emotions when I was sick as I have as a competitive athlete. At first I was angry, then I felt motivated and driven to get better. And then when I knew I was getting better, I knew I was winning." Armstrong's determination to win paid off when, in February of 1997, he was declared cancer-free.
Still physically and emotionally weak, Armstrong returned to training with a vengeance, but getting back on his bike proved harder than he imagined. His spirits especially dropped when he found out that his contract had been cancelled by Cofidis, who considered him to be a public relations risk because of his illness. Armstrong was fortunate to sign with the U.S. Postal Service cycling team, but his salary dropped from $600,000 (pre-cancer) to $200,000 per year. In his autobiography, Armstrong half-jokingly called his pay cut, "an 80 percent cancer cut."
Back in the game
By 1998, Armstrong was again a dominant force in the cycling world. He placed high in several competitions and won the Cascade Classic, the Rheinland Pfalz Rundfardt, the Spring 56K Criterium, and the Tour de Luxembourg. In the summer of 1999, Armstrong was once again ready to tackle the biggest of them all, the Tour de France. The fact that he was able to compete at all was amazing, but the world was stunned when it became evident from the very first day of the race that Armstrong was a strong contender to actually win.
In what many considered to be an awe-inspiring finish, Armstrong crossed the finish line 7 minutes and 37 seconds ahead of his nearest competition. He clocked in an average speed of 25 miles per hour, breaking the previous record set in 1998. He also cemented his role as a national treasure, becoming the second American ever to win the contest. As part of the U.S. Postal Team, he was also the first American to take home the prize while riding for an American-sponsored team.
Armstrong was happy with this win, but pushed himself for more. He went on to conquer every Tour de France over the next five years. And on July 25, 2004, he set a new Tour de France record by taking home the top prize for the sixth consecutive year. Tens of thousands of well-wishers, many waving American and Texas flags, gathered at both sides of the finish line to cheer on Armstrong when he coasted to victory. When he mounted the podium to accept his win, Armstrong's most important supporter, his mother, Linda, was by his side.
Tour of Hope
Lance Armstrong's two greatest loves are cycling and the fight against cancer. Both of these are combined in a unique event called the Tour of Hope, a 3,500-mile bicycling trek across the United States. The event was founded in 2003 by Armstrong, in partnership with Bristol-Myers Squibb, the pharmaceutical company that made the medicines used in the cyclist's cancer treatment. The goal of the event is to educate the public about the importance of early cancer detection, to raise funds for cancer research, and to show that there is hope for a cure.
In 2004, twenty riders participated in the eight-day relay that began on October 1 in Los Angeles, California. All of them had been touched by cancer in some way: Some were survivors, others were researchers or caregivers or patient advocates. Members of the team made pit stops in such states as Nevada, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa to share their personal stories and to communicate the importance of cancer prevention and research. On October 9, greeted by thousands of cheering supporters, the riders reached their final destination, Washington, D.C. When the tired but enthusiastic team members joined Armstrong at the finish line, he declared the journey a success. According to Armstrong, as quoted on the event Web site, "The Tour of Hope is over for these riders, but what will never be over is hope."
Sports analysts speculated whether or not Armstrong would try for a seventh Tour de France victory in 2005. At thirty-four he was a man in his prime, but as a cyclist he was decidedly middle-aged. In February 2005, however, all speculations were put to rest when Armstrong officially announced that he would defend his title, this time riding for the Discovery Channel cycling team. On July 24, 2005, Armstrong conquered the 23-day race for the seventh year in a row, finishing 4 minutes and 40 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor. As he stood on the winner's podium, Armstrong expressed his gratitude; he also revealed that he had completed his last Tour de France. As he addressed the crowd, he explained (as quoted on CNN.com), "I need a period of quiet and peace and privacy. I've had an unbelievable career. There's no reason to continue. I don't need more."
Race for a cure
Armstrong is certainly one of the most famous athletes in the world. In fact, according to a 2004 Sports Illustrated poll, he was voted the "All-Time Greatest Sportsman." His popularity, however, may have more to do with his life off of his bicycle. Armstrong is a devoted family man who has three children with his former wife, Kristin, to whom he was married five years. Since his bout with cancer, he has also become a symbol of hope for cancer survivors everywhere. According to Armstrong, in a quote that appears on his Web site, "Cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me." Strange as that sounds, Armstrong claims that the disease had a "humanizing" effect on him. "Cancer is my secret because none of my rivals has been that close to death and it makes you look at the world in a different light and that is a huge advantage."
Since forming the Lance Armstrong Foundation (LAF) in 1997, the Texas-based cyclist has emerged as a leading spokesman and activist in the fight against cancer. And because of its many fund-raising and education-based initiatives, the foundation has become recognized throughout the world. According to the official LAF Web site, Armstrong's belief is that "in your battle with cancer, knowledge is power and attitude is everything." The foundation carries out its mission through four program areas: education (providing information and resources); advocacy (representing cancer patients and survivors in Washington, D.C.); public health (after-treatment support); and research (in 2005 the foundation funded twenty research projects through grants totaling $3.3 million).
One of the most well-known LAF-sponsored events is the annual Ride for the Roses, which began in 1997. The cycling event, held in Austin, Texas, has grown bigger each year, expanding into a weekend full of activities, including a health and sports expo and a rock concert known as Rock for the Roses. The 2004 Ride for the Roses raised $5.5 million and drew sixty-five hundred cyclists, among them such celebrities as Armstrong's longtime acting friends Robin Williams (1941–) and Will Ferrell (1968–), as well as Armstrong's girlfriend, pop singer Sheryl Crow (1963–).
On October 2, 2004, to celebrate eight years of being cancer-free, Armstrong declared the day Livestrong Day. Five months earlier, in May, the foundation had the slogan imprinted on yellow rubber wristbands, and together with Nike launched the Wear Yellow Live Strong campaign. By the end of 2004, over twenty million people worldwide had purchased the bracelets, which sell for one dollar each. Profits go directly to raise funds for LAF programs. "I wear my Live Strong wristband every day," Armstrong revealed on his foundation's Web site, "I think the color yellow stands for hope and courage and inspiration, and that's why I'm never taking mine off." Whether or not he takes off his wristband, Armstrong will remain a symbol of survival. And, according to his Web site biography, "No matter what his path, he will travel it with the sure knowledge that every day is precious and that every step matters."
For More Information
Armstrong, Lance. Every Second Counts. New York: Broadway, 2003.
Armstrong, Lance, and Sally Jenkins. It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. New York: Putnam, 2000.
Murphy, Austin. "Seventh Heaven? Not Satisfied with Six Tour de France Titles, Lance Armstrong Will Return." Sports Illustrated (February 28, 2005): p. 21.
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(b. 18 September 1971 in Plano, Texas), endurance events prodigy and cycling wunderkind who overcame testicular cancer and returned to athletics stronger than ever, winning three consecutive Tours de France.
Armstrong was born tenacious. His mother, Linda Walling, was just seventeen years old when Lance, her only child, was born. She was married and divorced twice before she turned twenty, and her struggle for personal and financial independence became one of the major influences in Armstrong's life. "My mother taught me to be a fighter," he has said.
Walling, who took the name in 1992 when she married technical recruiter John Walling, worked her way up from fast food to real estate. She became Armstrong's closest friend as well as his inspiration. At her urging, Armstrong translated his anger ("I was a kid with about four chips on his shoulder") into fuel for athletic accomplishment. He began running in fifth grade, and showed a prodigious aptitude for all endurance events, competing in cycling, swimming, and running.
By fourteen, he was participating in triathlons and gaining a measure of local celebrity. He dazzled the press with confidence and ambition, matched by exceptional ability and dedication. By sixteen, he earned national recognition as a triathlete. At seventeen, he won the United States sprint triathlon championship, a race that includes a 1,000-meter swim, a fifteen-mile bike ride, and a three-mile run. His favorite element of the triathlon was the bicycle—it was his strongest as well, and he wasn't the only one who noticed. When he repeated as sprint champion the following year, Armstrong was invited to train with the junior national cycling team.
After graduating from high school in 1989, he moved to Austin, Texas, and committed himself full-time to cycling. The results were immediate. He qualified for the world junior team, and placed eleventh in the 1990 amateur world championships. In 1991 he won the U.S. National Amateur Championships and raced in the Tour du Pont, the longest and most difficult stage race in the United States. He continued to burnish his reputation as talented and brash. When compared to American cycling's brightest light, three-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, by New York Times writer Frank Litsky, Armstrong quipped to Litsky, "I'm not the next Greg LeMond; I'm the first me."
By 1993 Armstrong had turned professional, signing with the Motorola racing system. He placed second overall in the Tour du Pont and won that year's Triple Crown, a much-publicized racing series with a $1 million grand prize. He also won a stage at the Tour de France (he is thought to be the youngest rider ever to do so).
His potential seemed unlimited. In August 1993 Armstrong went to Oslo, Norway, and became the youngest ever world road-racing champion at just twenty-one years of age. Despite a slippery course that caused him to crash twice, Armstrong came back from fourth position at the beginning of the last lap to win by a startling nineteen seconds over some of the greatest cyclists in the world. He covered the final 700 meters of the course while blowing kisses to the crowd, bowing, and punching his fists in the air. This was consistent with Armstrong's cowboy image in America, but his behavior did not translate well in Europe. He also showed up King Harald V of Norway by bringing his mother to their meeting, against protocol. "I probably came on pretty strong, but man, I don't check my Mom at the door. I don't care who it is," Armstrong confided to a friend. The Italian newspaper La Gazzetta summed up the European reaction, calling him an "irascible, capricious, occasionally surly champion" who was "disrespectful of the great riders in the field."
Throughout the next two years, Armstrong continued to win big races. In 1995 Armstrong won the Tour du Pont and Spain's San Sebastian Classic, in the process becoming the first American to win a World Cup road race. In 1996 Armstrong won the Fleche Wallone in Belgium and defended his title at the San Sebastian Classic.
By the time he arrived back in the United States for the 1996 Tour du Pont, Armstrong, who dated fashion models and drove sports cars, was something of a rock star in the staid cycling community. The crowds included a row of bikini-clad women with Armstrong's name painted on their bellies. Alan Shipnuck of Sports Illustrated described the scene: "Armstrong's bionic legs, savvy in the saddle, and steel will may have dazzled his competitors, but it is his charisma and matinee-idol good looks that charmed the two-million plus fans" in attendance. He won the race and was on top of the world, a leading contender for the 1997 Tour de France.
During that time, Armstrong signed a $2 million contract with the French cycling team Cofidis. He also signed an endorsement deal with Nike and moved into a million-dollar Mediterranean-style villa on Lake Austin, named Casa Linda after his mother. "Twenty-five and entering the peak of my career," Armstrong later said. "I felt bullet-proof."
He soon found out he was not invulnerable. On 2 October 1996 Armstrong was diagnosed with an advanced case of testicular cancer. He had experienced pain in his testicles before, but attributed it to irritation from the bicycle seat. After coughing up blood that morning, he saw a doctor immediately for a comprehensive exam. An ultrasound revealed a malignancy, and the testicle was removed the following day.
The news did not improve. A few days later doctors discovered the cancer had spread to his lungs. Shortly after that, he was told the cancer had spread to his brain. The prognosis for survival was pegged at 40 percent. Things looked so grim that Armstrong began selling off prized possessions, including his $125,000 Porsche 911. "I thought I'd never make another dime the rest of my life," he said. Though he was at first concerned only about his ability to compete again, Armstrong later became persuaded that he was fighting for his life. "I just wanted to make it to my twenty-sixth birthday," said Armstrong.
After further surgeries to remove lesions from his brain and tumors from his lungs, he faced twelve grueling weeks of chemotherapy. His regimen was divided into four cycles: a week of treatment followed by two weeks of recovery. With each cycle, the nausea grew worse. He lost over fifteen pounds, all of it muscle—he had entered chemotherapy with less than 2 percent body fat. Through it all, Armstrong stayed on his bike. He rode in Austin during the recovery time. Though he struggled to finish ten miles, he was happy just to ride. "I wasn't training," he said. "Cycling is what I enjoy, and that's why I did it."
Doctors believe that Armstrong's extraordinary physical conditioning allowed him to withstand the grueling chemotherapy sessions better than the average person. He came out of the experience with newfound maturity, focus, and sense of purpose. He established the Lance Armstrong Foundation to raise public awareness of testicular cancer. He married Kristin Richard, a former public relations executive, in May 1998.
Before long, his stamina returned. By December 1997 Armstrong was riding 500 to 700 miles a week. He began to notice that not only was he back, he was better than ever. The experience had left him with a lighter, leaner body, more suited to the brutal climbs of the French Alps. Armstrong set his sights on the Tour de France, and signed with a new team sponsored by the United States Postal Service.
As he did when he was younger, Armstrong used his anger as motivation. He felt that various sponsors and teams had abandoned him on the road to recovery. He told one writer, "I keep a list, a mental list." He rode for vindication, and received it quickly. In 1999, after winning the first stage of the Tour, he pedaled past members of Cofidis, the French team that had dropped him. "That was for you," he said.
But Armstrong was there for more than vindication, he was there to win. Remarkably, less than three years after his initial cancer diagnosis, he was in position to do just that. On a mountain stage, he made a climb so dramatic it produced an audible gasp in the pressroom, and gave him a six-minute lead. As Armstrong surged towards victory down the Champs Elysées, Richard Hoffer wrote in Sports Illustrated that the performance was "so remarkable that everything we thought we knew about human athletic achievement needs to be reconsidered."
Indeed, the heroic feat left many speculating that Armstrong had engaged in some form of performance enhancement. Such talk was not surprising; cycling is notoriously rife with drugs and blood-doping. The 1998 Tour had been marred by arrests and suspensions after vast quantities of the blood-doping agent Erythropoetin (EPO) were found in a team car. The French daily L'Equipe alleged that a minimum of 90 percent of the cycling elite was using EPO between 1994 and 1998. Five-time winner Jacques Anquetil once said, "You can't ride the Tour de France on mineral water."
Although Armstrong had never tested positive for any banned substance or procedure, he could not escape suspicion. The reason, he felt, was jealousy. Cycling is the national obsession of France, with 40 million watching on television and 10 million lining the roads. Yet it had been fourteen years since a Frenchman had won the Tour—and Armstrong knew his Texas bravura ran counter to French sensibilities. For his part, Armstrong insisted his secret weapon was preparation. For months his team had practiced over key portions of the racecourse, especially the grueling climbs and breakneck turns. "We rode twelve of the stages in training," he says. "Nobody else can say they rode two."
Armstrong bristled at the speculation, but life went on. Seven months after his wedding, his wife began in vitro fertilization (with sperm put in storage by Armstrong before undergoing chemotherapy). Their son was born on 12 October 1999.
Going into 2000, Armstrong had one goal: to prove that his 1999 Tour de France victory was not a fluke. He began conservatively, and was in sixteenth place beginning the tenth stage, almost six minutes behind Albert Elli of Italy. The day promised to be difficult; it turned out to be historic. The tenth stage was the first mountain climb, and the weather was frigid and rainy, with cold winds lashing at the riders like knives. "To me it was like a sunny day at the beach," Armstrong said later. He rode patiently with the peloton, or pack, before making an astonishing breakaway through the rain, up the Pyrenees. With his rivals behind him, standing and pumping furiously to keep pace, Armstrong calmly remained in the saddle, accelerated, and pulled away.
The breakaway gained Armstrong a large chunk of time and, perhaps more importantly, it devastated his competitors psychologically. "I had the impression I was watching someone descending a hill I was trying to scale," said French rider Stephane Heulot. The peak in question, Mount Hautacam, is rated for cycling purposes as hors de catégorie, so steep that it exceeds categorization. Legendary French climber Raymond Poulidor called Armstrong's ascent "unprecedented in the annals of cycling." The 2,254-mile, twenty-three-day race was, for all intents and purposes, over. Armstrong held on to win with ease.
By all accounts, Armstrong followed the same strategy again in 2001, holding steady until the mountains, then pulling away in a devastating surge, this time up Alpe d'Huez. He won his third consecutive Tour de France in a performance that Joel Stein of Time magazine called "his most dominant yet."
With three consecutive victories, Armstrong surely surpasses Greg LeMond as the greatest American cyclist ever. The record for career Tour victories is five, shared by a number of cyclists. Armstrong is halfway to a new record, and at this pace he may win six or more consecutively. Yet for all the natural talent he displays, Armstrong continues to say, "If I'd never had cancer, I never would have won the Tour de France."
It remains open to debate whether the larger part of Armstrong's growing legend is his nearly superhuman cycling ability or his phenomenal comeback from testicular cancer. To the average fan, it matters little. His racing and his recovery are inextricably linked in the public consciousness. He is the author of the greatest comeback in sports history, and is well on his way to becoming the greatest cyclist of all time.
A number of books about Armstrong have emerged from his extraordinary cycling career and cancer comeback, but the most worthwhile is his own, It's Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life (2000), a personal history and part inspirational manual in which Armstrong tells his story with an unflinching eye, an impressive attention to detail, both medical and athletic, and a special affection for his extraordinary mother.
Lance Armstrong (born 1971) will certainly be remembered for being an outstanding athlete and four-time winner of the Tour de France, but he will touch more lives through the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Race for the Roses charity bike ride, which raise money for cancer research and assistance.
A Good Mother
Lance Armstrong was born in Plano, Texas, on September 18, 1971. His biological father moved out when he was a baby, and he and his mother were on their own. When he was three-years-old, his mother was re-married to a man named Terry Armstrong. Terry Armstrong also formally adopted Lance. There was very little money, but his mother worked hard to provide him with a good life. When he was seven-years-old, she worked out a deal with the local bike store and bought him a Schwinn Mag Scrambler.
He was a child who like to do things on his own and in his own way. "I have loved him every minute of his life, but God, there were times when it was a struggle," his mother told the New Yorker. "He has always wanted to test the boundaries."
Armstrong was athletic from the beginning. He enjoyed biking and swimming but did not do as well with football. In the fifth grade he won a distance running race. A few months later he joined the local swim club where he quickly advanced. He would ride his bike ten miles to early morning practices, then ride to school, and ride back again to swim in the afternoons.
Armstrong Began Competing
As a young teenager, Armstrong saw an advertisement for a junior triathlon called IronKids, that combined biking, swimming, and running. Armstrong won and loved it. He began competing regularly in swimming, biking, and running events, sometimes separately and sometimes combined. In his mid-teens, his mother and Terry Armstrong divorced and it was just the two of them again.
In 1987, when he was sixteen-years-old, he was invited to the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas. The Cooper Institute was a leader in fitness and aerobic conditioning research. Armstrong was given a VO2 Max test to measure the amount of oxygen his lungs consumed during exercise. His levels were the highest ever recorded at the clinic.
At age sixteen, Armstrong became a professional triathlete. He became the national rookie of the year in spring triathlons, and both he and his mother realized that he had a serious future. Soon it became clear that he would become a cyclist. He began training with more experienced riders and was beginning to make money in races. He began traveling farther to races that were more prestigious. During his senior year in high school, he qualified to train with the U.S. Olympic team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to travel to Moscow, Russia, to ride in his first international race.
After graduation in 1989, he was named to the U.S. National Cycling team and started working with Chris Carmichael who began coaching him. Through Carmichael he learned that winning races involved strategy and tactics, as well as strength and speed. In 1991, he became the U.S. National Amateur Champion. The following year he rode in the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, Spain, and finished 14th. Immediately following the Olympic games, he turned professional. He placed last in his first professional race, but two weeks later he took second place in a World Cup race in Zürich, Switzerland. A man named Jim Ochowicz, who signed him with the Motorola cycling team, was watching him.
Armstrong had a good year in 1993, winning ten titles. He became the 1993 World Champion in Oslo, Norway. He was also the U.S. PRO Champion and won a stage of the Tour de France, although he later was unable to finish the race. In 1994, he won the Thrift Drug Triple Crown. He was steadily making a name for himself in the cycling world.
In 1995, during the Tour de France, his friend and teammate Fabio Casartelli was killed during a high-speed descent. The team decided to keep riding in his honor after Casartelli's wife paid them a visit and asked them to go on. Once again, Armstrong won a stage in the race. That year he came in 36th place, and it was his first time to finish the esteemed race.
The following year, 1996, started out well. Armstrong won his second Tour DuPont and had several career victories. He signed a two million dollar contract with the French cycling team, Cofidis. He had a new Porsche and a new home in Austin, Texas. However, during the Tour de France he was forced to drop out after being diagnosed with bronchitis. He rode for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta, Georgia, but was disappointed with a twelfth-place finish.
Shortly after his 25th birthday he began coughing up blood. On October 2, 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs, lymph nodes, and brain. The following day he underwent surgery to remove one of his testicles. "At that point, he had a minority chance of living another year," Craig Nichols, his principal oncologist told the New Yorker. "We cure at most a third of the people in situations like that."
Standard treatment for the brain tumors is radiation, but its effects can result in a slight loss of balance. "Not enough to affect the average person, but certainly enough to keep someone from riding a bicycle down the Alps," said medical oncologist Lawrence Einhorn in the August 9, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated. "We chose surgery instead of radiation for Lance. It's slightly riskier, but he had only two tumors and they were in a position where a surgeon could get to them."
Armstrong also chose a non-traditional route for his chemotherapy. The usually prescribed drug, bleomycin, normally produces fewer side effects of nausea and vomiting. However, bleomycin also could slightly diminish lung capacity, so Armstrong was given ifosamide, "taking the short-term discomfort for the long-term gain," said Einhorn.
During treatment, especially between rounds of the chemotherapy, Armstrong kept riding his bike as much as he could. "Why did I ride when I had cancer?" Armstrong asks rhetorically in his autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. "Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense that it's absolutely cleansing. You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six-hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace."
While undergoing chemotherapy, Armstrong began talking with doctors about launching a charitable foundation to raise awareness about cancer. He and some cycling friends also came up with the idea of starting a charity bicycle race around Austin, Texas, and decided to call it the Ride for the Roses. The Foundation began to give him a new feeling of purpose.
Love And Marriage
A month after his chemotherapy treatment ended, while he still had no hair, or even eyebrows, he met Kristin Richard at a press conference announcing the launch of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Ride for the Roses. She was an account executive for an advertising and public relations firm assigned to help promote the event, and everyone called her Kik (pronounced "Keek"). After the first Ride for the Roses was over, they began finding excuses to see one another. "I got to know Lance when he was standing on the edge between life and death," Kristen said in the December 16, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated. "It was awesome to be part of. I felt he showed me the view from that cliff. That bonds two people. And if you get to come back from that edge, it changes your life. You never want to miss out on anything fun or beautiful or scary again." The two were married on May 8, 1998.
During the same period, Armstrong was attempting to make a comeback into cycling. His first attempts did not go well. He would tire easily and get depressed. "In an odd way, having cancer was easier than recovery—at least in chemo I was doing something instead of just waiting for it to come back," he wrote in his autobiography. It did not help his morale when he could not find a team to take him on. His previous contract with Cofidis had been renegotiated while he was undergoing treatment. He was considered a bad public relations risk. He considered himself very lucky when the newly formed United States Postal Service team accepted him.
Better Than Ever
In 1998, he became determined to overcome the difficulties and get back to riding competitively. In the last half of the year, he won the Tour de Luxembourg, the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfarht in Germany, and the Cascade Classic in Oregon. By 1999, he decided he was ready to try the Tour de France again. He spent the spring training in Europe through the Alps and the Pyrenees. The Tour de France is a three-week ride through the villages of France, up and down the mountains, with a new stage each day. He knew he would have to train hard to endure the strenuous course. The New Yorker reported "Armstrong now says that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. Before becoming ill, he didn't care about strategy or tactics or teamwork—and nobody (no matter what his abilities) becomes a great cyclist without mastering those aspects of the sport." When the time came for the race, Armstrong was ready. He came out strong on the very first day. Soon he was wearing the yellow jersey that indicates the leader on a regular basis. He rode strong, all the way to the Champs-Elysees in Paris, winning the Tour de France on his first attempt after surviving cancer. Then, he won it again a year later. The following year, in the July 30, 2001, issue of Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly wrote, "Unless the Eiffel Tower falls on him, Armstrong will become the fifth man to win the Tour de France three times in a row." Sure enough, he won. Then, he did it again in 2002.
Cycling is a big part of Armstrong's life, but it is not his whole life. The Ride for the Roses has grown larger each year and has become an entire weekend event, including a rock concert called Rock for the Roses. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has grown to provide information, services, and support for cancer patients through education, research grants, and community programs. The 2002 Ride for the Roses raised $2.7 million and drew 20,000 people.
Armstrong says that having cancer completely changed the way he looked at life. "I thought I knew what fear was, until I heard the words you have cancer," he stated in the Buffalo News. "My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices. Everything now stacked up differently, the anxieties of life—a flat tire, losing my career, a traffic jam—were reprioritized into need versus want, real problem as opposed to minor scare. A bumpy plane ride was just a bumpy plane ride, it wasn't cancer."
Armstrong and Kristen now have three children, son Luke and twin daughters Isabelle and Grace. They live in Austin, Texas, but also own a home in Nice, France.
"Lance Armstrong is more than a bicyclist now, more than an athlete," wrote Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated where Armstrong was named "Sportsman of the Year." "He's become a kind of hope machine."
Armstrong, Lance, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Thorndike Press, 2000.
Buffalo News, June 4, 2000.
New Yorker, July 15, 2002.
PR Week, October 14, 2002.
Sports Illustrated, December 16, 2002.
"Lance Armstrong Foundation," Lance Armstrong Foundation website,http://www.laf.org (January 30, 2003).
"Sportsman of the Year," Sports Illustrated,http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com (January 15, 2003). □
Lance Armstrong is the most celebrated cyclist in American sports history. With a record seven victories in the world's most prestigious cycling race, the Tour de France, Armstrong became one of the best known athletes in the world of international sport. Armstrong's wins in the Tour de France were all the more remarkable as they were achieved after Armstrong had been treated for testicular cancer.
Armstrong enjoyed cycling success from an early age. Competing in what was a new sport at the time, Armstrong won a youth triathlon at age thirteen; it was an accomplishment that ultimately spurred Armstrong into prize money races in both cycling and triathlon. At age sixteen, he was earning approximately $20,000 a year in race prize money.
Armstrong's precocious talent caught the attention of the United States Cycling Federation, and Armstrong was invited to train with the American developmental team in 1989. As a result of this introduction to elite level cycling, Armstrong competed in the World Junior Cycling champions that year in Moscow. By 1990, Armstrong was racing as a member of the senior U.S. National team.
The meteoric rise of Armstrong as an international level cyclist continued through the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the 21-year-old Armstrong finished a highly credible fourteenth in the men's road race of approximately 120 mi (200 km). From the Olympics, Armstrong entered a series of prestigious European road races. He was admired for his talent but not necessarily respected by the cycling world for his racing demeanor or attitude towards his opponents.
The dichotomy between talent and attitude marked Armstrong' attempt at the Tour de France in 1993. Armstrong scored a stage win during the Tour, but he could not maintain the pace of the 21-day event and he dropped out after 11 days. Armstrong did become the youngest ever World Road Race champion later than year.
Armstrong began to understand that his approach to racing, an all out blitzkrieg on both course and opponents would not lead him to the ultimate success he desired. Elite road-racing cyclists must be multi-dimensional racers, a class known by the French expression "rolleur," or all rounder. The rolleur is the type of rider who can win the Tour de France because he or she can sprint through the time trials, as well as endure long stretches of paced cycling, with the ability to power up the grades of the steep mountain stages. Most cyclists are better at one of the three aspects; to challenge for a Tour de France title, the racer must be a master of all of them. Armstrong added training sessions in both the Rocky Mountains and European Alps to make him more proficient at the climbing portions of multi-stage races.
Although not yet a challenger for an overall Tour title, in 1995 Armstrong was the seventh ranked cyclist in the world. He also enjoyed significant commercial success, with earnings in excess of $750,000. The 24-year-old Armstrong entered a future with his best cycling evidently ahead of him; Armstrong's demonstrated abilities to this point in his career were confirmed over the next 10 years, in a fashion that no one could possibly have foreseen.
In the spring of 1996, Armstrong's early season training had not progressed as well as he had hoped. He withdrew from the Tour de France after only six stages, and Armstrong performed poorly by his standards at both the 1996 Summer Olympic and the fall road races in Europe. Armstrong sought medical advice in October of 1996 regarding a swelling he had noted on one of his testicles; he was soon diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Armstrong's perilous physical situation became critical when its was determined that the cancer had spread to his brain. Armstrong had brain surgery, went through a number of months of aggressive chemotherapy, and, in 1997, Armstrong bested odds of survival that had been only 40%.
In recovery from cancer, and with no race team sponsorship available to him in Europe, Armstrong returned to training in 1997. By 1998 he recaptured his previous cycling prowess, and Armstrong intensified his training to move beyond any of his previous standards of performance.
Armstrong did not enter the 1998 Tour de France, but he overpowered the 1999 Tour field, racing with greater confidence and strength than he had ever displayed prior to his bout of cancer. Armstrong was the target of very pointed allegations in the French press (many tinged with a considerable measure of either Eurocentric commentary or a blunter anti-American sentiment) regarding blood doping with the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), but he never failed a drug test of any sort that year (or at any time during his career). A report released in May 2006 by an independent Dutch agency (appointed by the International Cycling Union to investigate the charges in Armstrong's case) "exonerates Lance Armstrong completely with respect to alleged use of doping in the 1999 Tour de France."
Armstrong joined Greg Lemond (three victories between 1986 and 1990) as the only Americans to have won a Tour de France title. It is ironic of Armstrong's 1999 win that both he and Lemond, who was badly wounded in a hunting accident in 1987, each overcame profound physical adversity in the course of their Tour success.
Armstrong's victory in 1999 also placed his team, the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, into the international spotlight. In multi-stage events such as the Tour de France, the individual cyclist receives the glory; without a hard working and effective team to support him, even the most gifted of cyclists has no hope of a Tour victory.
A cycling team will usually determine in advance of competition who will be their featured rider. The team is then arranged to bring the team leader to the finish line. At various times, particularly in the flat sections of the race, the leader will ride behind a teammate, using the partial vacuum created by their movement through the air stream ahead to be pulled forward into the less dense air, a technique that requires the cyclist to use less energy to move at the same speed as the lead riders. This is the process known as "drafting." Team members will also ride in flanking positions to protect him from collisions with other riders. When a cyclist on an opposing team makes a break from the pack of riders (the peloton), a team member will sometimes be tasked to ride the other cyclist down, establishing contact with the opponent and in some instances deliberately riding with greater speed to tire the opponent.
Armstrong's consummate individual cycling gifts and the strength of his supporting team were an irresistible combination from Armstrong's first victory in 1999 until his seventh Tour championship and announced retirement in 2005. Armstrong's supremacy in the Tour placed incredibly talented cyclists such as Jan Ulrich, whose record of a 1997 victory, five other second place finishes and a third place result would be remarkable, if it were not achieved in Armstrong's shadow.
There are several physiological aspects to Armstrong's Tour de France success that have been examined in the course of his career. The first is the fact that Armstrong became a stronger, more powerful cyclist after the onset of his cancer and its successful treatment in 1997. Testing carried out at the University of Texas Human Performance Laboratory determined that Armstrong had improved his ability to use oxygen in the production of muscular energy (VO2 max) by an astounding 18% between age 21 and age 28. Armstrong was found to have a VO2 that was as much as 40% greater than healthy and trained athletic men of the same age. Coupled with this finding was the calculation that Armstrong had improved his muscular efficiency by 8% during the same period.
Armstrong also possesses a heart that is approximately 30% larger than that of a sedentary person. His resting pulse rate during his peak years of competition was 32 beats per minute. Armstrong's femurs (thigh bones) are longer than found in a typical male of his height, a distinction that permits Armstrong to develop better leverage on the pedal with each stroke, rendering his pedaling motion more biome-chanically efficient.
Another conclusion reached in the physiological analysis of Armstrong conducted during this period was his body's ability to process the lactic acid that is a natural by-product of muscular activity. In sprints or in intense efforts to climb a mountain road, when athletes are at or above their anaerobic thresholds, the point at which they are functioning at or above the 90% of their maximum heart rate, lactic acid accumulates in the working muscles. The muscles are not getting sufficient oxygen and they are relying upon the anaerobic systems. Excess lactic acid is usually communicated to the athlete through discomfort in the muscles, making efforts less efficient. Armstrong was found to have a very low rate of lactic acid production, even at very high levels of activity.
The most interesting physiological finding with respect to Armstrong and his superiority as a cyclist was with respect to the relationship between the slow twitch and the fast twitch muscle fibers in his body. In general terms, fast twitch fibers are those that are utilized by the body for short term, powerful actions, such as sprinting or jumping. Slow twitch fibers are directed by the body for long term, endurance activities. The definitions "slow" and "fast" relate to how quickly the neuron that governs each fiber is fired; slow twitch fibers are fired 10 times less frequently that fast twitch fibers.
It is an accepted physiological proposition that the distribution between fast twitch and slow twitch fibers through out the body is genetic. The studies in relation to Armstrong concluded that through years of hard training, with sessions ranging between three to six hours per day, Armstrong's body had undergone an adaptation where his slow twitch proportion had reached 80%, an important development in his overall cycling success.
The various exceptional physical characteristics present in Armstrong, coupled with his powerful competitive and training instincts, are proof that a champion is both born and made.