Cycling: Armstrong's chance to measure progress on road to recovery

Texan rider aims to mark his return with a podium performance in the World Road Cycling Championships today.
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The Independent Online
LANCE ARMSTRONG is reaching for a rainbow. So, too, is Chris Boardman, as they both line up for today's elite men's time trial in the World Road Cycling Championships in the misty hills of Limburg.

Two years ago, in Switzerland, the cycling world heard that Armstrong had testicular cancer. That cruel blow seemed like the end to a promising career for the Texan, then 25.

"It was a real possibility that I would have to forget a lot of things. Not just cycling," Armstrong said. "I just wanted to keep living. It was scary."

Aided by specialists and long spells of treatment, he fought and won the hardest battle of his life. Armstrong called on the courage and determination that has earned him the rainbow colours of a world champion's jersey at 20, two Tour de France stage wins and victory in a prestigious European classic.

However, Armstrong's return to the demands of a full-season race programme hit crisis point in March this year, when he pulled out of the Paris to Nice stage race and flew home.

"Adjusting back was rougher than I had imagined. When I went back to the States, I thought I would never return to Europe," he reflects. He did not take his bike from its travelling bag for four weeks. Then his second fightback began.

He was due to go to a training camp in North Carolina so he unzipped the bike bag, and also a new beginning.

"I decided to ride again just to condition myself for the camp." From there he eased back into racing in the States. "Then I decided to give Europe one more try."

By mid-June he had won the four-day Tour of Luxembourg. Three weeks later the German tour, Rheinland-Pfalz, was his. By then his confidence was soaring, as he took fourth place in the Tour of the Netherlands.

"I am surprised by my season. All I had wanted was to finish races, but I started winning. I have not yet reached my levels of 1996, but then I have not tried because I did not want to put too much pressure on myself.

"1996 was probably my best season and that is hard to imagine now because I was so sick later that year."

Last month he went to the Vuelta a Espana, a three-week race that would hone him for the World Championships, and came within six seconds of third place after more than 3,700 kilometres of racing, often at a pace of 80kph (50mph).

He is still fighting cancer through his own foundation set up to raise funds for research. Already it has raised around a million dollars for laboratories.

His rivals were impressed and inspired by the style and spirit of his return to the top. Near the end of one stage, the Spanish rider Jose Maria Jiminez invited Armstrong to race clear of the leading group in the Vuelta so that he could win.

"It would have been beautiful after all he has suffered," Jiminez said, but his timing was unfortunate for Armstrong. "I was riding on empty at that time, and struggling to stay with them," the American said. "I even thought that my Vuelta was finished."

To the admiration of thousands he reached Madrid and prepared for his big goal, the World Road Race Championships in the Netherlands.

His third placing in a Vuelta time trial showed he had the strength and talent for today's time trial over 43 kilometres, but Armstrong also has designs on Sunday's road race title, which he took on a rainy August day in Oslo five years ago.

"When a rider is coming back from injury or illness it is like being in a tunnel," the world No 1, Laurent Jalabert, said. "The only way out is to reach the end of the tunnel.

"When you escape that, you have the will to fight even harder. My crash at Armentieres changed me," said the Frenchman, who in the 1994 Tour de France broke his jaw when a gendarme caused a crash in the finishing straight. In less than three months, Jalabert was racing again.

Boardman's designs on the yellow jersey of the Tour leader have twice brought him down. In 1995 he skidded, fell, and broke his wrist and ankle on wet roads in Brittany.

Then, this July, he was felled again while wearing the jersey he won in the opening time trial. He fractured a wrist and spent five weeks reorganising the rest of his year.

He made a brief return to track racing, but a lack of fitness cost him qualification for the semi-finals of the 4,000m pursuit, the event in which he had made his name with Olympic gold six years ago, and for which, at Bordeaux, he first broke the world hour record.

He spent a week racing in the Vuelta as training for a last throw of the dice in this year's World Time Trial Championship.

"I came out of it not too bad," he said. "Then I got in two weeks of training in north Wales on hilly terrain, similar to the World Championship course. It's a lot of work for 50 minutes of racing, but I am optimistic."

He was quick, however, to tip Armstrong. "He is the dark horse. He is sure of being on the podium as one of the top three, perhaps even as the champion."

Both Armstrong and Boardman's rainbow jersey aspirations will be challenged by Abraham Olano, who last month gave Spain their first Vuelta triumph for seven years.

On previous occasions he has had to play second fiddle to the now-retired Miguel Indurain. Today is Olano's big chance, but it could mean the end of the rainbow for others.

The Australian rider Neil Stephens has retired after a 14-year career. He was a member of the Festina squad expelled from the Tour de France after their team manager, Bruno Roussel, allegedly claimed his riders had used banned substances. "That is not the reason for my retiring." Stephens, 35, said. "I said I would do two more years with Festina and then stop. It is disappointing I am finishing my career on this note."

He has denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs and has threatened to defend himself in court.