Cycling: Strong rider out of the storm

FIRST NIGHT: LANCE ARMSTRONG: An American hero can claim his first major victory since beating cancer.
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The Independent Online
Professional bike riders are not easily impressed. Life on the road has conditioned them to take what comes, grumble a bit and move on. Cynicism is as natural a companion as pain, one reason why the broad-brimmed ebullience of Lance Armstrong once irritated his more hard-bitten companions in the peloton. Until Greg Lemond won their Tour, the French held American cyclists in the same sort of esteem American boxers reserved for British heavyweights. The peloton reckoned the Texan a bit of a showboater, long on talk, short on action, lucky to win the 1993 world road race title on a stinking afternoon in Oslo and certainly not a patch on Lemond. In short, they questioned Armstrong's heart and nodded wisely when he consistently failed to live up to his billing in the Tour de France.

Armstrong's relationship with Laurent Jalabert, the most taciturn of hard men, became particularly strained. So it meant more than just words to the American that the highest praise for his recent fourth place in the Vuelta, the three-week Tour of Spain, should come from the world No 1. Armstrong finished just over two minutes behind the winner, Abraham Olano, in a race of 3,700km and of such relentless pace almost half the field retired before the finish. Jalabert, ever enigmatic, talked of Armstrong's illness and his mental courage. Praise from Jalabert is praise hard-won.

"That was good to hear because we've not always got on," Armstrong said last week. "We didn't use to talk much. Now we get on much better. I get on better with everyone now." Respect for Armstrong flows easily through the ranks. On the Vuelta, he was offered a stage win by the peloton, robust recognition for one of the most extraordinary comebacks in sporting history. Sadly, Armstrong was too puffed to accept the invitation, but the doff of the cap was well received. The peloton does not have a code of practice for surviving cancer patients.

From the outside, Armstrong radiates the good health and bounce which seemed his dominant characteristics when he shot to prominence as a 20- year-old on that rainy day in 1993. The hair has grown back over the scars where surgeons operated to remove lesions on the brain, the burns caused by the chemotherapy treatment have faded and the full-frontal optimism has survived life expectancy odds which at one time sunk significantly below 50-50. The inner Armstrong, the one obscured by the image, has emerged with a telescopic view of the nature of suffering and an enhanced sense of life's pleasures.

"For me to be a bike racer, to train and suffer, to race and suffer - that's hard," Armstrong said earlier this year. "But that's not being laid out in a hospital bed in Indianapolis with a catheter hanging out of my chest, with platinum pumping into my veins, being noxious as hell, throwing up for 24 hours straight for five days, taking a two-week break and doing it again. Nothing compares to that. We've all heard the expression 'What doesn't kill you makes you stronger', and that's exactly it." Only Armstrong could describe his year of treatment as the "greatest year of my life" and mean it or compare the whole experience to a mere bike race. "It was like I had the leader's jersey and was scared of losing it."

Should Armstrong regain the rainbow jersey of world road race champion today in Holland, it would be the first major victory since his return and a triumph of human spirit as much as the completion of a neat career circle. The world championships have been a compass in Armstrong's life, from winning the title to the moment two years ago when news of his illness first broke. The initial diagnosis of testicular cancer was made on 2 October 1996, days before he was due to compete; a year to the day on, Armstrong recalled, he began to feel like a bike racer again after a summer of disillusion.

Today, he will line up in Valkenburg on a classic course - 243km long with short, steep climbs - well suited to his style, with a realistic chance of rediscovering the feeling of winning. Having spent much of his summer on the golf course, nursing his wounds from an abortive spring comeback, Armstrong has run into an unexpectedly rich vein of form in the autumn just while everyone else is heading for their holidays or just wanting to recover from a traumatic season.

The depleted field reflects a sport in disarray. Jalabert is still angry with the authorities for their handling of the drug-stained Tour and withdrew; Marco Pantani, winner of the Tour, is on holiday, so is Jan Ullrich; Laurent Brochard of Festina, the defending champion, is banned after admitting taking drugs; Abraham Olano pulled out yesterday with a knee injury. Even Armstrong feels the race should be held in August not October, though he will gratefully take any rewards. Fourth place in Thursday's time-trial put him among the favourites, a compliment which would have seemed impossible a year ago, unthinkable even in spring when Armstrong had abandoned Paris- Nice, his first stage race for two years, and fled back to his home in California.

"I thought that would be the last bike race I would ever do," he said. "I wasn't alone in thinking that either. Frankie Andreu, my closest team-mate [in the US Postal team], told me, 'Bud, I think I have seen you ride your last bike race'. He meant it and I believed him. It has been a long process. I have gone from being a sick person who really did not know if I ever wanted to race again to deciding I wanted to race and then questioning that decision.

"I came back again because I felt I needed to finish out the year. I made a commitment to the team. I had the Ride for the Roses in Austin [Armstrong's home town] that I knew I had to train for and I started with an hour or two hours of riding a day. When I came back to the States I didn't unpack or touch my bike for four weeks. I just started riding gradually again just for fun and worked my way back up. Now I feel like a bike racer again and I think I have the balance right. I'm trying to do the best I can and maybe being competitive and not putting too much pressure on myself."

All the medical signals point to a successful rehabilitation. But then Armstrong expands the boundaries of medicine with every turn of the pedal. He still has an appointment with his doctors in Indianapolis every three months, but they have long since thrown away their books. A gentle game of golf was roughly what they had presumed would be an ideal form of recreation, not stretching the body beyond endurance for weeks on end. Armstrong has set up his own cancer foundation, which has already raised over pounds 1m. "All of these situations and illnesses are potentially humiliating and embarrassing as well as life-threatening," he says. "I realised how hard it was and how lonely it was and I promised myself that I would do whatever I could to make it easier for the next person."

There would be an awful moral sting to the sordid tale of the 1998 cycling season if Armstrong wins today. The American is living proof of the true redemptive power of drugs and the irresistible force of human courage. Alongside his journey, a three-week tour of France is no more than a lap of the park.