Cycling: Tour de France; Armstrong's courage forges one of the great athletic feats

Tour de France: American on verge of success in world's most gruelling event after battle with cancer
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The Independent Online
SO WHAT message would Lance Armstrong, just a couple of days away from victory in the world's most gruelling sporting event, send to those given the news - as he was, not quite three years ago - that they are suffering from cancer? "I'd tell them not to win the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. It's too much stress, and stress is bad for cancer."

Those angry words will still be in the air today when Armstrong pulls on the maillot jaune to ride the penultimate stage of the Tour, a time- trial at the Futuroscope theme park, near Poitiers. He will be guarding the lead established a fortnight ago with a shattering performance in a time trial at Metz and consolidated two days later with an imperious ride through the Alps to Sestrieres. Since then he has resisted incessant attacks - some from men in the saddle, others from men with notebooks. Barring accidents, he will arrive in the Champs-Elysees tomorrow afternoon as the winner of the 86th Tour, and one of its most controversial.

His success will be welcomed in some quarters with profound admiration. "I'll certainly be cheering," said Sean Yates, the Englishman who partnered Armstrong in his last race before his illness. "It's a triumph," said Dr Jeffrey Tobias, a London cancer specialist who happens to be a bike- racing fan and who sees Armstrong's feat as a remarkable endorsement of modern forms of treatment. But elsewhere the 27-year-old Texan has been accused of undermining a race that was supposed to represent the emergence of the Tour from the drugs scandal that came close to destroying it last year.

Coded smears in L'Equipe drew resounding denials of drug-taking from Armstrong. But they were followed in Le Monde earlier this week by the leaked result of a urine test taken after the race's second stage, that showed a minute trace of a banned substance, a synthetic corticosteroid called triamcinolone. In this case the proportion, 0.2 nanogrammes, was extremely low. Only when the trace is above 10 is a test considered unequivocally positive by the UCI, the international cycling federation. Between 6 and 10, further tests are made. But since triamcinolone is not produced naturally, its very appearance was taken by Le Monde as unanswerable evidence that Armstrong had lied about taking drugs.

According to Armstrong, the substance had been part of a skin cream called Cemalyt used to treat the sort of saddle-boil that regularly afflicts all racing cyclists. He had not mentioned it because when he thought of drugs he thought of needles and pills, not skin cream. The UCI believed him, and his case was strengthened by the fact that he had also been tested the previous day, after winning the race's prologue, without showing even the tiniest trace. This supported his contention that the substance had been part of a topical treatment rather than the long-term residue of systematic drug abuse.

Some elements of the French press, perhaps smarting from the inability of their riders to win a single stage for the first time since 1926, still refused to believe him. Others felt differently. In their view, a victory for Armstrong would represent nothing less than one of the most outstanding athletic feats of the century, and a landmark for medical science.

WHEN HE encountered Lance Armstrong eight years ago the first thing Sean Yates noticed was the talent of the teenaged amateur who had switched from the triathlon only a couple of years earlier. They met at a Motorola training camp in Santa Rosa, California, and a year later, after Armstrong had turned professional, they were team-mates.

The second thing he noticed was the young man's ambition. "Lance wanted to be successful straight away," Yates said. "When he came to Europe and took a pasting in the classics, like any first-year pro, he started talking about going back home and going to college. We told him that he had to expect that kind of thing - that most of the other guys had been around a long time and that if he showed a bit of patience he'd end up beating them all. But he was very young and confident and brash, and he just wanted to kick everyone's butt into the next century."

Born in Dallas, the son of a car dealer and a real estate agent, Armstrong had been a swimmer before taking up the triathlon, and the result of the specialised training could be seen in his physique. He weighed almost 13 stone and was much more solid than the average racing cyclist.

"He was a physical phenomenon," Yates said. "He reminded me of Eric Heiden, the speed skater. Both of them only had to look at a barbell and their muscles grew. His build made him a natural for the one-day classics. But he was impatient to become a Tour rider."

In the first week of his first Tour de France, in 1993, he won a flat stage at Verdun, and did so without undue modesty. Three days later he was flat on his back in a dormitory in the ski station of Serre-Chevalier, having learnt a painful lesson as he struggled over the 2,645ft Col du Galibier to finish in 86th place. He was thinking it might be all over. "Tomorrow may be my last day," he told me that night, in a small voice that came from the darkness of a tiny bunk. "I don't want to kill myself."

The following day Yates, Phil Anderson and the other Motorola men nursed Armstrong through the pain of another Alpine stage. He finished just inside the first 100 and, with more than half the race still to go, he went home. But the night before, in the very pit of despair, he had said something else, something that indicated the spirit of the man.

"I was no good at football or baseball or soccer, anything you need co- ordination for," he told me. "I have no co-ordination. But I can go to the start line and look at the other guys and say, well, there's no way they want to win more than I do. No way. Because I want to win more than anybody."

And he went on to talk about how he had been influenced by his experience in San Sebastian late the previous year, when he competed in a one-day race a few weeks after turning pro. "I came 111th out of 111. I just remember those people laughing. That gives me another reason not to finish this race. I mean, I could finish it, but then I could be bollocksed for the rest of the season. No, I want to be fit to go back to San Sebastian next month and get my revenge."

He didn't get it in 1993, although he did win the world road racing championship a few weeks later, the youngest man since the war to do so, on a wet autumn day in Oslo when his rivals were crashing all over the place and he could demonstrate his sheer guts. But Armstrong is not a man to leave scores unsettled, and in 1995 he went back to San Sebastian and won.

This year he took revenge on the mighty Galibier. "I love the rain and the cold," he said after arriving at Sestrieres. "I know that when the weather is bad, half the riders are discouraged. I can tell you that on the Galibier today I didn't feel great, but I looked into the faces of the others and I could tell they were feeling a lot worse."

His accusers pointed to the fact that he had completed the daunting climbs without lifting himself out of the saddle and without seeming to gasp for breath. "If you grimace," he replied, "although your opponent might not see it, his sporting director, who has a television in his car, will certainly spot that you're in trouble. The cameras are always on us, and you have to know how to deal with it."

Armstrong's relationship with his own sporting director, Johan Bruyneel, is a vital factor in this month's success. His four previous Tours ended in three retirements and just one finish, in 34th place. To prepare for this year's effort, the two men spent the whole of May reconnoitring the route, riding the Alpine and Pyrenean stages in sequence. Now he talks to Bruyneel during the stages via a radio earpiece and microphone. The US Postal entourage also includes his Swiss chef, Willy Balmat, and a soigneuse, Emma O'Reilly, who looks after a physique trimmed down to a stone and a half below its pre-cancer weight - leaving "just bone and muscle", according to the journalist John Wilcockson, who watched him taking a massage.

Whereas in the old days the triathlete in Armstrong liked the challenge of pushing big gears, this year his pedalling rhythm - the thing the riders call their cadence - is faster but requires less effort.

"Before, he didn't know how to use his power," Bruyneel said. "In the end he always cracked. So we watched videos of [Miguel] Indurain's Tours, and we talked a lot about suppleness of the legs. Look at the way he went over the Galibier. It was a nice surprise, but I never had the least doubt about his qualities."

IN THE autumn of 1996, Armstrong and Yates came second from last in a two-man time trial in Germany, riding together for the US-based Motorola team. "Lance didn't seem to be going very well," Yates said this week, "and the organisers weren't very happy because they'd paid him a packet of money. No more than a month later the phone rang from America and I was told that he'd got cancer."

After being informed that he had less than a 50 per cent chance of survival, Armstrong underwent two operations. In the first, the cancerous testicle was removed. The second dealt with deposits of secondary cancer in the brain. Then he began a course of high-intensity chemotherapy at St David's Hospital in Indianapolis, eradicating all the residual cancerous cells, some of which had appeared in his lungs, the racing cyclist's engine. And 518 days after his last race, he was competing again. "In my case," he said a few days ago, "the risk of having to face cancer again is less than one per cent. I'm cured, completely."

"It's totally extraordinary," Jeffrey Tobias, a consultant cancer specialist at the Middlesex Hospital, said this week. "I happen to think that the Tour is the greatest annual athletic event in the world. You need enormous stamina and grit over an extended period, as well as a variety of skills. If you could describe any class of athletes as supreme, then Tour riders, along with decathletes, would be my nominees. Armstrong had the same type of cancer as Bob Champion, the National Hunt jockey, but in a much more advanced state. It had reached his brain, making it much harder to cure. So his achievement is all the more astonishing."

Historic, even? "I would say so, although testicular cancer is one of the forms of cancer that can be completely cured, even if it isn't diagnosed until there has been considerable spreading. The drugs are remarkably effective. And Armstrong is a wonderful advertisement. People who are told they need chemotherapy are still stricken by dread, quite understandably. So this is a triumph."

But when the dark rumours began to spread, they included a whisper that the cancer treatment might actually have made Armstrong more powerful. "Oh, I don't think so," Dr Tobias said. "Obviously if he's as well now as he was before his illness, and if he's training even harder, it might appear to have made him stronger."

There was also the suggestion that if he were using illegal drugs, he might be running the risk of reawakening his cancer. "He wouldn't necessarily be in more danger than anyone else who took the risk of using them," Tobias responded. "Testicular cancer is so virulent that if it were to come back, it would be within two years of the completion of treatment. He seems to be outside that period. But you have to remember that in medicine, never doesn't mean never, never, never. It means probably never."

AND SO he seems poised to enter history as the second American, after Greg LeMond, to win the greatest bike race of all. His wife, Kristin, is at home in Nice expecting their first baby, conceived with semen stored before the chemotherapy began. According to Sean Yates, Lance Armstrong is now a different, wiser man. "He knows more about the world, and how people are, and he's more at peace with himself. He's settled down, he's got a wife, he's got cats, dogs, a home. He's a changed person."

In Sestrieres 10 days ago, Armstrong met the parents of Fabio Casertelli, a team-mate who was killed on the descent from the Col de Portet-d'Aspet during the Tour in 1996. Two days after the accident, Armstrong had led the rest of the Motorola team into Limoges to win the next stage. "It was like I had the strength of two men in my body," he told the team manager, Jim Ochowicz, at the time. As he crossed the line, he raised his arms and pointed the index finger of each hand to the heavens.

"I'll tell you this," he said the other day, "even if I win this Tour de France, I won't have the same emotion that I had winning that stage at Limoges, two days after Fabio's death."

There are still those who doubt Lance Armstrong's innocence. To them, he is lying and cheating his way to victory. As we watch him ride up the Champs-Elysees tomorrow, we can make up our own minds on that.