National and world champion cyclist, two time Olympian, renowned humanitarian, role model, cancer survivor, and now 3-time winner of the Tour De France, Lance Armstrong is clearly one of the most celebrated and charismatic contributors to the sport of cycling. He not only made world headlines in Paris on July 25, 1999 with the most stunning comeback ever in the history of sport, but the personal side of this resounding triumph brought Lance's life and career full circle. To say that he is an emotional athlete is an understatement. To say that he is a passionate and fearless competitor is evident. However, what may not be so readily apparent is the depth of character and generosity of spirit that is so much a part of the psychological blueprint of this modest and straightforward hero...
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The Early Years
Born September 18, 1971, Lance's natural athleticism was nurtured by his mother Linda, a single parent, while his temperament was molded by his participation in a variety of sports in their hometown of Plano, Texas. With the energy of youth, an inherent ability and a decidedly competitive nature on his side, Lance won the Iron Kids Triathlon at 13 and became a professional triathlete when he was just 16 years old. The swimming and running components of triathlon competition eventually gave way to cycling, however, and by the time Lance was a senior in high school he had a rolodex of potential cycling sponsors and a burgeoning career that was quickly replacing nearly everything else in his life. Long rides on Saturdays frequently took him to the Oklahoma border, where he had bicycled so far away from home he would have to call his mother to come and pick him up. Lance maintains that he was "born to race bikes." The evidence was mounting to support that theory even before he was out of high school.
With a determination that belied his age, Lance qualified to train with the U.S. Olympic developmental team in Colorado Springs, Colorado during his senior year. His grueling training schedule nearly cost him his high school diploma, but private classes during the final weeks of the school year enabled Lance to graduate on time. And with graduation came the opportunity to finally turn his attention to cycling on a full time basis.
Lance qualified for the 1989 junior world championships in Moscow the following summer. Amateur competition would prove valuable for Lance in more than the obvious ways. Not only was he able to hone his cycling skills, but the experience acquainted the shy, all-American kid from Plano with life outside of Texas and enabled him to make important connections in the cycling world. By 1991 he was the U.S. National Amateur Champion, and he remained an amateur competitor through the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona.
His first professional race after this Olympic experience was the 1992 Classico San Sebastian. Up to that point, Lance's rise through the ranks of amateur cyclists had been virtually effortless. He would soon find out that it's not always so easy, crossing the finish line in a pouring cold rain in last place, 27 minutes behind the winner - but he simply would not quit his first pro endeavor. His career may well have ended that day were it not for the influence of his hard working mother, who remains his biggest hero even today. He credits her with instilling the tenacity he needed to not only finish that race, but to remain on the circuit as well. It was a humbling experience that strengthened his resolve - but set the tone for his career: despite the odds, don't quit.
To say that he fared considerably better throughout the following season is an understatement. His 10 titles in 1993 included winning the US PRO Championship, taking his first stage victory in the prestigious Tour de France, and becoming the youngest road racing World Champion ever. And for the first time in cycling history, a U.S. team, Lance's Team Motorola, was ranked among the top five in the world.
Lance's life took on the routine of a world-class cyclist. He spent approximately 8 months a year in Europe racing on the professional circuit. He was attracting legions of fans at every race and learning how to cope with their attention and the increasing curiosity of the media. Off seasons were spent in his adoptive home of Austin, TX where he could enjoy friends and family, far away from the glare of the European press.
He continued to grow as an athlete over the ensuing two years, often finding himself as the lone American amongst a field of Europeans. He secured his place in U.S. racing history with his victory in the 1993 $1,000,000 Thrift Drug Triple Crown (and the TDS Classic in 1994), then winning the 1995 Tour Du Pont, and being named the 1995 Velo News American Male Cyclist of the Year. He scored a dramatic and heartfelt stage 18 win at the 1995 Tour de France in honor of his fallen teammate, Fabio Casartelli. In an another dramatic victory, but one laced with irony, Lance also became the first American to win the Classico San Sebastian -- the very race that he finished dead last in just three years earlier. Lance's high profile in the sport enabled him to establish the Lance Armstrong Junior Olympic Race Series in 1995. Designed to promote cycling and racing among America's youth, it was his way of giving back to the sport that had shaped his life.
Lance roared into 1996 as the number one ranked cyclist in the world. He recaptured his success at the Tour Du Pont (the first person to do so), was the first American to win the traditional Belgian spring classic Fleche Wallone, and competed as a member of the U.S. cycling team in the Atlanta summer Olympic games. He then signed a lucrative two-year contract with the French Cofidis racing team and moved into a spectacular home that took two years to plan and build in an exclusive sub-division of Austin. Affectionately named "Casa Linda" in honor of his mother, the Mediterranean-style home became his new address when Lance was just four months shy of his 25th birthday - an age when few men achieve such status and recognition, and even fewer are faced with their own mortality...
The man who had been featured in attention grabbing headlines such as "Du Pont Dominator" and "The Golden Boy of American Cycling," was literally forced off his bike in excruciating pain in October of 1996. Tests revealed advanced testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and his brain. A press conference held on October 9th announced the stunning news to the world. This athletic and vibrant young man would be operated on twice in the ensuing weeks - once to remove the malignant testicle, and then dramatic brain surgery to remove the cancer that had spread upward. Chances for his recovery were far less than 50/50 as a frightened-but-determined Lance began an aggressive form of chemotherapy. At the time still in its proving stages, this "cocktail" of chemicals (called "VIP" - Ifosfamide, Etoposide, and Platinol) gave him the chance for a full recovery with far less danger of losing lung capacity as a side effect. While it weakened him well beyond anything he had ever experienced, he had a deep well of reserves and the unconditional support of family and friends. Remarkably, the chemotherapy began to work and Lance gradually allowed his thoughts to return to racing. He began riding and training only five months after his diagnosis, still uncertain of his future in the sport, but a profoundly grateful and resolute man.
Cancer left him scarred physically and emotionally, but he now maintains it was an unexpected gift; a viewpoint that is shared by many cancer survivors. Getting cancer was "...the best thing that ever happened to me," Lance said, in relation to the maturity and life focus the disease forced him to face. Throughout this life threatening ordeal, Lance knew his priorities were changing. His physical well being, something that had never been challenged, was suddenly fragile. He was given the chance to fully appreciate the blessings of good health, a loving family, and close friends. Lance described his bout with cancer as "a special wake-up call." He heeded the call to activism by becoming a spokesperson for testicular and other forms of cancer and formed the Lance Armstrong Foundation within months of his diagnosis. This international, non-profit Foundation was established initially to benefit cancer research and promote urologic cancer awareness and the importance of early detection. Its focus now is on being the world leader in the concept of "Cancer Survivorship" - helping people manage and survive cancer.
In May of 1998 Lance celebrated his victory over cancer and his "official" return to U.S. cycling by winning under the lights in dramatic fashion the Sprint 56K Criterium along the streets of downtown Austin. The race was just one part of the Ride for the Roses, a weekend of cycling and celebration in Austin, Texas benefiting Lance's Foundation. The month was not only memorable in a professional sense, but personally as well - he had recently become engaged to Kristin Richard. Their year long romance, which first began at the 1997 Ride for the Roses, culminated in a beautiful ceremony with family and close friends in Santa Barbara, California on May 8.
Though Lance's win in the Sprint 56K Criterium marked an important milestone in his comeback to the sport, many were still skeptical of his ability to return to professional cycling at the top European level; key among them was his new team Cofidis - they terminated his contract soon after the news of his illness. Within months, however, Lance proudly announced a new affiliation with the United States Postal Service pro cycling team with whom he rides today. Their faith in him strengthened his resolve to live up to his own and his team's expectations and resume his position as one of the world's top cyclists. But before he would once again resume the mantle of "Boss" within the pro peloton, he would have to overcome one more hurdle.
In 1998 Lance returned to the cycling circuit, first completing the Ruta del Sol quite respectfully, and then he entered Paris-Nice. The weather conditions during Stage 2 were horrendous, reminding some of his first pro race back in 1993... it was soon clear that Lance was not having a good day on the bike, and in the cold and pouring rain he simply pulled over and was done. Done with the race, the training, the sport - finished as far as he was concerned. He'd given it a shot, did his best and apparently it just wasn't good enough. He returned home to Austin to figure out what he wanted to do now in life - and then along came Chris Carmichael, Bob Roll, and the town of Boone, North Carolina. Chris and Bob not only were close friends of Lance's, Chris was his coach and Bob a former teammate from the Motorola days. The 3 of them went to Boone just to do some riding and hang out, and as the story is told today "In the hills of North Carolina Lance learned to love the bike again," - he was back - and now his heart was in it!
Following this literal personal cycling revelation, Lance went on in 1998 to score stunning victories at the Tour de Luxembourg, the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfarht in Germany, the Cascade Classic in Oregon, and not only finished fourth in the Tour of Holland (September, 1998), but a remarkable fourth in the grueling 3 week Vuelta Espana (Tour of Spain - September, 1998), one of the three most elite races in the world! He concluded his '98 season with an overall fourth place finish at the World Championships in Holland. Achieved under brutal weather and racing conditions, only 66 out of 152 riders even completed the race. And if that wasn't enough to feel "back in the race", Lance came home to the U.S. and awarded his Foundation's first two grants to cancer research. In excess of $300,000, the gifts were a direct result of funds raised from the 1997 and 1998 Ride for the Roses' weekends.
As 1999 rolled around, the fabled Tour de France became Lance and Team USPS's primary quest. This goal was essentially unheard of by an American team; even 3-time American winner Greg Lemond had been on a French team during his successes. Lance started the season out slowly, training hard, picking and choosing his events as they related to the big race in July. This preparation style would soon become a hallmark of his Tour success, making sure he peaked at just the right time. He started to show some form in late Spring, winning the Circuit de la Sarthe Time Trial and then a Top 10 GC finish in the Vuelta a Aragon. He placed a wrenching 2nd place at Amstel Gold after breaking away from the pack and taking Rabobank rider Michael Boogerd with him. Despite pulling the Dutch rider for many kilometers, Boogerd came around Lance at the line and literally won by a tire width... coming back to the USA for the '99 version of the LAF Ride for the Roses weekend, Lance got into a 3 man break in the Criterium and took second place as the trio nearly lapped the entire field! Lance kept ramping upward with strong showings in both the Dauphine Libere and Route du Sud stage races. And then it was Tour time...
The 1999 Tour de France
Not wanting to leave any doubts as to what he was capable of, Lance won the opening Prologue Time Trial in convincing fashion. Knowing that defending the yellow jersey this early in the race could sap the strength of his teammates too soon, they let the overall (GC) lead go for a while. But showing their race savvy, the team made sure they always stayed up at the front of the pack. This decision proved critical following a major crash on the slippery Passage du Gois causeway; a pile up that essentially removed 50% of the riders from GC contention, including some major Tour hopefuls. At the Stage 8 Time Trial, it was time once again for Lance to take matters into his own hands. Lance won the stage and retook ownership of the famed "Mailot Jaune", and he and his team would not release their grip all the way to Paris! Lance also won a now legendary stage atop Sestriere - "At the departure today I was not thinking of winning the stage, just defending the yellow jersey," - but things change... driving over the historic Col du Galibier then up to the mountaintop finish, by day's end Lance had put over 6 minutes into his closest competitor! Lance would add another Time Trial victory in Stage 19 and go on to win the race by over 7 minutes - a tremendous victory not only for Lance, but for cancer survivors around the world!
Lance ended the year in a very non-traditional manner, racing 3 professional mountains bike races for Team Trek-VW. Much more importantly though, was another life changing event for the American rider: his son Luke was born happy and healthy Oct 12th...
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