Armstrong wins one for a club of millions

LANCE ARMSTRONG has joined an exclusive club. He is now one of five cyclists to have won the Tour de France five times.


Lance Armstrong (middle), in the yellow jersey, flanked by Baden Cooke (right) and Richard Virenque, on the podium. Armstrong is now one of five cyclists to have won the Tour de France five times.-Pic. ROBERT LABERGE/GETTY IMAGES

LANCE ARMSTRONG has joined an exclusive club. He is now one of five cyclists to have won the Tour de France five times.

But Armstrong's favourite club has a much larger constituency — the nine million people in the United States who have survived cancer. He considers the disease a blessing, for it made him appreciate every day that he is alive.

First and foremost, he links himself with the children who faded away before his eyes, the adults who did not make it, the people who are given no promises. He rides for all of them.

Factor out the cancer, and Armstrong is still a formidable human being — brash, opinionated, impulsive, strong, caring, tough, smart.

He survived the 23-day clockwise ride around France, in brutal heat and lashing rain. He survived two spills, which sent him sprawling onto the unforgiving pavement. He overcame the challenge from Jan Ullrich of Germany. He made millions of correct decisions that led to a 61-second victory, the narrowest of his five triumphs.

The celebration of this great athletic feat comes back to Lance Armstrong having been diagnosed with lung, brain and testicular cancer in 1996, going through two operations and four rounds of chemotherapy.

"Incredible, awesome, remarkable," his personal coach and good friend, Chris Carmichael, said by cell phone from the Champs-Elysees in Paris. In the background, you could hear the cheers at the finish line.

These words take on a special meaning for the nucleus of Arm<147,2,1>strong's friends and family, who were there on October 2, 1996. That was the day when "I almost died and possibly even did die a little, but then I got pitched back into the world of the living," as he describes it in his new book, Every Second Counts, with Sally Jenkins, to be published by Broadway Books in October.

"Once you figure out you're going to live, you have to decide how to, and that's not an uncomplicated manner," Armstrong added. "You ask yourself: Now that I know I'm not going to die, what will I do? What's the highest and best use of my self?"

He answered his question: "For me, the best use of myself has been to race in the Tour de France, the most gruelling sporting event in the world."

The Tour is also one of the most beautiful spectacles in the world. The televised aerial shots of cyclists making a serpentine climb on a narrow mountain switchback take your breath away. From a height, the garish team colours blend into kaleidoscopic beauty.

The other cyclists are not known as cancer survivors, but they have epic adventures of their own. Tyler Hamilton of Marblehead, Massachussetts, went down on the first full stage, 22 days ago, suffering a V-shaped crack in his collarbone. Somehow, he finished fourth in this Tour. Even the hard-working "domestiques" are admirable, as their thighs churn all the way around France, making life easier for their leaders.

Lance Armstrong was always the central figure of this great race, particularly once he re-claimed the yellow jersey worn by the leader. The French used to scorn him because they felt he lacked "panache," the style, the spirit, of their last great champion, Bernard Hinault, who also won it five times.

The French newspapers, courts, cycling officials and public spread unsupportable gossip that Armstrong had some chemical advantage. They could not accept that a cancer survivor could win Tour after Tour.

On the last day, during the ceremonial tour of Paris, somebody handed Armstrong a glass of Champagne. He jauntily hoisted it toward one of the ubiquitous television cameras on a motorcycle and said, "Cheers, France." The wiry Texan has finally achieved panache.

The five Tours have not come without their toll. After a brief separation earlier this year, his wife, Kik, was present with their three children at the finish line. In his new book, Armstrong talks with respect about his wife's Roman Catholic faith, but admits he is more comfortable with the medical science that saved his life. His life may become more complicated now that he has dismounted from his bike.

The ways of the Tour are at least familiar. When a spectator's plastic bag caught Armstrong's handlebar, sending him to the pavement, the leaders slowed down to wait for him to recover, one of the arcane niceties of the sport. Champion that he is, Armstrong got off the ground in a fury to catch up.

He also showed the patience of a champion. In the last time trial, Armstrong took no chances in the hard rain, knowing Ullrich would have to literally cut corners to have any chance.

"When you're ahead by a minute, it seems so small," Carmichael said, "But when you're behind by a minute, it feels like an eternity."

Ullrich skidded on the wet pavement and Armstrong stayed up. He is a survivor. Through his Lance Armstrong Foundation, he tries to pass on the discipline and the hope of surviving a vicious disease.

His story as a cancer survivor is as visible as the yellow jersey in the pack of cyclists.

"He says he will go for six," Carmichael reported after greeting his old friend at the finish line. Over the weekend, the great Hinault, now an official with the Tour, personally welcomed Armstrong to "the club." Armstrong said it still had not sunk in that he had joined the four other champions. His main club consists of nine million other cancer survivors. He wears the yellow jersey for them.

New York Times News Service