His climb to the top

Five-time Tour de France winners (from left): Bernard Hinault of France, Eddie Merckx of Belgium, Lance Armstrong of the U.S. and Miguel Indurain of Spain.-Pic. DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES Five-time Tour de France winners (from left): Bernard Hinault of France, Eddie Merckx of Belgium, Lance Armstrong of the U.S. and Miguel Indurain of Spain.

LANCE ARMSTRONG has been on top of the world so long that the rest of us sometimes forget how he got there. Not Armstrong.

Barely 18 hours after crossing the finish line on the Champs-Elysees, he left his room at the luxury hotel where the Texas flag flew overnight to attend a news conference on behalf of the President's Cancer Panel and remind the world how he came to win five Tour de France titles in a row.

"You always look back to 1996 and you realise that a crash on Luz-Ardiden or a little cycle cross into Gap is not nearly as bad as sitting in a hospital room in Indianapolis," he said. "Drawing on that experience helps and is perhaps one of the secrets to winning the Tour."

He means that literally. Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour, in 1986, then won it twice more in 1989-90 after returning from a hunting accident that nearly took his life. He said a climb in the mountains didn't seem as daunting, somehow, once you'd spent hours on an operating table while buckshot was delicately carved out of your back and lungs.

Armstrong had something just as vile carved out of him, and you can bet he remembers how it felt.

His recovery from a deadly form of testicular cancer made his first win in 1999 one of the best, most joyous comeback stories ever. After the disease had spread to his lungs and brain, doctors first doubted he would live, let alone recover and then dominate the sport's most gruelling event.

Since then, that element of Armstrong's story has eased further and further down the page, but not with him. How could it?

Armstrong still wears his hair close-cropped to remember how chemotherapy treatments taught him that vanity was an excess he couldn't afford. The hair is still long enough, though, to cover two horseshoe-sized indentations in his head, pathways the doctors carved to get at the cancer in his brain. As if those weren't enough, there is a scar on his chest where a catheter was implanted and discoloured patches of skin on his arms and legs — what he calls his "chemo burns" — markers of cancer drugs so toxic they literally burned through his skin in several places.

Maybe that's why, after three weeks of almost-constant suffering and one night of non-stop revelry, showing up alongside a handful of other survivors, remains a labour of love. But even Armstrong's endurance has its limits. Soon after being introduced by Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute, he quickly deflected the attention away from himself and toward the other survivors.

"Due to the fact that my 200 friends, the last three weeks, made life very difficult, there may not be storytelling today," Armstrong said, referring to his cycling rivals. At least not by him.

The doctor told of calling his fellow Texan in the Alps in May as the cyclist was putting the final touches on what might be the most intricate and exhaustive training regimen in any sport. Armstrong's handlers had set aside exactly 48 hours of rest, but when he learned the panel was holding its inaugural international session in Portugal at the same time, he flew to Lisbon to be on hand.

"He told me he'd do anything to heighten awareness," von Eschenbach recalled, "but I figured we were pushing it. He came, offered some ideas and stayed as long as he could. Later I found out he went straight to the Pyrenees and got back on his bike."

If there is a recurring theme to Armstrong's career, it's been: Get back on the bike. That's what he told himself as he lay on the ground after crashing into a spectator on the start of the lung-burning ascent to Luz-Ardiden. Not only did he catch the pack, he crossed the fog-shrouded finish line alone following one of the most inspirational rides in the 100-year history of the race.

It's the same philosophy threaded through Armstrong's book and what he tells other survivors every time they meet. He calls spreading that gospel "the obligation of the cured."

"We're smart enough to know he's not the rule, but Lance has proved what's possible," von Eschenbach said. "And once somebody has demonstrated that, we have to make the commitment to try and move everyone else a little further along that continuum."

Chris Carley has already taken a few of those steps. Six years ago, in the midst of his battle with the disease, his nephew gave him a copy of Armstrong's autobiography and it kept him moving forward. Now, Carley heads the Chicago chapter of the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Von Eschenbach can recite chapter and verse on the advances medicine is making in the fight against cancer. But he also knows the value of healing a patient's soul as well as his body, and that the number of people Armstrong touches is magnified a thousand times every time he gets back on his bike.

"In chemistry, nothing happens much until a catalyst appears," von Eschenbach said. Then he paused and nodded toward the door where Armstrong, weary but smiling, had departed moments earlier.

"You were watching a catalyst," he said, "and thank God he's doing that."