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Wednesday, July 28, 1999 Published at 08:40 GMT 09:40 UK

The ultimate sporting comeback

All-American hero: Armstrong is cheered on to victory by his supporters

There are tales of courage and endurance throughout the world of sport.

Le Tour de France
And then there is the story of Lance Armstrong.

While others may claim to have battled with adversity and overcome the odds, Armstrong's remarkable career eclipses almost every other account of sporting heroism.

Lance Armstrong talks about his motivation
In the autumn of 1996 he was fighting for his life, after doctors diagnosed testicular cancer, which had spread to his brain and lungs.

Less than three years later he can justifiably claim to be one of the finest athletes on the planet.

[ image:  ]
For Armstrong is the winner of the Tour de France, one of the most gruelling examinations of body and spirit in the sporting calendar.

But if his comeback from the brink of death has captured the public imagination, the American appears uncomfortable with the media focus on his remarkable recovery.

"My story is unbelievable, but it is a true story," he shrugs. "We're not talking Hollywood here."

Armstrong - nicknamed "Headstrong" by his team-mates - prefers cycling fans not to dwell on his health problems and instead wants them to recognise his achievements on the road.

"We - my team and I - have worked really hard, made many sacrifices for the Tour de France," the US Postal rider adds.

"After all I have gone through in the past three or four years I really had to go for it."


But the 27-year-old Texan accepts it would be wrong to ignore the issue of his cancer.

[ image: Try this for size: Armstrong is handed the famous yellow jersey]
Try this for size: Armstrong is handed the famous yellow jersey
He believes the disease has provided him with an extra edge and, in a bizarre way, helped him scale the peaks of personal achievement.

"Perhaps the illness benefited me," Armstrong explains.

"If I had been able to avoid it I would, but it allowed me to get away from cycling, to look around me, to reflect on things. To approach the sport with another mentality.

"In 1996 I was very professional but it wasn't 100%. Now I work more, I pay more attention to my diet, to the little things."


US journalist Sam App discusses Armstrong with the BBC's Simon Brotherton
But Armstrong's story is more than simply an account of a battle back to health.

Indeed, there have been other hurdles in his path that could have ended the career of lesser sportsmen.

Armstrong made his name among the cycling fraternity with victory in the 1993 World Championships.

[ image: Armstrong made his name in the 1993 World Championships]
Armstrong made his name in the 1993 World Championships
But after the cancer was diagnosed, he found that his stock in certain sections of the sport was about to plumment.

He was dropped by his team, Cofidis, and faced a huge struggle to re-establish his reputation as a winner.

"When I was in hospital in Indianapolis, people told me they were going to help me - but they were there to break contracts," he reveals.

"I shan't name names. The only name I want to mention is US Postal, who believed in me."


And then there are the whispers of drug use.

[ image: Armstrong (right) visits the 1997 Tour as he recovers from cancer]
Armstrong (right) visits the 1997 Tour as he recovers from cancer
Even in his moment of triumph, when he has cut a swathe through the 1999 Tour, helping to rehabilitate the event after the scandals of last year, there have been attempts to discredit him.

French newspapers like Le Monde - stung by the lack of home success in the event and determined to unearth more salacious stories - have hinted throughout the race that Armstrong's success may not just be the result of his talent and months of training.

But the rider himself dismissed the insinuations and he was exonerated by cycling's governing body UCI.

[ image: Media circus: Armstrong has brushed with controversy in the 1999 Tour]
Media circus: Armstrong has brushed with controversy in the 1999 Tour
Minute traces of corticoids that were found in a drugs test were the result of an ointment to "treat a skin allergy" and did not breach Tour rules.

"Le Monde is looking for a doping story, but there's not one," he insisted.

Now Armstrong has put all his problems behind him - as well as the rest of the Tour de France field.

And he is even beginning to make waves in his homeland, a country not renowned for its interest in cycling.

President of the Professional Cyclists Union Heinz Verbruggen: "Lance's victory could be seen as a pivotal point in cycling"
The American press is now heaping praise on a sportsman previously ignored in the on-rush for baseball, basketball and gridiron news.

His achievements have won over both American and French sports fans.

As the USA Today newspaper heralded: "The French love miracles. They have have the town of Lourdes, where the desperately ill flock for salvation.

"Now they have Lance Armstrong."

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