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Sunday, 23 July, 2000, 15:29 GMT 16:29 UK
Tough Texan's battle
Armstrong at Sestrieres
The American hero heads for Tour victory in 1999
So much has been written about double Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong's defeat of both cancer and his cycling rivals that it has almost become a cliché. Reading the man's own words puts much of it into perspective, and reveals the many sides of this unique sportsman.

Most sports fans know that Lance Armstrong is the man who survived cancer to win the Tour de France. But the bare facts hide the reality of what he went through in the dark days of 1996.

  Armstrong's career
1992: Turned professional, 2nd in GP of Zurich
1993. World road race world champion, stage win in Tour de France
1994: 2nd in Liège-Bastogne-Liège and San Sebastian classic
1995: Winner, Tour Dupont, San Sebastian classic, Tour de France stage win
1996: Winner, Tour Dupont, Fleche Wallonne, 2nd in Paris-Nice and three other major races before cancer disgnosis
1997: No races
1998: Winner, Tour of Luxembourg, fourth in two world championship events and Tour of Spain
1999: Four stage wins and winner, Tour de France
2000: Stage win and winner, Tour de France
His recent autobiography - It's Not About the Bike - My Journey Back to Life - reveals the torturous struggle and triumphant return to form of a headstrong individual who is mentally and physically as strong as an ox.

It is the chapter describing the horrific developments of one week in October 1996 which is most shocking.

The American had felt unwell throughout the summer, abandoned the Tour de France after five days and disappointed on home soil at the Atlanta Olympics.

But he viewed the flu-like symptoms and splitting headaches as an occupational hazard and could point to good results in the spring as evidence that there was nothing seriously wrong.

However just days after celebrating his 25th birthday, this apparently fit athlete started coughing blood. His testicle had also swelled up "to three times its normal size".

The Texan knew he had to act. What he did not realise was that he was at death's door, about to be handed a 50% chance of survival by a specialist who admitted later that the odds of success were nearer one in 20 than one in two.

Armstrong leaves the 1996 Tour
The 1996 Tour when Armstrong abandoned feeling ill
This former world champion - the youngest in road racing history - was given the shock of his life - he had cancer.

Minutes later he was shown a chest x-ray that revealed tumours the size of golf balls in his lungs, as well as the testicular problem.

With post-operative sterility a real threat, he made a harrowing journey to a sperm bank and then faced surgery to remove the infected reproductive organ.

Armstrong in the rainbow jersey
Road racing's youngest world champion in 1993
Doctors believed the cancer was so advanced that even delaying treatment by a week could prove fatal. Two lesions were then found on his brain.

This mentally numbing process took just 10 days- half the time it takes to win a Tour de France. Within the three- week time span of the race he would later conquer, Armstrong had successfully undergone brain surgery.

The book's description of this experience, and the cyclist's four intensive courses of chemotherapy, is not for those with weak stomachs.

  Armstrong at the Tour
1993: Did not finish despite stage win
1994: Did not finish
1995 36th after one stage win, team-mate Fabio Casertelli died in Pyrenean crash
1996 Did not finish
1999: Winner of four stages and Tour
2000: Winner of one stage and Tour
But then Armstrong had battled against the odds throughout his life.

The famous American surname he shares with moonwalker Neil, and which the French press famously used to describe him as being "on another planet" last summer, is not his by birth.

His real father was called Gunderson, although the book reveals thinly-disguised contempt for the man he calls "the DNA donor".

Armstrong pre-cancer
Much of Armstrong's muscle bulk was lost to chemotherapy....
That is nothing compared to the hatred reserved for Terry Amstrong, the stepfather who the author claims beat him and cheated on his mother.

As the marriage ended, Armstrong became a teenage rebel - albeit one who excelled at endurance sports and in particular the triathlon.

The account of his difficult adolescence is similar to the attitude displayed when the Texan arrived in Europe as a young professional cyclist, with little respect for authority and tradition.

Climbing in the Alps, Tour 2000
...but the weight loss has helped his Tour climbing
This detail, and the way Armstrong has used the book to get back at those who have crossed him, reveals that he is no saint - for all his current charity work.

Some might call it a champion's self confidence, but others would regard the way he lays into past enemies as naked arrogance, if not petty score-settling.

Cofidis, the French team who signed him shortly before the cancer diagnosis and then attempted to renegotiate the contract, come in for severe abuse.

So do the French journalists who accused him of doping in the 1999 Tour, and his mother's two husbands - the men who supplied his DNA and surname.

Lance Armstrong rides towards victory in the Tour Dupont
Tour Dupont: On roads where Armstrong was later reborn as a rider
This year's mid-Tour spat with Marco Pantani also proved that Armstrong has not mellowed sufficiently to shy away from a good public row, and recent success has come with a return of his more outspoken nature.

However the book is also generous - both to what Armstrong calls "the cancer community" - both victims and medical staff - and his family.

He met his wife Kristin while setting up the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which works to alleviate cancer suffering, and typically, Armstrong started a row with her well before he began the relationship.

He also admits that his post-recovery behaviour was unfair on a woman who had given up a well-paid job to follow him to Europe and then back to Texas again.

At that stage of 1998 he wanted to retire, and spent time drinking beer and playing golf before being shaken from his lethargy by two old friends.

Armstrong and family
Wife Kristin and mother Linda with the double Tour winner
They took him and his bike into the mountains where he once dominated America's biggest race, the Tour Dupont, and from that point there was no looking back down the road.

Armstrong's rise back to glory was not as quick as the 10-day fall, but in just over a year he would be married, a Tour winner and a father.

With it all came stardom, including audiences with President Bill Clinton and talk show king David Letterman in a nation with little time for the sport of cycling.

But despite the glory Armstrong's greatest happiness is Luke David, the son created by IVF using that sperm he banked during his darkest hour.

Armstrong and son
With son Luke David Armstrong during the Tour
It is another tale of hope coming from struggle. Just like winning the Tour de France in fact.

But it is one which puts sport and the yellow jersey into perspective. Because as the book's title says, for this champion, It's not About the Bike.

It's Not About the Bike by Lance Armstrong with Sally Jenkins is published by Yellow Jersey press.

See also:

21 Jul 00 | Tour de France
17 Jul 00 | Other Sports
13 Jul 00 | Tour de France
01 Jul 00 | Tour de France
30 Jun 00 | Tour de France
19 Jul 00 | Sports Talk
28 Jul 99 | Tour de France
18 Aug 99 | Tour de France
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