Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Survivor secret

Armstrong: Tour de France champ

Cocky Texan Lance Armstrong, 31, felt "humbled" this year by his victorious, problem-plagued showing in the 2,129-mile Tour de France. He is now one of only five riders in the 100-year history of the race to win it five times and one of only two men to win five straight. He already vowed to try for a sixth.

Though he beat German cyclist Jan Ulrich by only 61 seconds over the 23-day race, Armstrong may have ridden his greatest race ever in overcoming stomach flu, tendonitis, mechanical problems, two crashes, one caused by a sideline fan's bag hooking his handlebar. He didn't physically dominate the competition, but he was every bit the quick-thinking, tenacious survivor. To avoid one pile-up, he cut across a hayfield and rejoined the race. He had to make the Tour's most brutal mountain climb with a faulty back brake rubbing against the wheel.

Armstrong feels driven to win for himself, for his U.S. Postal Service teammates and for millions of other cancer survivors who take heart from his extraordinary comeback from testicular cancer in 1996. It spread to his lungs and brain. He nearly died. An Indianapolis specialist directed his chemotherapy treatments. Three years later, in 1999, he won his first Tour de France. Before the cancer, the highest he placed was 36th , and three other years, he didn't even finish. Armstrong credits the cancer with making him a champion. He has said his disease was "best thing that ever happened to me." It taught him to value every day, and ask the highest and best use for his life from then on. Now he uses the experience of surgeries and chemo to motivate his racing. He has told cancer survivors that winning the Tour is easy compared to the ordeal of fighting cancer.

"Drawing on that experience helps, and is perhaps one of the secrets of winning the Tour," he said.

The champion is still learning, especially about overconfidence. At one stage this Tour, his overall lead was cut to 15 seconds. Before the race he expected to win by his usual comfortable margin of six or seven minutes. "You start to take things for granted," he said Sunday. "I don't plan on being this vulnerable next year."

For a survivor like Armstrong, that means more than just training or eating right. It's also about persevering and not letting setbacks defeat you.

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