Lance Armstrong’s Incredible Comeback

(Editor’s note: Published June 5, 1998, in the Philadelphia Daily News. Re-reading the part about Lance Armstrong’s reckoning and decision to commit to being a great cyclist again in the spring of 1996 feels more ominous than it did when I wrote it. That said, even with all the guy did to hurt the integrity of cycling, his impact on cancer survivors and research is impossible to ignore. And I appreciated that his wife Kristin shared a note Armstrong had written to the teenager that leads off the story. It was a window into him that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.) 

The letters and emails come in—from cancer survivors, from those still fighting the disease, from those who have lost someone to the disease. The letters go out. Feisty, personal words of encouragement, like these, to Billy, a 13-year-old from Austin, Texas.

I heard that your last doctor’s appointment didn’t go the way you planned. I’m sorry to hear about that, but I want to talk about the bigger picture with you. Cancer is a funny illness that comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes better or worse. Sometimes a short fight, sometimes a long fight. The key word is fight. When I met you at St. Andrews, I felt I was meeting a fighter and shaking the hand of a winner. Regardless of relapse or last checkup, you must keep the faith. The faith in your doctors, the faith in your family, and most importantly the faith in yourself. This, my friend, is absolutely the best thing you can do for yourself. Tell your cancer to go away. Plain and simple, tell it, “Get out of my life. I’m a busy guy.”

I get asked every day why I returned to professional cycling. The answer isn’t about money, winning races or fame. The answer is because of people like you. Cancer patients that want to live forever and fight like hell. I will ride my bike tomorrow for five hours and think of you all day. That’s right, thinking of you, the fighter. Hang in there, my friend.

Yours truly,

Lance Armstrong

At Sunday’s First Union USPRO Championship, Lance Armstrong will take his bike to the starting line on Benjamin Franklin Parkway and continue what is becoming a remarkable and unprecedented comeback, in the making 20 months since he was told he had testicular cancer.

The disease cost him 2 years of his career as the most promising and talented American racer of his era. It cost him money. (His French team, Cofidis, negotiated its way out of a 2-year, $2.5 million contract as soon as it found out about his illness.) It nearly cost him his life.

And he has accepted it all.

“It’s been an unbelievable two years, but that’s the way life goes,” Armstrong, 26, said earlier this week. “It’s been well worth it, though I wouldn’t want to have to do it again. I’m pleased with the way things turned out.”

Said his wife, the former Kristin Richard: “It changed his life, and because he’s recognizable and was so open about it, it changed other people’s lives. Countless lives were helped because he had the courage to come out and talk about the disease. It’s profound.”

‘What Are My Odds of Surviving?’

In the beginning, it was only profoundly disturbing. Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Oct. 2, 1990. He was first told he had an 80 percent chance of recovery, but doctors came back several weeks later with more dire news. Before the affected testicle was removed, the cancer had spread to his abdomen, his lungs, and his brain. There would be surgery to remove the lesions on his brain, and intensive rounds of chemotherapy.

“What are my odds of surviving?” he asked. Less than 50 percent, the doctors replied.

The surgeries were successful and so was the chemo, though it took a terrible toll, eating at his physical fitness. Thankfully, as a trained athlete, he had plenty to spare.

And even as he fought his way back toward health, he already had begun to think of a way to help others.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation was founded soon after the cyclist’s diagnosis, in an Austin restaurant, mostly as a vehicle for a charity bike ride. Today it has three full-time employees and offers two $50,000 grants for research on urological cancer, as well as information on the disease and support for its victims. The second running of its annual charity ride, the Ride for the Roses, included more than 4,000 cyclists and raised about $500,000. Armstrong vows to build the event into the biggest charity ride in the United States.

“We have some expenses to pay, but even so it was a really good take for a second-year event,” he said. “There’s a trust thing you have to build up. People will give to the United Way and such, but it’s harder for a new event. I’m very proud.”

And very much in demand. Beyond the media attention his comeback is stirring, he receives a steady stream of letters, many from men who found they had testicular cancer after Armstrong’s case raised their awareness. He offers what help he can—going as far as to get his doctors in touch with a letter writer—and tries to keep pushing the issue into the public consciousness.

A Step Back

Armstrong, though, found little help when he announced last fall that his doctors had given him permission to train seriously again and he wished to return to the pro circuit. No offers came out of Europe, the ultimate cycling proving ground and home to the biggest and best teams.

He ended up signing with the U.S. Postal Service squad, an up-and-comer with both a European and domestic racing schedule but a relatively small $4 million budget (the biggest Euro-teams have budgets twice as big).

Lance and Kristin moved into an apartment in Nice, France, with Armstrong feeling strong and expecting to do well. He finished an encouraging 15th in the four-day Ruta del Sol stage race, But trouble was brewing.

“I started too aggressively, probably did too much too soon,” he said. “I probably should have taken things more gradually.”

It all came to a head in the second stage of the Paris-Nice stage race, in March.

“His confidence had been shaken by how hard it was at the beginning of the season,” said Mark Gorski, the U.S. Postal Service team manager. “He finished 15th in Ruta del Sol, which is a good placing. But he had to work incredibly hard. If you compare it to spring training in baseball, he had to work so hard to get in peak form, as compared to before [he was sick].

“At Paris-Nice, he didn’t do as well as he wanted. It was windy and cold. He didn’t do as well as he expected in the time trial on the first day. On the second … he reached a point of extreme frustration.”

Armstrong pulled to the side of the road and got off his bike.

“I got a phone call from Lance while in the market [in Nice],” Richard said. “He said he had stopped. I was worried that he had crashed or had the flu. But he said he was coming back to Nice and we would talk. That made me even more worried.”

The two had a long conversation about Armstrong and his motivation. After all he had been through, he wasn’t sure that he was ready to commit himself as fully as he needed to if he wanted to succeed in pro cycling again. They decided to return to the States and figure things out.

‘It Was Magic’

In time, he decided he indeed wanted to race. He spoke with old friend and former U.S. national team coach Chris Carmichael, and they put together a plan to get him in shape for Sunday’s USPRO Championship, which he had identified in February as a race he thought he had a realistic shot at winning.

The plan came together perfectly. Amid his training, he and Kristin were married on May 8 in Montecito, Calif.

A refreshed Armstrong raced a little for the Postal Service team, then had his coming-out party on May 22, the Friday night before the Ride for the Roses. He won a circuit race through the city’s nightclub district with 20,000 spectators hollering for him.

“When he came across the finish line, it was magic,” Richard wrote in an online diary she keeps on the foundation’s web site.

His form has continued to improve. He finished second to teammate Frankie Andreu in Tuesday’s First Union Invitational in Lancaster.

“It continues to astound me,” Gorski said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s phenomenal to come back from what he has been through. He was the strongest guy in the field [at Lancaster].

“He had shown flashes, trained hard. Physically, he was doing fine. He was having more difficulty emotionally and mentally. He was so aggressive; he needed to be more patient.

“Once he got used to the idea that he wasn’t go to win a Tour de France stage or the World Championships in his first two months back, his confidence began to grow again.”

And now, improbably, he approaches the 156-mile USPRO Championship with an apparent shot at winning it. He has done it before. He shattered the field on the penultimate climb of the Manayunk Wall in 1993 on the way to a $1 million bonus for winning the three races of the Thrift Drug triple crown.

And where weeks ago nothing was expected of him, now nobody’s quite sure what to expect. Not even Armstrong.

But there is hope and encouragement. Lance Armstrong will hear it on the streets of Philadelphia from fans on Sunday. And he’ll get a daily dose in his mailbox from folks who know what a real challenge is.

Not Yet the Competitor

Asked about living as a athlete and a cancer survivor, Armstrong mentioned an article he saw recently on golfer Paul Azinger, who had a lymphoma removed from his right shoulder in 1993.

“Azinger said it took a while to feel like a professional golfer again, as opposed to like a cancer survivor,” Armstrong said. “Instead of saying, ‘I have to make this shot,’ you say, ‘Whether I make this shot or not, I’m just glad to be out here.’

“In time, that fades and you become more competitive. At this point, I’m a year-and-a-half out. I’m still looking at this like a survivor.”

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