MONTLUCON, France (AP) Relaxing in the garden of a chateau while son Luke and wife Kristin played nearby, soon-to-be triple Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong seemed to have it all.
But memories of less happy times still abound.
The Texan, about to claim his third consecutive title in the world’s toughest cycling race, also is a survivor of advanced testicular cancer that left him forever aware of life’s frailty.
“I’m still a cancer survivor. I always will be one,” he said yesterday outside the chateau where he was staying with his U.S. Postal Service team.
It’s a fact that has gotten less attention this year than during his previous Tour triumphs, much to Armstrong’s annoyance.
“It’s unfortunate for me, and it upsets me that over time they will talk about the comeback from cancer less and less,” he said. “The first year, everybody talked about it. The next year, they talked about it less and less, and this year we haven’t heard about it one time. That’s a shame.”
No longer an outsider, as he was in 1999, or the least-favorite favorite, as he was last year, Armstrong is now the dominant figure in road cycling. His performance in this year’s Tour overwhelmed his rivals, taking the spotlight from his medical background.
Armstrong continues to undergo regular checkups. These will fall off from twice a year to just once as of October, when he will mark the five-year anniversary of his diagnosis.
“It’s a landmark for the patient,” Armstrong said. “But it’s not as if I make five years and then say I’m not worried about it or not scared about it.”
“You hear a lot of stories about people who make it 10, 15, 20 years and then it comes back. So I’ll never turn my back.”
For now, Armstrong isn’t worried about reported potential cancer risks from excessive exercise.
“There’s a couple of guys that I trusted to save my life in 1996, and they did a pretty good job,” he said. “If they say, ‘Lance, we have no problem with you riding your bike 200 miles a day and trying to win the Tour de France,’ then I’ll take that. That’s good enough.”
However Armstrong considers his health background a further argument against those suspicious minds that might be tempted to link his success to doping.
“People don’t realize that with what I’ve been through, why would I go and mess with my health or my body,” said the rider, who has never tested positive for illicit products. “I’ve been given such a chance. I’m healthy now. I hope to continue to be healthy. I wouldn’t take that risk.”
Barring sickness or accidents, Armstrong is almost certain to claim a third Tour title Sunday, thanks to the commanding lead he took over his main rivals in the mountain stages of the Alps and the Pyrenees.
Belgium’s Serge Baguet won the 17th stage yesterday, edging Danish rider Jakob Piil in the final sprint to claim his first stage win ever in the grueling event.
Armstrong finished in 32nd place with the main pack, 13 seconds behind the race winner. He retained the overall leader’s yellow jersey with an unchanged advantage of 5:05 over his closest rival, Jan Ullrich of Germany. Kazakstan’s Andrei Kivilev remained third, 5:13 behind the Texan.
Today’s stage is a tough 37.82-mile individual time-trial from Montlucon to Saint-Amand-Montrond in which Kivilev is likely to face a strong challenge from Spain’s Joseba Beloki for third place in the overall standings.