- The Washington Times - Monday, July 25, 2005

PARIS — For six hours, the surgeon scraped tumors from Lance Armstrong’s brain. Once the delicate operation was over and as the anesthetic was wearing off, the doctor checked whether his knife had done lasting damage by asking the patient his name.

“Lance Armstrong,” came the reply, according to his autobiography. “And I can kick your [butt] on a bike any day.”

Against such implacable will, is it any wonder that Armstrong’s Tour de France rivals barely stood a chance?

Rarely has sport seen a champion like the headstrong Texan who came back from the brink of death to put a seven-year stranglehold on cycling’s most prestigious and taxing race — culminating with his triumph yesterday that sent him victoriously into retirement.

In doing so, Armstrong earned huge fame and fortune, inspired countless fellow cancer victims and brought cycling new fans in America — where the sport had been all but invisible until his arrival.

He ruffled feathers, too, as he reshaped a quintessentially European sport, sometimes thumbing his nose at its time-honored traditions.

From humble beginnings, Armstrong grew into a man of many facets:

A divorced man with a rock star girlfriend; a hard-driving boss who nurtured grudges against other riders but was able to relax over cold beer, Tex-Mex food and margaritas; an ardent cancer campaigner who credited the disease with helping him win the Tour by reshaping him physically and mentally; a consummate professional who finished last in his first pro race; a Tour champion with a rage to win who retired with barely a backward glance.

He said the best thing about being Lance Armstrong was “being able to have a job that I love immensely, yet then being able to use that job as a platform to speak about other things, bigger things, like the fight against cancer. We should all be so lucky.”

The worst things, he said, were the persistent but unproven suspicions of doping that dogged Armstrong since his first Tour win in 1999. For some skeptics, particularly in France, his comeback from cancer was almost too amazing to be true.

The persistent questions made for a sometimes uneasy relationship with reporters who followed his every pedal stroke. In an interview with the Associated Press four days before he won his seventh straight title yesterday in Paris, he likened the Tour press room to a “cesspool.”

“I won’t miss that,” he said.

He stored away perceived slights — doubts about his form, his will, his methods — and used them to fuel his drive. “I’ll show them” could have been his motto.

Armstrong was born Lance Edward Gunderson on Sept.18, 1971, in Dallas, Texas. His mother, Linda, was just 17. She named him after Lance Rentzel, a wide receiver for the Dallas Cowboys.

She separated from his father, Edward Gunderson, when Lance was a baby and married Terry Armstrong, a traveling salesman. He adopted Lance.

Armstrong said in his autobiography, “It’s Not About the Bike,” that his adoptive father sometimes beat him with a wooden paddle. Terry and Linda Armstrong split when Lance was 14. Gunderson was tracked down by reporters after his son became famous, but Lance showed no interest in his dad.

“Just because he provided the DNA that made me doesn’t make him my father,” Armstrong said in the book.

Bikes were with Armstrong almost from the start. He got a plastic three-wheeler for his second birthday and a real bike from his grandfather at age 5. His mother said he used to wheel around the block in a Darth Vader costume.

Armstrong recalls a brown bike with yellow wheels he got when he was about 7.

Too uncoordinated to play football, the sport of choice where he grew up in Plano, Texas, the youngster swam and rode his bike for training. His ability quickly became evident.

He won a junior triathlon, IronKids, at age 13, and says that by 16 he was earning $20,000 a year from triathlons and bike races. His mother took him to races like the “Hotter ‘N Hell Hundred” in Wichita Falls, Texas, and a time trial in New Mexico, which helped get him noticed.

The U.S. Cycling Federation invited him to train with the junior national team.

But Armstrong says he was an impetuous and raw young rider, not the coolly calculating strategist he would develop into on the Tour.

In his first big international race, the amateur world championships in 1990 in Japan, he exhausted himself by riding from the front and finished 11th.

Having announced, “I’m here to win it for me and my mom,” Armstrong placed 14th in the road race at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. Then he turned professional — and promptly finished last out of 111 riders in his first pro race, the San Sebastian Classic in Spain.

A major breakthrough came the following year, when he won a world championship at age 21. He also rode in his first Tour, winning the eighth stage by breaking from the pack and sprinting for the line at Verdun. But he abandoned the race a few days later, defeated by the Alps.

“Too long and too cold,” he said of the mountains, where he would crush rivals later in his career.

He won another Tour stage in 1995 — three days after the death of his teammate, Fabio Casartelli, the 1992 Olympic champion, in a crash in the Pyrenees.

Armstrong initially brushed off his health problems the next year. He thought he had the flu or was simply tired. He ignored the swelling in his right testicle.

Finally, he sought treatment and on Oct.2, 1996, got the news that changed his life: He had cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain.

The treatment — surgery and repeated cycles of chemotherapy — was brutal. Today, a half-moon shaped scar still shows from under Armstrong’s cropped hair — a reminder of brain surgery.

“It put pain in perspective for me. It put suffering and defeat in perspective,” Armstrong said in the AP interview. “The illness taught me how to really suffer and to suffer slowly, and it’s not as if you get sick and it hurts and a week later you get better; it’s a long type of suffering, physical, emotional, mental, social. It gave me a certain sense of hunger and drive and determination that I was going to come back and give it my all.”

Still recovering, he sat out the 1997 and 1998 tours. He married Kristin Richard in May 1998, taking his bike to the wedding. In October, he completed the Tour of Spain, placing fourth. That prompted an e-mail from Johan Bruyneel, director of the U.S. Postal Service squad, who became the brain behind Armstrong’s Tour wins.

“You will look great on the podium of the Tour de France,” read the e-mail.

And he did. Yesterday, Armstrong’s children — Luke, age 5, and twins Grace and Isabelle, age 3 — joined their father as he stood on the podium one last time.

“Vive le Tour, forever,” the champion said.

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