Remember Miguel Indurain of Spain, arguably the greatest cyclist of all time after becoming only the third man to win the Tour de France five times, and the only man to win it five times in a row? No? Probably the reason for that is that when the sport of cycling is mentioned, one name always floats to the very top—and that name is Lance Armstrong. Miguel Indurain achieved his incredible feats in the early 1990s, and yet less than a decade later he has been replaced. This would be like Babe Ruth replaced in the 1930s or Muhammad Ali being completely forgotten a couple years after retirement. Looking at how Lance Armstrong’s very name has become synonymous with cycling, even less than decade after a previously unparalleled record makes hi accomplishments all that more impressive.
The Tour de France is a vicious race designed to break down even the greatest athletes in the world. It is 2,300 miles rode over 23 days that involves two different mountain ranges and is designed to literally punish the athletes who compete. Lance Armstrong won a record seven Tour de France races in a row, spanning from 1999 to 2005, after which he retired. Before Lance four different men had won the Tour de France five times, and one (Miguel Indurain) had won them consecutively. No one has ever dreamed of seven, much less seven in a row, until Lance did just that. Even more amazing are the obstacles he had to overcome to get to that point. If Hollywood made a movie where the main character went through what he did, no one would have ever believed it—except for the fact that we have been able to watch him go beyond hero, to almost a truly icon status.
Lance was born September 18, 1971, in Texas, raised by a teenage mother who instilled in him the value of hard work, and of refusing to quit. At an early age it was already obvious that Lance had amazing athletic talent and a competitive spirit. At the age of thirteen won the Iron Kids triathlon, and became a professional tri-athlete at the incredibly young age of 16. While proving his worth at running, swimming, and cycling, it would be the latter that would end up taking over, and cycling is where Lance would make his mark.
In 1991 Lance was the U.S. Amateur Champion. The next year he joined the U.S. National team, and proceeded to win several amateur races, and qualified to compete in the Olympics. After the Olympics in 1992, at the age of 21, he turned pro. This was impressive, considering how young he was. Not only was he a pro, but he was pretty competitive, too, though not yet to the level of dominance he is known for today. His first pro race was rough, he finished dead last, 111th place, but that was not including 80 cyclists who did not even finished. When Lance is asked about that race he is famous for having responded, “My mum would have killed me if I’d quit.”
After that one last place finished, it seemed like things would only improve for the young American cyclist. In 1993 he was credited with ten wins, including stages in the Tour DuPont, U.S. National Pro Road Race, U.S. Thrift Triple Crown, stages at the Tour of Sweden, as well as a stage at the Tour de France. With each victory came another notch in the belt of Armstrong, who finished the year by winning the 1993 World Road Championship in Oslo, Norway. This time not only did he win, but he won easily. After coming in 2nd overall in Tour DuPont and 3rd overall in the Tour of Sweden, it seemed like there would be absolutely nothing stopping Lance
For the next three years, that seemed to be the case. Although Armstrong did not match his great 1993 year, he still competed very well as a pro and quickly made a name for himself as the best American cyclist in the world. As a youth, he also admits to being brash, sometimes even arrogant, with no sense of modesty. With the combination of talent and youth, he had that false sense of invincibility that many young athletes possess. In 1996 Lance signed with a French based cycling team for a whopping two million dollars. He was on top of the world, and the only thing quicker than his ascent would be how quickly it came crashing down.
In 1996 Lance was in agonizing pain and had to stop pedaling. After severe migraines, blurred vision, and coughing up blood he was still hesitant to go to the doctor, but severe and unnatural swelling, he knew something was wrong. Tests revealed not only that Lance Armstrong had cancer, but that it was bad. It had started as testicular cancer, which would have given him a decent 50/50 chance to live, but the tests showed that it spread to his stomach, his brain, and his lungs. He had twelve tumors on his lungs alone. One doctor commented that Lance’s cancer was as bad as that type could possibly get, and his chances for survival were well under 50%.
Lance underwent three surgeries, two on his brain, and had to go through radiation treatment, also known as chemotherapy. He had to undergo four separate bouts of chemo. This opened his eyes to the difficulties and suffering that millions of people went through. In a widely publicized interview later, Lance would say, “Whatever I do in cycling, or whatever I do in the Tour de France, or whatever I do in training, I’ll never suffer like I did then.” During one of the hardest and most difficult times in his life, things were about to get even harder. Armstrong’s team managers came to visit him during his hardest, most painful point. He thought they were there to encourage him, instead they told him they were cutting his pay, and that they were going to release him from the team.
During his time between chemo he remembers trying to ride his bike, and watching fifty year old ladies pass him on much weaker bikes, and him being unable to catch up. This taught him humility, as did the pain and suffering from his treatments. Even before the treatments were finished, before he even knew he was going to live, he set up the Lance Armstrong Foundation to help fight cancer and support families going through this painful process. Lance knew the only reason he was alive was because of good medicine, good doctors, and good technology, and he vowed to make the donations and do the work to improve all three for future people. The cancer eventually went into submission, and if the story ended here, it would still have been an inspiration, but Lance wasn’t willing to quit. Immediately dubbing himself a “cancer survivor” and not a cancer victim, he began training to get back into cycling.
In Lance’s first race back he pulled to the side of the road half way through, and quit. He admitted that he pushed himself too hard and wasn’t ready, and everyone who looked on thought that would be the end of Lance Armstrong’s career. He kept training, and tried to get other teams to pick him up, but no one wanted to give him a chance. In 1999 a new team, the U.S. Postal Service decided to take a huge risk give Lance Armstrong a second chance. A new modest and humbled Armstrong, who trained harder than he ever had before, with the intensity and determination of a man possessed, took advantage and never looked back.
In the beginning of the Tour de France in 1999 Lance stunned everybody by leading the entire race the first ten days. Still, the major test would be the mountains, and in the first day of serious mountain climbing two riders managed to break away and give themselves a major lead. No one was sure how he would handle the mountains. This is the point where even the worst moments of Lance’s life came back to help him. The cancer ate away at him, but it also made him fifteen pounds lighter, even when he was packed with muscle. Fifteen pounds is a big deal when riding up a mountain, and Lance proceeded to do something that was unthinkable: he caught up to the leaders by “attacking” the course uphill. While everyone else was surviving, he was actually gaining a lead and passing riders while going up a mountain! The hours and hours of pushing himself to the limits in his new training paid off, and he passed the surprised leaders on the way further up the hill. Nobody could catch him. No one could come close. Lance Armstrong’s name instantly became famous world wide.
In fact, Lance’s ability to climb mountains, and even pass the best pros in the world going uphill convinced many people that he had to be taking steroids, since no one had ever seen such a thing, but he was tested every day, and he passed every single test. The accusations were silenced, and the world watched as a new Lance Armstrong: humble, modest, and determined to the point of being single-minded, became a living legend.
If Lance walked away there, this would be one of the greatest sports stories of all time, but that’s not Lance’s style. Lance knew he was an inspiration to cancer survivors, and to others who were still going through treatments. He told himself he had a responsibility to use his new found fame, and the wealth that would come with it, to battle cancer and to lift up the people who suffered from it. He wanted to be a living message of hope.
That year Lance started a charity race in Austin that brought in over one million dollars for cancer research, and he has continued that tradition ever since. Lance went back to win a second Tour de France, and then a third, and then he stunned the world as he proceeded to do what no cyclist had ever done: he won seven in a row. The only thing that stopped Lance from going after eight, was his own decision to retire to focus more on fighting cancer. Seven straight years he won the Tour de France, a record that may stand up there as one of the all time great accomplishments. How amazing is this feat? When Shaquille O’Neal, the famous basketball player, was interviewed on ESPN he was asked what was the greatest accomplishment of any athlete. He answered that it was Lance Armstrong’s seven victories, and that was without even thinking about the cancer or how improbable it was for Lance to even go back to being a pro after what he went through. It was praise from one great to another.
Lance Armstrong is almost as famous for his continuing crusade against cancer as he is for his amazing accomplishments as a pro cyclist. He retired from going after an eighth Tour de France victory to put all his energy into continuing the fight against cancer. Giving the tenacity Lance is known for, and his commitment to everything he sets his mind to, there are very few doubters that he will make a huge difference. When asked what his greatest accomplishment is, true to form, Lance doesn’t even mention cycling. “I prefer to be known as a cancer survivor. It’s my proudest achievement.”
Great words from a man and an athlete who has literally been through it all, and has kept the kind of rare modesty that turns a simple hero into a living legend.