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The Next Stage (cont.)

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By Austin Murphy

The devil is down there somewhere. Shortly after dark on Jan. 24 Armstrong is looking out the window of a private jet at the skyline of Las Vegas. He isn't crazy about the city; he doesn't like to gamble. "I worked too hard for my money to be throwing it away," he says -- a remark that sounds funny coming from a man who will be paid $150,000 to deliver a 30-minute speech to a group of Carrier air-conditioner salesmen on the following afternoon.

That's only one reason the man is not clipping coupons in retirement. Nike has extended its longtime relationship with Armstrong, Trek has conferred "athlete for life" status on him, and other companies are lining up to cash in on his aura. Most notable among them is American Century, the Kansas City-based investment house that manages $100 billion of assets and signed a three-year endorsement deal with Armstrong in February. Armstrong is especially comfortable with American Century: It is partly owned by the Stowers Institute, which was founded by Jim and Virginia Stowers, two cancer survivors who want to give their grandchildren, in the words of institute cochairman Richard Brown, "better choices for the treatment of illness and injury." After investigating dozens of centers in hospitals and universities around the country, and being turned off by what Brown describes as the "heavily bureaucratic, very expensive overhead layer of costs" often associated with academic research, the Stowerses decided to build their own institute.

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It opened in November 2000. With its $2 billion endowment and its promise to scientists that they can spend their time doing research instead of writing grant proposals, "we have achieved noteworthy success in a short period of time," says Brown. "I'm certain we would qualify as candidates for rookie of the year."

So when Armstrong teamed up with American Century, his foundation linked up with the Stowers Institute, which shares his scorn for red tape and his impatience for breakthroughs. Brown was among the panelists invited to stir the pot at that Feb. 17 roundtable. He left impressed by the LAF's willingness to disrupt the status quo and by Armstrong's qualifications to lead the fight. "Lance has been in the darkest places a human can imagine," says Brown, "and fought his way out."

The morning of his speech in Vegas, Armstrong calls a reporter. He wants to go for a run. (He plans to run the New York City Marathon in November.) "Lobby in half an hour," he says. He arrives incognito in Cool Hand Luke shades and a USDA Forest Service ball cap, a gift from some rangers in the Angeles National Forest, where Armstrong did a photo shoot for a Dasani water ad.

One strategy for running with someone much, much more fit than you is to have him do most of the talking. I ask Armstrong about his bike ride with President Bush last August. Armstrong is one of the three members of the President's Cancer Panel. During lunch at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush asked his guest what he needed in the fight against the disease. Replied Armstrong, "A billion dollars."

He followed that up with a letter to Bush in January reminding the President of his request and suggesting "it's time for a bold initiative to combat this disease which kills 560,000 Americans every year." Attached was an outline of the first steps in that initiative, a collaboration between the LAF and the American Cancer Society. At the bottom of the cover letter Armstrong dashed off a handwritten note: "Let's get back on the bikes ASAP!"

"Karl Rove called the next day," says Armstrong. The President's adviser praised Armstrong's initiative and said the Bush Administration wanted to work with him but did not promise any money.

This is the orbit in which Armstrong now travels. After this morning's jog, he will have lunch with Steve Wynn, whose name is on the side of the hotel in which we're staying, and an orange-robed Tibetan monk whom Armstrong later will describe as the "Dalai Lama's assistant." Over tuna tartare, Armstrong plants a seed: He wonders about the possibility of holding an LAF fund-raiser at Wynn's resort. These galas, along with the sale of wristbands, are the foundation's lifeblood: In one week last fall, LAF fund-raisers in Austin and New York City took in $12 million.

Of course, while it's great to raise "a million or a hundred million or 200 million," Armstrong will tell his audience of Carrier reps this afternoon, "what we really need is the b word, and that's billions." When Armstrong is involved, there is always hope: The next day he is scheduled to speak with White House budget director Joshua Bolten, who will follow up Rove's call.

Just before 2 p.m. Armstrong is led down a corridor at the MGM Grand -- the very corridor, he will soon tell his rapt listeners, in which he was introduced to Sheryl Crow. Nine days later he and Crow will officially break off their five-month engagement. Two nights after that, during his weekly Sirius satellite radio show, Armstrong will describe Crow as "one of the wisest, most gifted people I've ever met," a woman who showed him "a love that I never knew," and he will play the song Letter to God, off her album Wildflower, whose title song was inspired by Armstrong.

(On Feb. 24 Crow will reveal that she has breast cancer and has undergone "minimally invasive" surgery. After 33 radiation treatments, according to her website, she plans to begin touring on June 12.)

Waiting for Armstrong in the greenroom is a gaggle of yellow-shirted Carrier executives, including Geraud Darnis, the company president. "I grew up in France," he tells Armstrong, hastily adding, "I am a big fan."

In the arena, after an introductory video, Armstrong strides down a ramp to the lectern, which he doesn't need, since he will speak without notes for the next 35 minutes. "I was a little surprised when I found out that a French guy runs the company," he tells the reps, whose laughter fills the room. Armstrong is off and running even before unsheathing one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against cancer: his story. He transports his audience to the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where a doctor pulled aside Armstrong's mother, Linda, to tell her, "We don't think your son's going to make it."

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