Work in Sports
More than just Armstrong
Epic ride turns tragedy into triumph
Posted: Friday November 26, 1999 11:50 AM
PARIS (Reuters) -- By winning the 1999 Tour de France, Lance Armstrong added the final chapter to a story designed to get Hollywood film tycoons scrambling for their check books.
With his squeaky clean good looks, big blue eyes and soft baritone voice, Armstrong might have stepped straight out of an all-American action movie.
Now he also has an incredible story to tell which begins with a fight for his life and ends with his triumph in the world's greatest cycling race.
Armstrong had established himself as one of the sport's most exciting talents when doctors told him he was suffering from cancer of the testicles in late 1996.
Some predicted that even if he made a full recovery his career as a rider would be over, at least at the highest level.
But two years later he returned to cycling and another 12 months on he was riding down Paris' Champs-Elysees with the stars and stripes flag draped across his back after becoming the second American winner of the Tour de France after Greg LeMond.
"I feel it's a fantastic story but it's not Hollywood out here, it's a true story," he said after the race.
"I worked hard. I sacrificed everything for this race and we came here to win it. On the top of the last three or four years of my life, this is a good story."
Doping allegations surfaceBut the unfolding fairytale seemed too good to be true for many skeptics and Armstrong has had to face a series of doping allegations.
Eyebrows were raised when the 27-year-old Texan thrashed his rivals in the first time-trial in Metz and then won a grueling mountain stage in Sestrieres after a long solo ride.
But the whispers and suspicions surrounding Armstrong came to nothing, prompting the young American to turn on his detractors.
"Do you really see me thoughtless enough to use substances which could damage my health after the ordeal I went through?" he asked journalists keen to jump on another doping scandal after the drugs turmoil which rocked the 1998 Tour. "The answer is no."
Armstrong who underwent a long, painful rehabilitation process in his hometown of Austin, Texas, returned to professional cycling at the beginning of the 1998 season.
At first the results were disappointing but he refused to give up and stepped up his training with the help of his new team manager Johan Bruyneel.
"The illness was a good thing for me. It made me come back with a new perspective," he said.
The Texan, who was crowned world champion when he was only 21 in Oslo in 1993, was mainly regarded as a one-day classics specialist, winning the San Sebastian Classic and the Fleche Wallonne.
"I was there in Oslo and you could see already how talented he was," said Bruyneel.
His two stage wins in the 1993 and 1995 Tour brought him some respect but he was still considered unlikely ever to win the three-week race.
In 1995, riding for the Motorola team, his Tour de France was marred by the death of his Italian teammate Fabio Casartelli who fell in a Pyrenees pass.
Armstrong was badly affected by the tragedy but two days later he won the stage in Limoges, pointing to the sky in tribute to his dead friend.
"The feeling of Limoges will never happen again. It was a win for the team, the family, the friends, the Italian people," he said. 'I'll never feel those emotions again."
Bruyneel convinces ArmstrongWhen the Belgian Bruyneel retired in 1998 and was appointed U.S. Postal team manager, Armstrong's life as a rider changed.
Bruyneel convinced the American he could become a great Tours rider and his confidence was justified when Armstrong rode to a surprise win in the 1999 Tour du Luxembourg.
Under Bruyneel's guidance, Armstrong started to train even harder as he focused his mind on the biggest prize in world cycling, the Tour de France.
"Johan was the first person to believe in Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France. I thought it was crazy but he believed in it from day one," he said.
Armstrong learned to climb as well as to ride against the clock and his improvement was obvious from the very outset when he won the Tour prologue in Le Puy-du-Fou and took the yellow jersey for the first time of his career.
It could have been a one-off performance but Armstrong continued to excel in the absence of the previous two winners, Germany's Jan Ullrich and Italy's Marco Pantani.
And just to seal his remarkable story, the American completed the fastest Tour de France in the history of the event at an average speed over 40 kilometers an hour.His extraordinary victory against all the odds won him congratulations from U.S. President Bill Clinton and left his fans looking forward to the sequel.
Copyright 2003 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.