I recently got back together with my old college roommate Jeff. We shared a few beers in Raleigh and caught up on family, friends and life. He’s big into cycling now, often spending his lunch break huffing while I’m hocking down BBQ or burgers.
I mentioned to him my chance meeting with Lance Armstrong. It was back before he became the household name he is now, back before he proved to be one of the toughest men on the planet. I was a local reporter. He was the rising cycling star who survived cancer. We crossed paths while he worked out at Appalachian State seeking to return to the saddle.
Jeff couldn’t find the article online, so I dug it out from my clip file. The photo comes from the woman behind the lens at Blue Ridge Blog.
Racing to Recovery
Armstrong beat cancer now looks to win world
Lance Armstrong has faced three of life’s basic conflicts and won.
Man vs. Man.
Man vs. Nature.
Man vs. Machine.
None of them were a problem.
Now he’s facing the hardest test of all – Man vs. Himself. That outcome is still uncertain.
Three years ago, Armstrong was considered a rising star in world class cycling.
In 1995, he won stage 18 of the Tour de France. That same year he won the first of two consecutive Tour DuPont titles, a race which, at the time, meandered through Beech Mountain and Boone.
Each year saw more and more titles. Each year held more and more promise.
It would all came crashing to a halt.
In October 1996, Armstrong, who had competed with some discomfort in his groin area for three years, announced that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Further tests showed it had spread to his lungs and brain.
For the next few months the 24-year-old was forced to trade racing for chemotherapy. Midway through his treatments he needed a brain operation.
The treatments would be a success. The cancer was eradicated. He had a new lease of life. That meant one thing – it was time to get back in the saddle.
Armstrong began training again this year with his sights on the world championship in Holland this fall. The first step was getting back into the shape he was once in. What better way to do that then to return to one of the scenes of his victories – Watauga County.
He spent just over a week here, riding some 130 miles a day in what he calls “the best area to train” in the U.S.
He also spent time at Appalachian State University’s Human Performance Lab, getting a statistical and scientific breakdown of where he was physically.
Just after he arrived in Boone, Armstrong performed a series of tests at the center. In one of them, he rode a stationary-bike while student lab technicians increased the resistance he was pedaling against. His output was measured in watts, with the bike’s maximum set at 475.
He tested well the first time, though he admitted he was feeling somewhat sick. A week later was a different story.
He tested off the scale.
After 25 minutes of riding, Armstrong had the stationary bike hitting its limits while he wasn’t close to his. In essence, the bike gave out before he did.
“He went to the very limit of the machine and it just couldn’t go any higher,” said Dr. David Neiman, director of the Human Performance Lab. “He could have gone beyond. The machine could not.”
“We’re talking a world class athlete here,” he said.
Armstrong wouldn’t have it any other way. Or would he?
He won’t comment specifically about his bout with cancer. He’ll talk about how he feels about it, but never about “it” itself.
He’s trying to put that behind him. He’s trying to focus on the future.
Trying, but not succeeding.
“You’d think I’d have more motivation than ever (to train) but sometimes I don’t think so,” Armstrong said. “As a sick person, most things seem so minor. The whole thing seems so minor – being motivated, training, racing and trying to win.”
“After what I’ve been through, a lot of times I don’t care about all of that,” he said.
He’s not sure what he cares about now, at least when it comes to racing. He still isn’t sure if this is what he wants to do. Every few days he feels like quitting. Other days he doesn’t want to do anything but race.
He admits that one of the problems is accepting what happened to him. He finished being the person who had cancer. Now he’s battling with being the person who survived it.
“There’s a period there where you go through that (cancer) and you live through that and you feel that, then after a while you just say ‘O.K., I was sick. I’m felling better and I have to put that part of my life behind me,’” he said.
“I’m not ready to say that, where I can completely forget about cancer and completely forget about worrying about my health,” he said. “It’s still with me every single part of the day.”
He looks for inspiration from other athletes who have made comebacks from cancer. He recently read an article about Paul Azinger, a golfer who left cancer behind, and easily related to him.
Like Azinger, Armstrong has worked to give some publicity to a cancer many men don’t want to talk about publicly.
He started the Lance Armstrong Cancer Foundation. He’s also worked to organize a “Race for the Roses” charity race, to be held every year near Valentine’s Day.
“As much as you don’t want to forget about it, as a survivor you owe it to the community to give back,” he said. “I was dealt cards and I played them like I felt like I should play them and now I have to be an inspiration.”
Therein lies his problem. While he doesn’t want to talk about the cancer, he can’t help not thinking about it.
Yes, it’s physically gone, but mentally it’s never to far away from his thoughts.
“You have to forget,” he said. “That’s what I’m not able to do now.”