Lance Armstrong (born 1971) will certainly be remembered for being an outstanding athlete and four-time winner of the Tour de France, but he will touch more lives through the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Race for the Roses charity bike ride, which raise money for cancer research and assistance.
A Good Mother
Lance Armstrong was born in Plano, Texas, on September 18, 1971. His biological father moved out when he was a baby, and he and his mother were on their own. When he was three-years-old, his mother was re-married to a man named Terry Armstrong. Terry Armstrong also formally adopted Lance. There was very little money, but his mother worked hard to provide him with a good life. When he was seven-years-old, she worked out a deal with the local bike store and bought him a Schwinn Mag Scrambler.
He was a child who like to do things on his own and in his own way. "I have loved him every minute of his life, but God, there were times when it was a struggle," his mother told the New Yorker. "He has always wanted to test the boundaries."
Armstrong was athletic from the beginning. He enjoyed biking and swimming but did not do as well with football. In the fifth grade he won a distance running race. A few months later he joined the local swim club where he quickly advanced. He would ride his bike ten miles to early morning practices, then ride to school, and ride back again to swim in the afternoons.
Armstrong Began Competing
As a young teenager, Armstrong saw an advertisement for a junior triathlon called IronKids, that combined biking, swimming, and running. Armstrong won and loved it. He began competing regularly in swimming, biking, and running events, sometimes separately and sometimes combined. In his mid-teens, his mother and Terry Armstrong divorced and it was just the two of them again.
In 1987, when he was sixteen-years-old, he was invited to the Cooper Institute in Dallas, Texas. The Cooper Institute was a leader in fitness and aerobic conditioning research. Armstrong was given a VO2 Max test to measure the amount of oxygen his lungs consumed during exercise. His levels were the highest ever recorded at the clinic.
At age sixteen, Armstrong became a professional triathlete. He became the national rookie of the year in spring triathlons, and both he and his mother realized that he had a serious future. Soon it became clear that he would become a cyclist. He began training with more experienced riders and was beginning to make money in races. He began traveling farther to races that were more prestigious. During his senior year in high school, he qualified to train with the U.S. Olympic team in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to travel to Moscow, Russia, to ride in his first international race.
After graduation in 1989, he was named to the U.S. National Cycling team and started working with Chris Carmichael who began coaching him. Through Carmichael he learned that winning races involved strategy and tactics, as well as strength and speed. In 1991, he became the U.S. National Amateur Champion. The following year he rode in the 1992 Olympic games in Barcelona, Spain, and finished 14th. Immediately following the Olympic games, he turned professional. He placed last in his first professional race, but two weeks later he took second place in a World Cup race in Zürich, Switzerland. A man named Jim Ochowicz, who signed him with the Motorola cycling team, was watching him.
Armstrong had a good year in 1993, winning ten titles. He became the 1993 World Champion in Oslo, Norway. He was also the U.S. PRO Champion and won a stage of the Tour de France, although he later was unable to finish the race. In 1994, he won the Thrift Drug Triple Crown. He was steadily making a name for himself in the cycling world.
In 1995, during the Tour de France, his friend and teammate Fabio Casartelli was killed during a high-speed descent. The team decided to keep riding in his honor after Casartelli's wife paid them a visit and asked them to go on. Once again, Armstrong won a stage in the race. That year he came in 36th place, and it was his first time to finish the esteemed race.
The following year, 1996, started out well. Armstrong won his second Tour DuPont and had several career victories. He signed a two million dollar contract with the French cycling team, Cofidis. He had a new Porsche and a new home in Austin, Texas. However, during the Tour de France he was forced to drop out after being diagnosed with bronchitis. He rode for the 1996 U.S. Olympic team in Atlanta, Georgia, but was disappointed with a twelfth-place finish.
Shortly after his 25th birthday he began coughing up blood. On October 2, 1996, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his abdomen, lungs, lymph nodes, and brain. The following day he underwent surgery to remove one of his testicles. "At that point, he had a minority chance of living another year," Craig Nichols, his principal oncologist told the New Yorker. "We cure at most a third of the people in situations like that."
Standard treatment for the brain tumors is radiation, but its effects can result in a slight loss of balance. "Not enough to affect the average person, but certainly enough to keep someone from riding a bicycle down the Alps," said medical oncologist Lawrence Einhorn in the August 9, 1999, issue of Sports Illustrated. "We chose surgery instead of radiation for Lance. It's slightly riskier, but he had only two tumors and they were in a position where a surgeon could get to them."
Armstrong also chose a non-traditional route for his chemotherapy. The usually prescribed drug, bleomycin, normally produces fewer side effects of nausea and vomiting. However, bleomycin also could slightly diminish lung capacity, so Armstrong was given ifosamide, "taking the short-term discomfort for the long-term gain," said Einhorn.
During treatment, especially between rounds of the chemotherapy, Armstrong kept riding his bike as much as he could. "Why did I ride when I had cancer?" Armstrong asks rhetorically in his autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. "Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense that it's absolutely cleansing. You can go out there with the weight of the world on your shoulders, and after a six-hour ride at a high pain threshold, you feel at peace."
While undergoing chemotherapy, Armstrong began talking with doctors about launching a charitable foundation to raise awareness about cancer. He and some cycling friends also came up with the idea of starting a charity bicycle race around Austin, Texas, and decided to call it the Ride for the Roses. The Foundation began to give him a new feeling of purpose.
Love And Marriage
A month after his chemotherapy treatment ended, while he still had no hair, or even eyebrows, he met Kristin Richard at a press conference announcing the launch of the Lance Armstrong Foundation and the Ride for the Roses. She was an account executive for an advertising and public relations firm assigned to help promote the event, and everyone called her Kik (pronounced "Keek"). After the first Ride for the Roses was over, they began finding excuses to see one another. "I got to know Lance when he was standing on the edge between life and death," Kristen said in the December 16, 2002, issue of Sports Illustrated. "It was awesome to be part of. I felt he showed me the view from that cliff. That bonds two people. And if you get to come back from that edge, it changes your life. You never want to miss out on anything fun or beautiful or scary again." The two were married on May 8, 1998.
During the same period, Armstrong was attempting to make a comeback into cycling. His first attempts did not go well. He would tire easily and get depressed. "In an odd way, having cancer was easier than recovery—at least in chemo I was doing something instead of just waiting for it to come back," he wrote in his autobiography. It did not help his morale when he could not find a team to take him on. His previous contract with Cofidis had been renegotiated while he was undergoing treatment. He was considered a bad public relations risk. He considered himself very lucky when the newly formed United States Postal Service team accepted him.
Better Than Ever
In 1998, he became determined to overcome the difficulties and get back to riding competitively. In the last half of the year, he won the Tour de Luxembourg, the Rheinland-Pfalz Rundfarht in Germany, and the Cascade Classic in Oregon. By 1999, he decided he was ready to try the Tour de France again. He spent the spring training in Europe through the Alps and the Pyrenees. The Tour de France is a three-week ride through the villages of France, up and down the mountains, with a new stage each day. He knew he would have to train hard to endure the strenuous course. The New Yorker reported "Armstrong now says that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to him. Before becoming ill, he didn't care about strategy or tactics or teamwork—and nobody (no matter what his abilities) becomes a great cyclist without mastering those aspects of the sport." When the time came for the race, Armstrong was ready. He came out strong on the very first day. Soon he was wearing the yellow jersey that indicates the leader on a regular basis. He rode strong, all the way to the Champs-Elysees in Paris, winning the Tour de France on his first attempt after surviving cancer. Then, he won it again a year later. The following year, in the July 30, 2001, issue of Sports Illustrated, Rick Reilly wrote, "Unless the Eiffel Tower falls on him, Armstrong will become the fifth man to win the Tour de France three times in a row." Sure enough, he won. Then, he did it again in 2002.
Cycling is a big part of Armstrong's life, but it is not his whole life. The Ride for the Roses has grown larger each year and has become an entire weekend event, including a rock concert called Rock for the Roses. The Lance Armstrong Foundation has grown to provide information, services, and support for cancer patients through education, research grants, and community programs. The 2002 Ride for the Roses raised $2.7 million and drew 20,000 people.
Armstrong says that having cancer completely changed the way he looked at life. "I thought I knew what fear was, until I heard the words you have cancer," he stated in the Buffalo News. "My previous fears, fear of not being liked, fear of being laughed at, fear of losing my money, suddenly seemed like small cowardices. Everything now stacked up differently, the anxieties of life—a flat tire, losing my career, a traffic jam—were reprioritized into need versus want, real problem as opposed to minor scare. A bumpy plane ride was just a bumpy plane ride, it wasn't cancer."
Armstrong and Kristen now have three children, son Luke and twin daughters Isabelle and Grace. They live in Austin, Texas, but also own a home in Nice, France.
"Lance Armstrong is more than a bicyclist now, more than an athlete," wrote Rick Reilly in Sports Illustrated where Armstrong was named "Sportsman of the Year." "He's become a kind of hope machine."
Armstrong, Lance, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, Thorndike Press, 2000.
Buffalo News, June 4, 2000.
New Yorker, July 15, 2002.
PR Week, October 14, 2002.
Sports Illustrated, December 16, 2002.
"Lance Armstrong Foundation," Lance Armstrong Foundation website, http://www.laf.org (January 30, 2003).
"Sportsman of the Year," Sports Illustrated, http://sports illustrated.cnn.com (January 15, 2003).