Lance Armstrong didn't get it. Metastatic cancer. If ever there was an excuse to throw in the towel on the incredible rigors of competitive cycling, he had it. But this guy was not suggestible.
Armstrong, then 25, announced his diagnosis--testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs and brain--in October 1996. Doctors gave him just a 50/50 chance for recovery. Treatment was aggressive--the removal of a testicle, six hours of brain surgery, three months of toxic chemotherapy. It was enough to lay anyone low.
So why was Armstrong back in the saddle five months after his diagnosis?
Call it denial, call it force of habit, but there was something stubborn about Armstrong's decision to return to cycling. Surely, he knew the odds and felt the sheer impossibility of it. But here was a guy who had devoted his entire life to riding a bicycle--who won his first triathlon at 13, became a professional triathlete at 16, cycled in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and went on to become one of the world's top riders. For Armstrong, getting back on the bike was more than a recuperative gesture. It was an act of will.
And then it was serious. In May 1998, Armstrong put himself back on the competitive map by winning the Sprint 56K Criterium. Soon after, he landed a place on the U.S. Postal Service team--the only team that would take him. The world seemed skeptical about his ability to reclaim his position as cycling's golden boy. Sponsorship offers and endorsement deals weren't exactly streaming in; still, Armstrong remained dogged.
"I guess I can react one of two ways," he told Bicycling magazine in 1998. "I can say `Hey, listen, I've raced bikes for five or six years; I've been successful' and just move on. Or I can say `I'm pissed, and I'm gonna find a ride somewhere and make everybody look like fools.' "
By now, you know which route he took--the one that led to his 1999 victory in the Tour de France. That he also beat his bout with cancer makes his success even sweeter. He made fools of his detractors, but, more important, he made believers of us all. Fate can throw some nasty twists into your life, but the outcome--as far as Armstrong is concerned--isn't simply a question of which course you take. It's more in the strength of your ride.