Racing the demons

In 1998, Lance Armstrong was a hero. ESPN The Magazine Archives

This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's April 20, 1998 issue. Subscribe today!

THE FACES APPEAR to Lance Armstrong when he needs them most. Maybe they arrive when the stars of exhaustion creep into the periphery of his vision. A new face flashes, and another, faster and faster, a kaleidoscopic slide show whirling through his brain. Bald children smile back at him through a pain only he and they understand. Kids challenge with imploring eyes, their skin lined with the dishwater-brown scars of chemotherapy. Old people, wearing drawn looks of fatigue and nausea, stare at him like expectant sages. They are part of the same community -- victims and survivors, the sick and the cured. How can he stop now, with so many eyes watching? Who could let them down? They each have a foot on the pedals, each one who sent him a photograph or a letter, each one who knows how it feels to be on the wrong end of the odds. Together they ride. The story is simple: Lance Armstrong should be dead. The empirical evidence demanded it. He was diagnosed with testicular cancer on Oct. 2, 1996. It was less than a month after his 25th birthday. On the day of his 25th birthday, Lance Armstrong might have said life had never been better. He had recently moved into a $1 million, 5,000-square-foot, Mediterranean-style palazzo on the shores of Lake Austin. He was a champion, with a multimillion dollar contract with the French cycling team Cofidis and a half-million or so more in endorsement deals. He was known as a confident risk-taker, aggressive and honest traits sometimes mistaken for cockiness. Early in his career, when asked if he was the next LeMond, he replied, "No, I'm the first Lance Armstrong." Still, the comparisons were inevitable. The Texan was the best American since Greg LeMond. Last summer, he finished a close second in the Eddy Merckx Grand Prix in Brussels. Then ranked seventh in the world, he was emerging as a favorite for the most revered bike race of them all, the Tour de France. He didn't think to call a doctor when he first felt the pain. He ignored it until he found himself standing over his bathroom sink, watching blood stream from his mouth. Sure, his right testicle had hurt, but what could you expect when you sit on a bike saddle five or six hours a day? You have to understand cyclists: They have a ritualized affection for pain. They take it and assign it to some barren outpost within the brain. So that's what Lance did until the night he saw the blood. It was late at night when he was rushed in after hours for tests. He expected a virus, treatable with antibiotics and a little rest. Sitting in the underground quiet of an empty doctor s office, all alone except for the man who brought the news, Armstrong cried and cried and swore it couldn't be true.

So by day's end, Oct. 2, Lance Armstrong might have said that life couldn't be worse. The bad news came at him with a staccato rhythm. First, the diagnosis: testicular cancer. The next day, a testicle was removed. Twelve tumors, some as big as golf balls, were found in his lungs. Cancer was found in his abdomen. Multiplying cells on a rampage, advancing northward like a panzer division. Doctors ordered chemotherapy and an MRI. It showed two lesions in his brain. Within weeks of his original diagnosis, he flew to Indianapolis for brain surgery. "They lifted my skull out," Lance says, "like you'd cut the top off a pumpkin."

At that point, Armstrong was prepared to die. The lesions on his brain convinced him the threat was real. He stood on the edge, looking out at ... what? How do you prepare for death at 25, when your whole life has been based on a feeling of invincibility, of overcoming pain? For Armstrong, this is how: He acknowledged death, then he personalized the demon. He stripped the disease of emotion, to force logic into spaces it might not fit. He identified ignorance as his biggest fear. He couldn't bear the thought of nodding stupidly at something he didn't understand. His mother moved in, and they got to work, staying up nights, searching the Internet. He read books on treatments and recovery rates. To him, knowledge meant you never had to face the enemy alone.

He met other patients in treatment groups and drew strength from the courage he saw in their faces. They were the faces he would turn to again and again in his mind, even as he felt their eyes turning toward him, as a plant turns toward light.

In time, the doctors discovered something the cycling world already knew: Armstrong's body was different, maybe one in a million. It withstood a torrent of platinum-based chemotherapy. They pumped it through him as if he'd sprung a leak, and it dissolved the lung tumors. Armstrong vomited for hours at a time, but he willed himself to get on his bike and ride. He was bald, pale, sick. His legs were shrinking, the muscles in his powerful quads and calves deteriorated by inactivity. His lungs burned. One day, he took a light, 45-minute ride from his home in Austin with a pro cyclist friend. Twenty minutes into it, Armstrong was off his bike -- exhausted, embarrassed, confused, lying on somebody's front lawn.

Cycling and cancer don't mix. Cycling and chemotherapy don't mix. A comeback would mark the end of reason and the beginning of something irrational, unprecedented and inspiring. But a cyclist's natural inclination is to push the limits, and so Lance Armstrong looked at the faces that looked back at him and dreamed of showing them what could be done.

The complete implausibility of Armstrong's life didn't start in a doctor's office in Austin, or in an operating room in Indiana, or lying prone on a stranger's lawn. No, the roots of this are deeper. Linda Walling was 17 years old when she dropped out of high school to give birth to him in Plano, Texas. Walling worked, sometimes two jobs, and cared for her son as if he were sustenance. She raised him by a series of truisms: Make a positive out of a negative; always work hard and good things will happen; don't believe it when other people say you can't. She drove him from their home in Plano to swim meets, runs, triathlons and, finally, bicycle races. He became a professional triathlete at the age of 15.

He won the 1993 World Professional Road Race Championship in Oslo at the record age of 21 then refused the invitation to meet King Harald V of Norway unless his mother could come. At each checkpoint Armstrong was told to continue alone. He told them, "I can't check my mom at the door." Before long, mother and son were rapping with King Harald. "I think the king thought it was cool," he said.

In the 1995 Tour de France, three days after teammate Fabio Casartelli died after a fall on a mountain descent, Armstrong vowed to win a stage race for his Italian friend. As the support staff pulled up alongside to give him a status report on the riders behind him, Armstrong waved them off. "I don't need to know," he said. "Nobody's going to catch me." No one did. Armstrong rode the last few hundred meters with his hands off the bars, index fingers pointing to the heavens. Armstrong recalls the eerie experience: "There's no doubt there were four feet pushing those pedals that day."

"Do you see the story line here?" his mother asks. Lance's whole life has been against all odds. He literally entered the world that way. He wasn't supposed to be here then either.

Lance Armstrong made his comeback 16 months removed from his two surgeries in February. The sight of him, scars lining his head like railroad tracks and chemotherapy streaks running down his arms, legs and torso, and his bike whipping beneath him, hammering up the mountains of Europe, is not a scientifically explainable phenomenon. Today he is clean, cancer-free. To come back from the disease to a regular life, to a 9-to-5 job, would have been improbable. But a comeback has never been done like this; cycling, with its inhuman demands on the body, is not baseball or golf or hockey. Cycling is damned near masochistic. To come back to this sport is, or rather, should be, impossible. Even the scientists, with their stern adherence to immutable laws, have to admit as much.

He brought his body back gradually: 45-minute rides became two-hour rides, which became savage 100-mile training rides. Over months, his withered muscles hardened and reappeared, popping from shaved legs. By January, he was among the strongest riders in training camp on a strong U.S. Postal Service team. (Cofidis, calling him damaged goods, dropped him last August.) He returned to racing with a 15th-place finish in the eight-day Ruta del Sol.

Sometimes, especially when his body doesn't respond as it used to, he wonders why he came back at all. He could walk away from cycling now and no one would question him. No one but Armstrong himself, especially when he sees the faces of the victims and survivors. The sick and the cured. One of those faces belongs to a 13-year-old Austin boy, a cancer patient he met during his illness. From Europe, Lance wrote the boy a letter: "I heard that your last doctor's appointment didn't go the way you had planned. I'm sorry to hear that, but I want to talk about the bigger picture with you. Cancer is a funny illness that comes in all shapes and sizes, sometimes better or worse. Sometimes a short fight, sometimes a long fight. The key word is fight. Regardless of a relapse or a bad checkup, you must keep the faith in your doctors, in the medicine, in your family, and most importantly, the faith in yourself. I get asked every day why I returned to professional cycling. The answer isn't about money, winning races or fame. The answer is because of people like you. Cancer patients who want to live forever and fight like hell."

Last month, Armstrong's cycling comeback didn't go the way he had planned. He dropped out of a race in France. The weather was brutal. He had the flu and didn't want to take any chances. He flew home. Still, he plans to race again in Europe this spring. "I feel like I was born to be a bike racer," he says. "And I've also come to believe I was born to be a sick cancer patient. I don't think I should let one of them stop the course of the other. I should try to fulfill this destiny."

The truth is, no matter how hard he works, no matter what he does, Lance Armstrong has no choice. The faces are still there -- the victims and survivors, the sick and the cured -- and so is the shadow of the demon. Together they ride.

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