Sunday, July 25, 2004

Allez, Lance, Allez!

‘Since when have you been interested in sports?’ asked my dad, surprised, as I beat him to the newspaper today and turned to the last page.

For someone who professes zero interest in any sport, I’ve been scanning the sports pages with an uncharacteristic zeal lately. The reason: Lance Armstrong, the cyclist who’s racing to an unprecedented 6th consecutive win in the most arduous sporting event in the world - the Tour de France.

I’d heard of Lance Armstrong fleetingly as a cancer survivor-turned-Tour winner. But it was only when I recently read his biography that I understood just what cancer survivor meant.

Oddly enough, his book is titled, ‘It’s Not About The Bike’. I say odd because his life story reads exactly like a bike ride on the Alps – tortuous uphills, heart-stopping downhills, insane hairpin bends and blinding pain.

Born on the wrong side of the tracks and raised by a single parent, Lance fortuitously discovered a talent on the bike. He raced out of a life of mediocrity and into the elite corps of cycling. In 1996, at age 24, he was the number one ranked cyclist in the world. He had everything – a dazzling career, a lucrative contract, a spanking new home. And then cancer knocked.

For Lance, life didn’t come to a standstill, it catapulted downhill. One day he was diagnosed with testicular cancer with metastasis to the lungs, and the next day he was in surgery to remove his testicle; a week later, the cancer had invaded his brain. He had less than 50% chance of surviving. Could life get worse? Apparently, yes. He discovered too late that he had no health insurance. And his key sponsor, Cofidis, was sidling towards the exit.

Even if he did survive chemotheraphy, there was every chance that he would never cycle again. And if Lance Armstrong wasn’t a world class cyclist, who was he? He writes, ‘I was brought low; this disease would force me to ask more of myself as a person than I ever had before.’

4 cycles of chemotherapy decimated the cancer, poisoned his blood and changed him irrevocably. “Getting cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he writes. It not only made him more appreciative of life, but also motivated him to start the Lance Armstrong Foundation for cancer research and awareness.

Now, many people survive cancer, god be praised. But not one among them goes on to participate and win the world’s most gruelling test of human endurance - the Tour de France.

Initiated in 1903, the Tour de France covers 2,110 miles. That’s 21 days of cycling covering the circumference of France, mountains included, in the heat of summer. ‘It’s a contest in purposeless suffering’, he writes, ‘But it may be the most gallant athletic endeavor in the world.’

And here is what his statistics read like:

'93 - Did not finish
'94 - Did not finish
'95 - 36th
'96 - Did not finish
'97 - Did not enter
'98 - Did not enter
'99 - 1st
'00 - 1st
'01 - 1st
'02 - 1st
'03 - 1st

As today’s Times reports, ‘… only a disaster in the last stage could stop the American… from sealing his record sixth Tour de France victory.’ He’s won three consecutive stages this year, excluding the penultimate stage win. And he has an impressive 4 minute, 9 second lead over his nearest rival. In short, he’s coasting to victory.

But here’s the part of his story that I found most interesting. When he was declared clean of cancer, he didn’t just throw off his catheter, jump onto his bike and ride into Tour legend. For one long, painful year, he battled something more confounding than cancer and chemotherapy – survivorship. ‘In an odd way, having cancer was easier than recovery – atleast in chemo I was doing something, instead of just waiting for it to come back,’ he writes.

After surviving cancer, riding a bike seemed so trivial. He’d have nightmares about cancer returning, he’d get overtaken by old ladies riding on a bicycle. When he finally pulled himself together and announced his return, sponsors didn’t fall over themselves to sign him. And after a punishing training schedule, when he started winning races, critics accused him of taking drugs. But despite being the most tested athlete in the world, he’s never failed a dope test.

It’s true, however, that Lance has an unfair advantage over his rivals. His heart is almost a third larger than that of an average man. His muscles produce less lactic acid. His VO2 Max levels (the maximum amount of oxygen the lungs consume during exercise) are twice as much as a healthy man. But what gives him the edge is his extreme commitment to the sport. When his rivals take a break in winter, he rides alone in the sleet and gale-force winds. His trainers have to beg him to take a day off. In an interview he talks about his schedule, ‘People ask me what are you doing on Christmas Day? What are you doing on January 1st? Riding your bike? Absolutely.’ When asked whether it was necessary to adhere so rigidly to his training schedules he counters, “Depends whether you want to win. I do.’

I hope you do too, Lance.

Update: Vive la Lance! Six time winner of the Tour de France!

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