Putting his mettle to the pedal

Cycling: With the same drive and meticulous preparation that helped him beat cancer, Lance Armstrong seeks his fourth Tour de France title.

Tour De France

July 04, 2002|By Bonnie DeSimone | Bonnie DeSimone,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The most excruciating climbs in the Tour de France - steep, twisting mountain roads that chew up car engines, let alone a cyclist's legs - defy the sport's numerical rating system. They are simply labeled hors categorie, or beyond categorization.

As Lance Armstrong readies for his campaign to win a fourth straight Tour, the same tag could be applied to him.

The 30-year-old Texan appears to be at the peak of his athletic ability and has no clear-cut challenger in the 2,034-mile race, which begins Saturday in Luxembourg. With success has come serenity. Armstrong, who leaves little to chance, said he has never been so prepared.

"I feel better than ever," Armstrong said of himself and his U.S. Postal Service team. "I feel strong. I feel like I know what we're about to do. I feel calmer tackling a three-week race."

He is also riding high image-wise. The public's continuing reverence for the story of Armstrong's comeback from testicular cancer has made him a cultural and marketing phenomenon, even though cycling still dwells in the margins of American sport.

"You could not script that kind of greatness," said Nova Lanktree, a matchmaker for athletes and corporate advertisers who is executive vice president of Skokie, Ill.-based Lanktree Sports.

Armstrong has an annual income approaching $10 million, more than half of which comes from endorsements. Corporations pay six-figure fees for the privilege of having him address their employees.

"He's transcended the sport," Lanktree said. "I know it's a cliche, but that's what he's done. I don't think I would have predicted that four years ago. Everything about him invites affection and admiration."

Golden touch

Armstrong is in a category of his own, symbolically set off by the Tour leader's yellow jersey. Everything he has touched since his recovery has turned some shade of gold.

Although his saga may seem mythical, friends say Armstrong stands atop a pyramid constructed brick by brick with consuming attention to detail. He is selective and exacting about the way he trains, the commercial opportunities he pursues and the people he allows into his inner circle, even as he continues to live a high-profile existence because of his significance to cancer survivors.

Armstrong is most comfortable in an untucked shirt and jeans, rolling around with his kids or indulging in the occasional Mexican meal washed down with a margarita or a long-neck beer.

But he often displays a flinty, game-day reserve in public, saving the best of his dry wit for his buddies, his compassion and charm for his cancer work, and his slap-happy moments for his family.

Contributions to Armstrong's foundation devoted to research and support for cancer survivors have doubled in each of the past two years, reaching $9 million in 2001.

His family is thriving. Armstrong and his wife, Kristin, have 7-month-old twin daughters, Isabelle and Grace, and a toddler son, Luke, all conceived through in-vitro fertilization. The couple is building a ranch on land they purchased outside his home base of Austin, Texas. They have named the property Milagro, Spanish for miracle.

Single when he received his grim prognosis six years ago, Armstrong banked his sperm when he was advised that treatment likely would make him sterile.

By the book

That episode is one of many recounted in his autobiography, which has sold 500,000 copies and is considered doctrine by numerous cancer survivors. "I expected to sell about 10 copies," Armstrong said. "I had a great time doing it, and I put down my life story truthfully and honestly. For me, that was enough.

"I never considered myself anything different or anything special. As I've said many times, I did what I had to do to come back to the job and the sport and try to be the best."

The fact that he made it - and that his showcase event, unlike the Olympics, takes place annually - has kept his marketability high.

"We try to be careful," Armstrong said. "This all gets so cheesy when you start talking about brands and strategies and tactics."

But there is no denying the punch his name packs. When Coca-Cola made Armstrong the promotional face of the 2002 Winter Olympic Torch Relay, nominations for torch runners soared over the numbers from the 1996 Atlanta Games, partly because of the ease of e-mail submissions, but mostly because of Armstrong, according to Coca-Cola spokesman Scott Williamson.

Bristol-Myers Squibb, the firm that developed the drugs used in Armstrong's cancer treatment, has featured him and his family in advertising.

"We've gotten a very strong positive response to the campaign and also to the association with Lance and his personal experience," executive vice president Don Hayden said. "To this day, he says he is who he is because he's a cancer survivor."

Armstrong's agent, Bill Stapleton, said he strives to give Armstrong an "elegant" silhouette that is not at odds with his stature in the cancer community.

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