Avoiding Lance Armstrong's gaze is impossible in Kristen Adelman's apartment. Posters of the world's most famous cyclist hang in the hallway, the family room, the kitchen and the bedroom.
It was Armstrong's first book that Adelman was reading when her non-Hodgkins lymphoma was diagnosed, and it was his successful battle against cancer that she clung to through two relapses.
"It's hard to think of my recovery without thinking of him," she says.
Since midnight, the bubbly Elkridge school teacher hasn't been looking at paper images of her hero, she's been riding with him as part of the second cross-country "Tour of Hope" campaign for cancer research and treatment.
The endurance ride will end Oct. 9, when cyclists are joined by Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team for a 30-mile fund-raising ride from North Bethesda to the Ellipse in Washington.
Adelman, 34, was selected in May as one of 20 bicyclists to pedal from Los Angeles to Washington. Some have beaten cancer. Others are doctors, researchers or nurses who have dedicated their lives to helping more people survive.
"I'm just amazed that 20 strangers from across the country could get together and just click as a family," says Adelman. "Everyone has an inspirational story, but Lance is our leader."
Armstrong's advanced testicular cancer was diagnosed in 1996 and had spread to his lungs and brain. Doctors gave the future six-time Tour de France winner a 50 percent chance for survival. He had three rounds of surgery followed by an intense regimen of chemotherapy. One year later, Armstrong was cancer-free.
But Adelman's story is remarkable, too, not only for the second and third chances she has gotten but also for what she has done with them.
An accomplished runner and cyclist, Adelman was feeling run down at the end of the school year in 2000. She went to the doctor, expecting to hear about allergies. Instead, she learned that a tumor the size of a fist was growing in her chest.
Six rounds of chemotherapy only slowed the tumor briefly. Doctors injected her with her own stem cells and started radiation treatment.
Adelman conducted her own exercise exorcism. She went out and bought a new bike, ran the Marine Corps Marathon and a half-marathon and completed a 150-mile bicycling fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis.
But six months later, doctors found the cancer had not only returned, but had invaded her kidney and attached itself to her lung, too.
Experts suggested high doses of radiation in a last-ditch effort to stop the spread. But then, her doctors decided on another stem-cell transplant, using her brother as a donor.
During her stay at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Adelman rode a stationary bike 100 miles to stay in shape. "It was my NCI Century," she says, laughing.
The cancer returned again, and doctors attacked it with chemotherapy and more of her brother's stem cells.
Eighteen months later, Adelman is cancer-free. Like Armstrong, she credits cutting-edge treatment with saving her life.
The two cancer survivors share another experience. Both carried the Olympic flame in the weeks leading up to the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Armstrong peddled the torch through the streets of Austin, Texas, his hometown. Adelman, just days from a bone marrow transplant, ran along Fulton Avenue to the cheers of friends and students.
Inspired by last year's Tour of Hope, Adelman filled out a lengthy questionnaire for the 2004 ride, as did 1,200 other cyclists. Her science and physical education students at St. Augustine School prayed with her. In mid-May, Adelman got the call. She froze, repeated the message and began weeping.
"I'm in? I just kept saying it and saying it. Then I just jumped up and down for the longest time," she says.
Adelman has been training for the race using a schedule devised by Armstrong's coach. That means, "a lot of time on the bike. Every day, two hours a day, sometimes four or five or 10. But I feel well prepared," she says.
In June, she ran Ohio's 100-mile Mohican Trail Run in 29 hours, 10 minutes and 47 seconds, one of only 60 runners to finish the race.
"I've learned to deal with pain," she says simply.
The Tour of Hope team will need every bit of grit and gumption it can muster. Riding in four groups of five, the cyclists are peddling relay-style around the clock from California to Las Vegas, then down to the Grand Canyon and through the Rocky Mountains. As riders finish their legs, they will be bused ahead to a hotel for showers, food and naps.
From Denver, the tour swings north to Nebraska and Iowa before turning heading to Chicago, then through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia before the final ride into Washington a week from tomorrow. (Riders' progress can be followed online at tourofhope.com.)
In Washington, 1,500 riders who raised a minimum of $500 will join Armstrong at Georgetown Preparatory School. The fund-raising ride and the Tour of Hope cyclists will meet for the 8.2-mile ride to the Ellipse.
Adelman says her students and family will be cheering along the final miles.
"I'm sure I'll be crying and laughing at the same time," she says. "I guess that's almost to be expected. I've had the good and the bad the last three years, extremes on both ends. But for every bad thing I can match it up or even beat it on the other side."