Barely two years after he limped out of a chemotherapy ward, the indomitable Lance Armstrong won one of the world's most grueling athletic contests today as he zoomed down the sun-splashed Champs Elysees to capture the Tour de France championship.
The 27-year-old Texan is the second American to win the world's most famous bicycle race. More important, he is the first cancer survivor to achieve the feat. The driving force behind his victory, Armstrong said, was his determination to encourage other cancer patients -- "to give hope and inspiration to millions and millions of people who never had any hope.
"I hope it sends out a fantastic message to all survivors: We can return to what we were before -- and even better."
Armstrong had to be helped down the hospital corridor in 1997 when he finally went home after surgery and chemotherapy for testicular cancer. But over the past three weeks, the same man found the energy and the will to beat the world's best bicycle racers on a 2,290-mile course that crossed two mountain ranges. The Tour is so physically demanding that Armstrong consumed about 10,000 calories per day during the race -- on a training diet of pasta, pasta and more pasta -- and still lost weight.
"Winning this race is a miracle," the soft-spoken but intense Armstrong said last week. "Two years ago, I didn't know if I'd be alive, let alone be riding a bike in the Tour de France."
The victory, by more than 7 1/2 minutes over Swiss runner-up Alex Zulle, seemed too miraculous for some elements of the French press, which kept hinting that the American must be taking illegal drugs -- as many French stars did in last year's scandal-tainted Tour. The rumor-mongering grew so nasty that the International Cycling Union broke its confidentiality rules to announce that Armstrong passed every drug test he was given during the race.
The French fans were kinder than the media, and tens of thousands cheered lustily when the man in the yellow jersey and his U.S. Postal Service team led the 141 remaining riders into the heart of Paris on this spectacular midsummer Sunday. A small but boisterous band of students from Armstrong's home town, Austin, was on hand at the Champs Elysees, waving U.S. and Texas flags and flashing the University of Texas "hook 'em, horns" hand signal at bewildered Parisians.
Armstrong likely will hear many more cheers Thursday when he returns to America for the now-standard celebrity round: the network morning shows, "Larry King Live," "The Late Show With David Letterman." On Friday he is to meet the Clintons at the White House. Before all that happens, though, the athlete who just finished a debilitating three-week bicycle race will stop off in the Netherlands -- for a bicycle race.
Could a movie of "The Lance Armstrong Story" be in the works as well? As Armstrong himself mused on the eve of his victory, "It's a fantastic story. This isn't Hollywood and it's not Disney. It's a true story."
A former triathlete, Armstrong began focusing on distance bicycle racing in his early twenties and became a solid, but not sensational, performer on the world circuit. He finished 35th in the 1995 Tour de France and sixth in the road race at the 1996 Olympics.
By the fall of 1996, he was feeling unusually tired on the bike. Doctors then found advanced testicular cancer, plus lesions on his abdomen, lungs and brain. Armstrong was given less than a 40 percent chance of survival. He underwent two operations and 12 weeks of chemotherapy.
By the summer of 1997, he had conquered cancer, and he set out with renewed determination to conquer the world of bicycle racing.
"I think the illness was good for me," Armstrong said Saturday. "I don't want to do it again, but . . . the chance to come back with this new perspective and with a whole new list of priorities was beneficial."
The priorities can be divided into three segments, Armstrong said.
"Fifty percent is for the cancer community -- the doctors, nurses, patients, families, the survivors and the people who didn't make it." Armstrong has set up a foundation for cancer victims -- its Web site is www.laf.org -- and he exchanges dozens of e-mail messages every week with patients hoping to follow his stirring example.
"Twenty-five percent is for myself and my team. And 25 percent is for the people who never believed in me."
While he was in his hospital bed, Armstrong was summarily fired by the prestigious French racing team, Cofidis. "They were on my mind a lot these last three weeks," he said. Cofidis had a mediocre Tour this year, with its top rider finishing 15th.
The only team willing to take a chance on Armstrong was the U.S. Postal Service. The American team was created four years ago when the Postal Service decided to get into sponsorship to build brand awareness, but couldn't afford a major U.S. sport such as golf or tennis.
The team produced the only significant American presence at the Tour this year. All six of the Americans who finished each of the 21 stages were U.S. Postal riders.
Always a speedster, Armstrong won all three of the one-racer-at-a-time time trials in this year's Tour. But he really cemented his victory on July 13, when, seemingly, his sheer will to win pulled him to a first-place finish in the punishing climb up the Alps to the ski resort in Sestrieres, Italy.
From that point, he and his teammates concentrated on protecting the lead. They were so successful that Armstrong ended today's final stage with a huge margin of 7 minutes 37 seconds over Zulle. Fernando Escartin of Spain finished third. Armstrong's teammate, Tyler Hamilton of Brookline, Mass., finished a respectable 13th.
After he stood on the podium for "The Star-Spangled Banner," Armstrong went over and gently wiped away the tears of joy on the face of his wife, Kristin, who is pregnant with their first child.
Then he took a big American flag and set off on his American bike with his ebullient teammates for the traditional honor lap past the Arc de Triomphe. A French TV reporter came up on a motorcycle and stuck a microphone in the winner's face. "I would just like to make one comment," Armstrong said in French. "If you ever get a second chance in life -- go all the way!"