It was in Albi, a tiny town in the south of France, that the waiter shouted.
"I like Armstrong!" he yelled, smiling as the group of tired American cyclists stood in a cobblestone alley, trying to chose between the three small restaurants before them. Lance Armstrong, the subject of the sudden burst of adulation, looked at his teammates and shrugged. No use turning down a little karma. They sat down to eat.
"The waiter was so excited, but it's like that everywhere now," said Dan Osipow, the director of operations for Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. "It's been pretty amazing -- honks in the road, signs saying `Allez Armstrong.' We see people waving American flags and go over to try to talk to them, but they don't speak a word of English. They're not American. They just love Lance.
"He's always been a very popular athlete here, but with his comeback, he's inspiring."
It has been like this for Armstrong ever since he began wearing the yellow leader's jersey in the Tour de France, the most famous -- and one of the most grueling -- bicycle races in the world. The 2,286-mile, 20-stage event ends in Paris on Sunday, and with each turn of the racers' wheels, it seems more certain that Armstrong will ride down the Champs-Elysees as the event's second American winner and as the first from a U.S.-based team. Greg LeMond won in 1986, '89 and '90, riding for a French team.
The 6-minute 15-second lead Armstrong takes into today's flat 17th stage is smaller than the advantage he had been nursing before going into the mountainous stages at the beginning of the week, but it is still so commanding that bookmakers have stopped taking bets on him winning. As "The Yellow," the name many of the French are calling him, Armstrong has been besieged with everything from lessons on winner's podium protocol to allegations of performance-enhancing drug use. (He has been cleared of those charges by the International Cycling Union.) What has been most overwhelming, however, has been the fan support, an almost visceral reaction to Armstrong's ability to conquer much more than the mountains just to get here.
"I'm not used to all the attention; I can't even go outside with my teammates at night to get some fresh air," Armstrong said during a recent news conference. "But it's wonderful. It's not a stressful thing like some of the other things I've faced in my life.
"Two years ago, I didn't know if I'd be alive, let alone on a bike in the Tour de France. I was a halfway dead man. It took the best doctors in the world to put me back together."
Armstrong doesn't have it quite right. Halfway dead would have been an optimistic diagnosis in the fall of 1996, when doctors told him he had less than a 40 percent chance of surviving the testicular cancer that had whipped through his bloodstream and deposited malignant tumors in his lungs and brain. It was a shocking diagnosis for Armstrong, then a 25-year-old world-class athlete making more than a million dollars a year.
Ranked as the world's seventh-best road cyclist, the Texas native had thought he was invincible. So much so, in fact, that he ignored one of his testicles when it become sore, then swollen. He figured the ailment was the result of riding on a hard bicycle seat for hours each day. When he had to withdraw from the 1996 Tour de France because of bronchitis and strep throat, he told himself he needed to toughen up. When he finished a disappointing 12th in the road race at the Atlanta Olympics, he told himself he needed to train harder.
It wasn't until he began coughing up blood and having crushing headaches that he finally decided to see a doctor. The news was swift and bad. He had cancer. He had almost 40 tumors in his lungs and two in his brain. If he couldn't find an effective treatment, he had two months to live.
"This is a form of cancer that grows very rapidly, and once it gets into the blood, it really spreads," said Larry Einhorn, one of the doctors who treated Armstrong. "The treatment is almost as difficult as being sick. With the chemotherapy, you have hair loss, weight loss, nausea, vomiting and numbness."
Osipow said that upon being diagnosed, Armstrong put his head in his hands. His eyes teared, and he stayed that way for almost a minute, shaking. And that was it.
"He popped his head up and asked, `How are we going to beat this?' " Osipow said. "He went to the Internet and gathered all sorts of information. He went to doctors and learned everything, finding the best treatment.
"But it was very, very hard. I saw him during his chemotherapy. It was crushing to see someone of such power and strength leveled to, well, leveled to a cancer patient. He was completely bald, and so thin and white."
"It was horrible," said Armstrong's mother, Linda, who was there for all the racking stomach pains and sleepless nights. "But we didn't concentrate on all of that. You can't focus on the negative and get better. You buckle up and deal with it."
Linda Armstrong said her son always has been ambitious; he was trying to tie his own shoelaces before he turned 2. He liked to swim and run as a child, and by the time he turned 10, he was riding his bicycle to the pool. By the time he turned 14, he was entering triathlons and doing well against competitors twice his age.
So when Lance looked up from his hospital bed, shifted one of the tubes stuck into his arm and told his mother he wanted to race again, she wasn't surprised. The racing community was another story.
Once Armstrong finished his chemotherapy, eradicating the cancer from his body, he began trying to get into shape. He also sent his longtime friend and agent, Bill Stapleton, to see if any of the elite racing teams that had pursued him in previous years were still interested. The teams sent back faxes. Most were curt. All of them said no.
"In the fall of '97, he sent me out to get a team deal, and it turned out to be a really humiliating time for us," Stapleton said. "Absolutely no one was interested. They laughed at me. They said he'd never be competitive again."
Armstrong finally signed a deal with the U.S. Postal Service for about $200,000 a year, a fraction of what he had been making. He slowly began to rebuild his strength and his racing career. Although there were plenty of stumbles along the way, a fourth-place finish in the Tour of Spain last year convinced Armstrong he really could rejoin the sport's elite.
Back in Shape
He decided to move to France to prepare for this year's Tour de France, practicing on the stage courses and training in the mountains. Still thin from his cancer -- he had lost 15 pounds from his 5-foot-11 frame -- he and his coach, Chris Carmichael, developed a new riding technique, utilizing more revolutions at a lower gear speed instead of power riding at a higher gear.
From the beginning of the Tour, the new method paid off. Armstrong took the lead at the start and has relinquished it only briefly. Now that he has made it through the dangerous mountain stages, it appears that only an injury or accident will keep him from taking the title. There was speculation in France that a drug scandal could slow Armstrong, but that issue seemed to be put to rest yesterday when the International Cycling Union clarified that the traces of corticosteroids that had been found in Armstrong's urine came from an approved cream Armstrong had used to treat a skin allergy.
Armstrong understands why there is so much innuendo. Last year's Tour was so tainted by drug scandals that the 96-year-old event's very existence was jeopardized. But Armstrong has not tested positive in the multiple drug tests he has had to take, and he is getting frustrated with the constant, albeit unsubstantiated, reports in the French press that his comeback has been fed by drugs, not heart and hard work.
"What can I do but assert my innocence and tell people that I've lived a different life than most people?" he said. "I've been on my deathbed. I'm not going to do anything stupid."
Einhorn also scoffed at the notion of Armstrong using steroids, noting that the rest of the doctors at his hospital in Indiana have been using Armstrong as inspiration for their young patients.
"With the type of treatment he went through, to be doing something as grueling as the Tour de France is nothing short of miraculous," Einhorn said. "If this was a Hollywood movie, everyone would think it was fictional. Even the name, Lance Armstrong. It just sounds too good to be true."
CAPTION: "Two years ago, I didn't know if I'd be alive, let alone on a bike in the Tour de France," said Lance Armstrong, right, who overcame testicular cancer. "I was a halfway dead man."
CAPTION: "It took the best doctors in the world to put me back together," said Armstrong, who had brain, lung tumors.
CAPTION: Lance Armstrong steps to podium after 16th stage. The Tour wraps up 2,286 miles on Sunday in Paris.