The machine that is Lance Armstrong

If you’ve been following the Tour de France, you’ll know that uber-cyclist Lance Armstrong is having some struggles. Although he has posted the third best time overall, he’s unlikely to move into first place before the race ends in Paris on Sunday. Tomorrow these world-class athletes will tackle Mont Ventoux, a punishing 6,000-foot peak that presents one of the toughest challenges in the entire race.

Le Tour is one of the most grueling races in all of bikedom. It covers 3,500 kilometers and lasts 22 days. You have to be among the elite to even qualify as a contestant. Armstrong, 37, has won not once, not twice, but seven times in a row – a feat all the more amazing when you consider he’s a survivor of an aggressive form of testicular cancer.

He was 25 at the time of his diagnosis, and the cancer had spread to his abdomen, lungs and brain. He was told he had less than a 50 percent chance of survival. His initial chemotherapy regimen included Bleomycin, an anti-tumor drug known to cause lung damage. Rather than risk compromising his lung function – and possibly end his career as a professional cyclist – Armstrong switched to a slightly different combination of chemotherapy drugs.

In an interview shortly after completing treatment, he describes his diagnosis and treatment and also talks about the launch of the then-fledgling Lance Armstrong Foundation, which at last count has raised more than $250 million for cancer research and services.

For all his accomplishments, Armstrong is somewhat of a polarizing figure. Within the cancer survivor community, he’s almost universally admired, and many people see him as an inspiration and a symbol of all they hope to regain in their lives. But others wonder whether he’s setting an unrealistic standard – one that many survivors simply cannot measure up to.

Far more damaging are the whispers and allegations of drug use. Armstrong has always denied it, and it should be noted that he’s never tested positive for drugs. But the suspicions remain: Is he really That Good?

Maybe he is, or at least supremely physically gifted. Researcher Edward Coyle studied Armstrong from 1992 to 1999 and shared his findings in the Journal of Applied Physiology in 2005. Armstrong, he wrote, has exceptional cardiovascular and lung capacity and exceptional muscular efficiency – a combination of lucky genetics and intensive training and motivation:

It is remarkable that at age 25 yr this individual developed advanced cancer, requiring surgeries and chemotherapy, yet these events did not appear to impede his physiological maturation and athletic achievements. Clearly, this champion embodies a phenomenon of both genetic natural selection and the extreme to which the human can adapt to endurance training performed for a decade or more in a person who is truly inspired.

More has been written about Armstrong’s physiological prowess here, and in this article that appeared this past week at MinnPost.com.

If it’s true that Armstrong is guilty of doping, his career and probably the reputation of the Lance Armstrong Foundation will most likely crash harder than a pile-up of cyclists on the downslope of the Hautes-Pyrenees. And it would be an unfortunate loss. But if he really is That Good, he’s a winner – even if he doesn’t bring home the yellow jersey from this year’s Tour de France.

Photo by the Associated Press.

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