Peter DeJong, Associated Press
Lance Armstrong of Austin, Texas, negotiates a curve as he enters Concorde Square in Paris during the 20th and last stage of the Tour de France cycling race on July 25, 2004. Armstrong has won the rigorous bike race seven consecutive times.

The people around Lance Armstrong haven't seen him this fit or motivated in a long time.

Good thing, too, since he will need plenty of both, plus thick skin, his maniacal work ethic and intimidating pain threshold, a topflight team, deep-pocketed sponsors, cooperation from the notoriously fickle Tour de France organizers — and a few thousand miles of luck besides.

You could fill a sculpture park tomorrow with the statues of great athletes whose dreams of a comeback would have ended better if they'd only rolled over and gone back to sleep. But bet against Armstrong doing exactly what he said he would — returning to try and win what is arguably the world's toughest sporting event next summer at age 37, four years after riding off into the sunset — at your own risk.

This wouldn't mark the first time Armstrong has beaten long odds. One thing I know for certain after covering him for almost 10 years is this: The man is relentless.

Seven straight Tour titles attest to Armstrong's fear of failure eloquently enough. But even as those accomplishments piled up, the details of how that fear was burned, literally, into his bone marrow during a 1996 battle against testicular cancer kept slipping farther and farther down the page. He was on top of the world for so long that sometimes the rest of us forgot how he got there.

Not Armstrong.

This is a guy, after all, who still wears his hair close-cropped to remember the hell that was chemotherapy, but just long enough to cover two horseshoe-sized indentations in his head that his surgeons carved as pathways to get at the cancer that had spread to his brain.

That story was, is and always will be front and center with him, something he reminded us of at the end of an exclusive and very revealing interview posted Tuesday on Vanity Fair's Web site.

Armstrong recalled being on hand last fall to watch the Texas Legislature debate a measure called Proposition 15, which would provide $3 billion for cancer prevention and research in the state. As chances for the bill's passage waxed and waned during a chaotic session, Armstrong said his friend Doug Ulman leaned over at one point and whispered, "Man, this is fun!"

The reply was vintage Armstrong.

"And I said 'Doug, it is only fun if we win.' And for me, I think a lot of that stems from just the illness and the diagnosis and the process there. Because failure there is death. Loss there is death. And victory is living. Which people just assume they're going to do. I mean, most people — cancer survivors — don't always assume that. But I was scared. You know, from that point on, I associated loss with death. And so I didn't. It was burned in my mind forever.

"I don't like to lose in anything," Armstrong said, finally. "Anything."

The comeback could be a win for a lot of people: Cancer patients and their families, survivors and researchers, almost everybody with a stake in cycling and every sponsor that has a piece of Armstrong. After enrolling in the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency's out-of-competition testing pool, he gets another chance to try and shake the rumors of doping that have hounded him since the closing week of the first of his seven Tour wins.

"We're going to be completely transparent and open with the press," he told Vanity Fair, vowing to put himself through one of the most rigorous drug-testing regimens ever devised. "We're going to be completely transparent and open with the press. This is for the world to see."

As I said, the man is relentless, and Armstrong was clearly unhappy with the images of him being flashed around that very same world: serial dater, lax parent, political dabbler. He was tired of hearing his sport trashed — and by extension, his achievements diminished — and frustrated by the roadblocks erected in his path in the fight against cancer.

"If cancer got a whole new name tomorrow and a whole new set of fears associated with it and it had the toll that it does, we would act," he told the magazine. "Look at all those other things they act upon. Forget war and terror. Look at SARS. Remember the bird flu? Remember all that stuff? AIDS, people freaked. Those were new, scary issues that all of a sudden were going to come jump into your house and ruin your life."

So Armstrong did what has always made him feel better, returning to the one place he could always dictate terms. He climbed back on his bike.


Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org