Lance Armstrong is the most celebrated cyclist in American sports history. With a record seven victories in the world's most prestigious cycling race, the Tour de France, Armstrong became one of the best known athletes in the world of international sport. Armstrong's wins in the Tour de France were all the more remarkable as they were achieved after Armstrong had been treated for testicular cancer.
Armstrong enjoyed cycling success from an early age. Competing in what was a new sport at the time, Armstrong won a youth triathlon at age thirteen; it was an accomplishment that ultimately spurred Armstrong into prize money races in both cycling and triathlon. At age sixteen, he was earning approximately $20,000 a year in race prize money.
Armstrong's precocious talent caught the attention of the United States Cycling Federation, and Armstrong was invited to train with the American developmental team in 1989. As a result of this introduction to elite level cycling, Armstrong competed in the World Junior Cycling champions that year in Moscow. By 1990, Armstrong was racing as a member of the senior U.S. National team.
The meteoric rise of Armstrong as an international level cyclist continued through the Barcelona Olympics of 1992, when the 21-year-old Armstrong finished a highly credible fourteenth in the men's road race of approximately 120 mi (200 km). From the Olympics, Armstrong entered a series of prestigious European road races. He was admired for his talent but not necessarily respected by the cycling world for his racing demeanor or attitude towards his opponents.
The dichotomy between talent and attitude marked Armstrong' attempt at the Tour de France in 1993. Armstrong scored a stage win during the Tour, but he could not maintain the pace of the 21-day event and he dropped out after 11 days. Armstrong did become the youngest ever World Road Race champion later than year.
Armstrong began to understand that his approach to racing, an all out blitzkrieg on both course and opponents would not lead him to the ultimate success he desired. Elite road-racing cyclists must be multi-dimensional racers, a class known by the French expression "rolleur," or all rounder. The rolleur is the type of rider who can win the Tour de France because he or she can sprint through the time trials, as well as endure long stretches of paced cycling, with the ability to power up the grades of the steep mountain stages. Most cyclists are better at one of the three aspects; to challenge for a Tour de France title, the racer must be a master of all of them. Armstrong added training sessions in both the Rocky Mountains and European Alps to make him more proficient at the climbing portions of multi-stage races.
Although not yet a challenger for an overall Tour title, in 1995 Armstrong was the seventh ranked cyclist in the world. He also enjoyed significant commercial success, with earnings in excess of $750,000. The 24-year-old Armstrong entered a future with his best cycling evidently ahead of him; Armstrong's demonstrated abilities to this point in his career were confirmed over the next 10 years, in a fashion that no one could possibly have foreseen.
In the spring of 1996, Armstrong's early season training had not progressed as well as he had hoped. He withdrew from the Tour de France after only six stages, and Armstrong performed poorly by his standards at both the 1996 Summer Olympic and the fall road races in Europe. Armstrong sought medical advice in October of 1996 regarding a swelling he had noted on one of his testicles; he was soon diagnosed with testicular cancer.
Armstrong's perilous physical situation became critical when its was determined that the cancer had spread to his brain. Armstrong had brain surgery, went through a number of months of aggressive chemotherapy, and, in 1997, Armstrong bested odds of survival that had been only 40%.
In recovery from cancer, and with no race team sponsorship available to him in Europe, Armstrong returned to training in 1997. By 1998 he recaptured his previous cycling prowess, and Armstrong intensified his training to move beyond any of his previous standards of performance.
Armstrong did not enter the 1998 Tour de France, but he overpowered the 1999 Tour field, racing with greater confidence and strength than he had ever displayed prior to his bout of cancer. Armstrong was the target of very pointed allegations in the French press (many tinged with a considerable measure of either Eurocentric commentary or a blunter anti-American sentiment) regarding blood doping with the hormone erythropoietin (EPO), but he never failed a drug test of any sort that year (or at any time during his career). A report released in May 2006 by an independent Dutch agency (appointed by the International Cycling Union to investigate the charges in Armstrong's case) "exonerates Lance Armstrong completely with respect to alleged use of doping in the 1999 Tour de France."
Armstrong joined Greg Lemond (three victories between 1986 and 1990) as the only Americans to have won a Tour de France title. It is ironic of Armstrong's 1999 win that both he and Lemond, who was badly wounded in a hunting accident in 1987, each overcame profound physical adversity in the course of their Tour success.
Armstrong's victory in 1999 also placed his team, the United States Postal Service Pro Cycling Team, into the international spotlight. In multi-stage events such as the Tour de France, the individual cyclist receives the glory; without a hard working and effective team to support him, even the most gifted of cyclists has no hope of a Tour victory.
A cycling team will usually determine in advance of competition who will be their featured rider. The team is then arranged to bring the team leader to the finish line. At various times, particularly in the flat sections of the race, the leader will ride behind a teammate, using the partial vacuum created by their movement through the air stream ahead to be pulled forward into the less dense air, a technique that requires the cyclist to use less energy to move at the same speed as the lead riders. This is the process known as "drafting." Team members will also ride in flanking positions to protect him from collisions with other riders. When a cyclist on an opposing team makes a break from the pack of riders (the peloton),
Armstrong's consummate individual cycling gifts and the strength of his supporting team were an irresistible combination from Armstrong's first victory in 1999 until his seventh Tour championship and announced retirement in 2005. Armstrong's supremacy in the Tour placed incredibly talented cyclists such as Jan Ulrich, whose record of a 1997 victory, five other second place finishes and a third place result would be remarkable, if it were not achieved in Armstrong's shadow.
There are several physiological aspects to Armstrong's Tour de France success that have been examined in the course of his career. The first is the fact that Armstrong became a stronger, more powerful cyclist after the onset of his cancer and its successful treatment in 1997. Testing carried out at the University of Texas Human Performance Laboratory determined that Armstrong had improved his ability to use oxygen in the production of muscular energy (VO2 max) by an astounding 18% between age 21 and age 28. Armstrong was found to have a VO2 that was as much as 40% greater than healthy and trained athletic men of the same age. Coupled with this finding was the calculation that Armstrong had improved his muscular efficiency by 8% during the same period.
Armstrong also possesses a heart that is approximately 30% larger than that of a sedentary person. His resting pulse rate during his peak years of competition was 32 beats per minute. Armstrong's femurs (thigh bones) are longer than found in a typical male of his height, a distinction that permits Armstrong to develop better leverage on the pedal with each stroke, rendering his pedaling motion more biome-chanically efficient.
Another conclusion reached in the physiological analysis of Armstrong conducted during this period was his body's ability to process the lactic acid that is a natural by-product of muscular activity. In sprints or in intense efforts to climb a mountain road, when athletes are at or above their anaerobic thresholds, the point at which they are functioning at or above the 90% of their maximum heart rate, lactic acid accumulates in the working muscles. The muscles are not getting sufficient oxygen and they are relying upon the anaerobic systems. Excess lactic acid is usually communicated to the athlete through discomfort in the muscles, making efforts less efficient. Armstrong was found to have a very low rate of lactic acid production, even at very high levels of activity.
The most interesting physiological finding with respect to Armstrong and his superiority as a cyclist was with respect to the relationship between the slow twitch and the fast twitch muscle fibers in his body. In general terms, fast twitch fibers are those that are utilized by the body for short term, powerful actions, such as sprinting or jumping. Slow twitch fibers are directed by the body for long term, endurance activities. The definitions "slow" and "fast" relate to how quickly the neuron that governs each fiber is fired; slow twitch fibers are fired 10 times less frequently that fast twitch fibers.
It is an accepted physiological proposition that the distribution between fast twitch and slow twitch fibers through out the body is genetic. The studies in relation to Armstrong concluded that through years of hard training, with sessions ranging between three to six hours per day, Armstrong's body had undergone an adaptation where his slow twitch proportion had reached 80%, an important development in his overall cycling success.
The various exceptional physical characteristics present in Armstrong, coupled with his powerful competitive and training instincts, are proof that a champion is both born and made.