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T he last study session on renal cancer is droning to a close at the first Lance Armstrong Urologic Oncology Meeting when Armstrong himself slides quietly into the half-empty ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in Newport Beach, California. Outside the hotel, there are skeins of Christmas lights on the palm trees. Armstrong wears pleated pants, a black silk shirt, new Nikes. His close-set eyes, blue and piercing, troll the room. Ten months ago, midway through chemotherapy, he was as bald as Michael Jordan, but now he has a thick crew cut that tapers into a one-inch spike springing angrily from his forehead. He has that just-showered vitality of so many professional athletes. Amid the pallid faces and thinning hair of 100 recreationally challenged doctors and pharmaceutical reps who've spent most of the southern California weekend in windowless rooms, discussing tumor necrosis and blood markers, Armstrong positively glows.
On the screen above the podium, a slide appears. It's a picture of Armstrong crossing the finish line after a stage win in the 1996 Tour DuPont, head thrown exultantly back, fists raised in triumph, a cheering throng all around. But his eyes are stripped over with what appears to be electrical tape, so that he looks like a vice suspect in a fifties tabloid. It's an inside joke. Medical protocol requires that patients not be identified when their cases are discussed at meetings ù even if the patient is both poster boy and chief fund-raiser for the event, even if, as becomes clear when Armstrong strides to the podium giving winks and nods and high-fives, the patient is the star of the whole show.
"I'm going to keep it brief, because I know Dr. Nichols is anxious to get out on his bike," Armstrong quips in his big-talking Texas tenor. He is referring to Dr. Craig Nichols, cochair of the conference and Armstrong's oncologist at the Indiana University Medical Center, the world's leader in treating testicular cancer. Since he began managing Armstrong's recovery a year and a half ago, the two have become close friends and partners in the foundation that raises money for cancer research. Tacked on after the conference ù indeed, right after Armstrong finishes talking ù there's going to be a 30-mile charity ride with Armstrong as the main attraction. Nichols, who prefers golf, wishes he didn't have to go but knows it's good PR.
Armstrong is here mainly to schmooze and encourage. "It still amazes me that my situation 15 or 20 years ago would have been so bad," he says, acknowledging the extraordinary strides that have been made in treating testicular cancer, especially the aggressive form that sidelined him for a year but which is now in remission. Understanding that the doctors in the audience, like all medical researchers, profit by being first, he urges them to cooperate. "It should never be a competition thing," he says. Then he thanks them all. Armstrong has made his personal experience with cancer a public crusade ù one that has been documented assiduously in the cycling press and on several World Wide Web sites ù and he wears his gratitude on his sleeve.
Minutes later, Armstrong, Nichols, several other members of the IU contingent, and a half-dozen other urologists and surgeons gather to board a charter bus for the Oakley "interplanetary headquarters," which squats on a low hilltop in Orange County near the San Bernardino Mountains. Oakley, the $200 million sports-eyewear company, is Armstrong's most loyal sponsor. Loyalty has always been a big thing for Armstrong ù he once blew off the king of Norway because the invitation didn't include his mother, who was traveling with him, saying, "You don't check your mother at the door" ù but lately it's become an obsession. Last August, a week after Nichols issued him a clean bill of health and a green light to resume full competitive training, Armstrong was dropped by his French cycling team, Cofidis. Then he offered to race for several other ranked European teams, but received no takers. Finally he landed a spot on the U.S. Postal Service team while Oakley quietly picked up his health insurance, putting him on its payroll to do so.
Yet in the Oakley parking lot I notice Armstrong is wearing his Cofidis uniform, not the red, white, and blue of the Postal Service team. When I point this out, he shrugs: "It's what came out of the bag." Perhaps, but it seems just as likely that he's chosen to wear his former team's rejection as a hair shirt, to help motivate himself to reenter international competition this spring after the humiliation of being dumped as damaged goods.
Then he mounts his bike, and the question of team colors seems suddenly immaterial. The Lance Armstrong Foundation's motto is Live to Ride, and you get the feeling that for Armstrong, cycling is like oxygen. Zipping out of the parking lot at the head of the ragtag peloton, he shows with his first few pedal strokes why he is one of the world's elite cyclists. His legs torque with formidable economy. Most of the other riders quickly appear to be languishing, and Armstrong keeps having to circle back to stay with them. Often he reaches out with an open palm, pushes a weaker rider uphill. Though the 30-mile ride through steep chaparral would ordinarily take him about an hour, he spends most of the afternoon on the course, and then he heads back to the Oakley headquarters to sit in the bus's cargo bay, shading himself and stretching his legs, until the broom wagon arrives with the last stragglers, including Nichols.
At his own charity event, at the home office of a company that stuck with him when others didn't, for a doctor who saved his life and quite possibly his career, Armstrong doesn't seem to mind.