Lance Armstrong, as defending Tour de France champion, has something to prove

Lance Armstrong celebrates victory in Stage 8 between Le Grand Bornand and Sestriere  Credit: Tom Able Green/Allsport
The story is already a legend — Lance Armstrong, not even four years removed from chemotherapy treatments for testicular cancer, creating one of the most inspirational comeback stories of all time by winning the 1999 Tour de France.

But thats over now.

The year is 2000 and Armstrongs thrilling victory is the last thing he is thinking about. He is 100 percent focused on retaining his title when the 2000 Tour de France begins on July 1. He has shunned the media for much of this year, opting to concentrate on the matter at hand.

The truth is, while the media praised Armstrongs victory, within cycling circles, there were whispers that detracted from his win.

The 1999 Tour de France was the only time in the races history that a former champion was not in the field. The win wasnt necessarily tainted, but people began to wonder: What would have happened in 1999 had perennial favorites like Jan Ullrich, Bobby Julich and Marco Pantani been on the streets of France?

This year, they will be.

Along with other strong challengers like Abraham Olano and Fernando Escartin, this field will be packed with riders who are more than capable of taking Armstrongs crown.

Hence, the media embargo.

If United States Postal Services designated team leader is known for anything, it is rising to a challenge. He has devoted all of his time and effort to defending his crown and he has looked dominating in his spring training.

A frightening face-plant in May while training in the Pyrenees forced him off his bike for a week, but according to U.S. Postal Service team director Johan Bruyneel, Armstrong is ready for the granddaddy of cycling.

"Physically, he is at least as good as last year and mentally he is stronger than last year," Bruyneel recently told ESPN.

This is just the latest in a long line of difficult situations Armstrong has faced. He has always been talented, but success has never come to him without physical and mental obstacles to climb.

Raised in Plano, Texas, by his mother Linda, it was obvious very early on that Armstrong was a gifted athlete. He won the Iron Kids Triathlon at the tender age of 13. By the time he was 16, Armstrong was already a professional triathlete. As Armstrong got older, he began to focus on cycling.

According to his biography, bike rides on Saturday afternoons often would land Armstrong near the Oklahoma border and he would have to call his mother for a ride home.

When Armstrong was a senior in high school, he qualified for the Olympic Development Team that trained in Colorado Springs, Colo. He was so fixated on training that it nearly cost him his high school diploma, but with a little extra effort, Armstrong managed to graduate with his class in 1989.

After graduation, no one asked Armstrong about college — it was obvious that he had a fledgling career as a cyclist, which he doggedly pursued.

The summer after he graduated, Armstrong began his amateur career. His first major race was in Moscow, at the Junior World Road Cycling Championships, where he placed fifth. Armstrong thrived on the amateur circuit, and by 1991 he had won the U.S. National Amateur Championship. He rode that success to a qualifying time in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where he placed 14th.

After the Olympics, Armstrong turned pro. He had been extremely effective in amateur races and it was time to see how he would fare against the big boys.

To say he was humbled would be an understatement. Armstrongs first pro race was the Classico San Sebastian in Italy where he finished dead last. He came in 27 minutes behind the leader and caught a frightening glimpse of the pro cycling tour.

It was Armstrongs first taste of adversity, and the humiliation of that race proved to be a powerful building block in Armstrongs career and he used that finish as motivation to improve his game.

Which he did, dramatically.

1993 was Armstrongs breakout year. He racked up 10 titles, including the World Road Cycling Championship, the U.S. PRO Championship and $1 million for taking each race in the Thrifty Drugs Triple Crown of Cycling. He also notched his first stage win at the Tour de France.

Armstrong quickly went from overrated amateur to rising star. Team Motorola, Armstrongs unit, became the first American team to be ranked in the top five in the world.

By 1996, Armstrong was one of the most dominant figures in cycling. He came into the year as one of the top-ranked cyclists in the world and looked to keep racking up titles. He retained the Tour duPont crown he had won in 1995, and participated in his second Olympiad.

In October 1996, though, it all came crashing down. Incredible pain while on his bike forced Armstrong to seek medical attention and the doctors diagnosed him with testicular cancer. They also told him that the cancer had spread to his lungs and his brain. He was given a 40 percent chance to live, and some thought that was optimistic.

But as we all know, Armstrong battled cancer like he battles a steep climb — with great intensity and determination. He aggressively fought against his cancer and was fortunate enough to survive.

Again, he turned adversity into an ally and captured the hearts of millions.

But thats over now.

1999 can be savored later. Armstrong has a new mission for 2000: to keep the crown he fought so hard to win and cement his place among the all-time greats.

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