Many years ago, I asked Lance Armstrong to describe the pain of the long distance cyclist; to put into words the physical agonies of spending up to five hours in the saddle throughout the 21 stages of the Tour de France. "At the end of each day, it feels as though your entire body is on fire," he replied."Your feet, legs, stomach, shoulders, neck ? even your eyelashes feel as though someone has taken a blowtorch to them."
Pain is an occupational hazard for any cyclist but as Armstrong puts it in his autobiography It's Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life which charts his victory over cancer: "Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. "If you quit, however, the sense of failure lasts forever. When I was sick, I didn't want to die. When I race I don't want to lose. Dying and losing, it's the same thing?"
Armstrong is the ultimate winner; overcoming testicular cancer which subsequently spread to his lung, abdomen and brain, for which he required surgery, to achieve a record seven successive Tour de France victories - two more than Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurian. On the eve of completing his magnificent seven in Paris in 2005, Armstrong signed off by saying: "It can't be any simpler - the farewell is going to be on the Champs-Elysées."
Now four years on and at 37, like an old heavyweight champion who cannot resist the lure of one final appearance in the ring, the American has rejoined the peleton for another assault on the Tour by competing in a number of warm-up events, including the Tour of California which starts tomorrow. Knowing the agonies involved, the obvious question is why would anyone do such a thing when your place in the pantheon of the sporting gods is already assured.
As ever, Armstrong provides a compelling response: "I have decided to return to professional cycling in order to raise awareness of the global cancer burden."After finishing 29th in last month's Tour Down Under, Armstrong insisted that, although his comeback had been seen as something of a let-down by some, his performance in Australia had given him "the reassurance that I can still race at the highest level".
Sean Yates, his team manager, a veteran of 12 Tours de France, was even more delighted with the outcome. "Lance did remarkably well, when you consider all the changes of rhythm and pace that go with racing. We have seen that he is already up to speed with the some of the best guys out there. That puts him on track for his major objectives of the year."He's certainly got the engine, the determination and the background - he's a superhuman almost. And he's not burnt out. The only thing is that for the big tours, the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia, he has to lose a fair bit of weight - and muscle weight, which is not easy."
Reminded that the 36-year-old Firmin Lambot remains the oldest winner of the Tour de France way back in 1922, Yates shrugged off the notion that Armstrong's attempt to turn back the clock was doomed to failure. "Age is a factor, but Lance is a one-off. You can't apply your normal rules to him. Lance knows how to get the best out of himself, and he will be there or thereabouts. "There comes an age at which, however clever you are, however much you know your body, there's nothing you can do. But Lance isn't there yet."
In a nation where baseball, basketball and football are kings, Armstrong has become a member of the American glitterati through his triumphs on a bike, his engagement and subsequent split from Sheryl Crow, the singer and songwriter, his tangled love life - current girlfriend Anna Hansen is expecting their first child while he has three children from an earlier marriage - and his brief flirtation with politics, when he considered running as Governor of Texas.
For the moment, politics has been set to one side while Armstrong concentrates on his campaign against cancer. "If children have the ability to ignore all the odds and percentages, then maybe we can all learn from them. When you think about it, what other choice do we have but to hope? We have two options, both medically and emotionally: quietly give up or fight like hell."And no one fights quite like Armstrong who used the initial misgiving of the French cycling public - who did not relish the sight of an American riding off with the most glittering prize in the sport - to drive him on through the pain barrier.
"A boo is louder than a cheer. If you have 10 people cheering and one booing, then all you hear are the boos. Through my illness, I learned rejection. I was written off. That was the moment I thought, 'OK, game on. No prisoners. Everybody's going down'."Win or lose over the coming months, Lance Armstrong is the supreme champion.However, even supreme champions court controversy. Armstrong has abandoned his proposal for an independent drug-testing programme because of logistical problems and high costs. The American had initially intended to hire Don Catlin, the anti-doping expert, to supervise a transparent biological monitoring. He said yesterday that he would instead use Ramsus Damsgaard, who runs his team's internal testing programme.
The American has been dogged by doping suspicions over the years, although he has vehemently denied ever using performance-enhancing drugs. "Beyond today I'm not going to tell you how clean I am," he had said in September, while announcing his comeback plans. firstname.lastname@example.org