He flew home to Austin and for three weeks didn't even bother to unpack his bike. His days consisted of playing golf, eating Mexican food, drinking beer and margaritas--and contemplating drafting a retirement statement. "I was a bum," Lance Armstrong wrote in his autobiography, It's Not About the Bike. "I played golf every day, I water-skied, I drank beer, and I lay on the sofa and channel-surfed. I violated every rule of my training diet." It was 18 months after he had been diagnosed with cancer, and Lance Armstrong was feeling dejected and defeated. It was April 1998, and a month earlier he had pulled out of the Paris-Nice race after riding in only two stages.
Such defeatism was in marked contrast to the almost defiant attitude Armstrong, then 25, projected immediately following Oct. 2, 1996--the day he was told he had testicular cancer, which had spread to his lungs and brain. "I'm entering this battle in the best shape of my life," he said on a conference call with reporters from around the globe a few days after surgery to remove the malignant testicle (and just after starting two months of chemotherapy). "I'm going to continue to stay in shape. As soon as the wound heals from the surgery, I'm going to be back on the bike.... This isn't going to stop me.... I intend to beat this disease. I intend to ride again as a professional cyclist."
That was the racer his fans knew. But 1996 was a difficult year on many levels for Armstrong, even before the diagnosis. He was expected to have a breakout ride in the '96 Tour de France but dropped out of the sixth stage and soon left the Tour complaining of bronchitis. He had been heavily promoted as a favorite for a medal at the '96 Summer Games in Atlanta but finished sixth in the time trials and 12th in the road race. Then came the cancer. The French Cofidis team he had signed with that year--a two-year, $2.5 million deal--paid about half his salary for one year and cut him. His agent flooded the European teams with his r�sum�. Nothing. He finally signed with the U.S. Postal team in October '97 for a quarter of his previous salary.
So by the time Armstrong, his coach Chris Carmichael and Bob Roll, who had been a teammate on his Motorola team, arrived in Boone, N.C., the following April to examine what was left of his cycling career, Armstrong's confidence was at an alltime low. He was there only because his coach had suggested a weeklong training camp, and Armstrong chose to ride high in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. The town of Boone sits 3,266 feet above sea level, and some 230 years after its namesake, Daniel Boone, explored the region, Armstrong found himself once again pedaling the steep hills of Beech Mountain, where he had scored a stage victory in the 1995 Tour DuPont (which he went on to win).
Carmichael believed the familiar terrain might remind Armstrong of the racer he once was. The damp and rainy conditions were miserable, but as Roll and Armstrong ascended Beech Mountain near the end of the trip, Armstrong found familiar sensations sweeping over him. "The ascent triggered something in me," Armstrong wrote in his autobiography. "As I rode upward, I reflected on my life, back to all points, my childhood, my early races, my illness, and how it changed me. Maybe it was the primitive act of climbing that made me confront the issues I'd been evading for weeks. It was time to quit stalling, I realized. Move, I told myself. If you can still move, you aren't sick."
Armstrong and Roll rode the mountains for eight hours a day while Carmichael followed in a car. The trio covered more than 800 miles during the week, and when Armstrong left Boone, he was a changed athlete. The next month he won the Sprint 56K Criterium on the streets of Austin, followed by a victory at the Tour de Luxembourg in June and fourth-place finishes in the Tour of Holland and the Tour of Spain. Twelve months after his epiphany in Boone he finished second at the Amstel Gold World Cup cycling race in Maastricht in the Netherlands. Then came France. But none of that would have been possible if not for his time in what Armstrong referred to as that "hippie town" in North Carolina. "If I ever have any serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer," wrote Armstrong in It's Not About the Bike. "I got my life back on those rides."