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CYCLE OF LIFE

Times Staff Writers

While Lance Armstrong pedaled across France for the last three weeks, Doron Kochavi trained six days a week, circling the Rose Bowl for hours and mounting grueling climbs on Angeles Crest Highway.

Sixteen years ago, Kochavi’s 4-year-old son, Ari, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Today, Ari is 20 and his father is one of 24 cyclists preparing to ride alongside Armstrong in the Bristol-Myers Squibb Tour of Hope -- a cross-country relay that begins Sept. 29 in San Diego.

“As a cyclist, Lance is God,” said Kochavi, 56, of La Canada Flintridge, a senior managing director at Bear Stearns in Century City. “The real connection is cancer.”

Nine years ago, doctors gave Armstrong less than a 50% chance of survival after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his lungs and brain. Today, barring disaster, Armstrong is expected to glide into Paris for a final triumphant ride down the Champs-Elysees, claiming a record seventh consecutive Tour de France victory before retiring from the sport at 33.

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“I don’t think we’ll see anything like Lance in our lifetime,” said Bobby Julich, an American rider and a former teammate.

Armstrong’s legacy in the sport is immense.

Competitors credit him with changing the way riders approach the world’s most famous bike race. His focus on technology and the intensity of his training have helped propel the sport at a time when it was battered by drug scandals. Even Armstrong is not immune to accusations, though he has never failed a doping test.

Yet, even with his considerable influence on cycling, his legacy might be as great among cancer survivors and the many others who don’t know a pedal from a peloton.

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His recovery from cancer inspired a New York Times No. 1 bestseller, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.”

It also spawned one of the most ubiquitous trends in recent years -- the rubber bracelet for a cause.

The Lance Armstrong Foundation has sold more than 52 million yellow Livestrong bracelets and has awarded more than $15 million in research grants.

The organization also has contributed to more than 100 community programs, among them Padres Contra El Cancer (Parents Against Cancer), a Los Angeles-based program that seeks to support Latino families dealing with childhood cancer, and Teen Impact, a Children’s Hospital Los Angeles program.

Armstrong, who seemingly cruised through his final Tour de France, leading most of the way despite never winning a stage before claiming the final time trial Saturday, said his work with cancer survivors would continue even though his racing days are over.

“When I’ve retired, no matter what I do, it will involve the foundation,” he said. “We’re all different. Some survivors prefer not to talk about cancer and move on. Cancer will always be part of who I am and I will always be speaking out and working towards a cure. I was lucky and I feel like I need to pay back for my luck.”

His second-chance career also has made him wealthy, with Sports Illustrated recently ranking him No. 28 among the highest-paid U.S. athletes, with a relatively modest $500,000 earned on his bike but $17.5 million a year in endorsements.

Armstrong’s reign also has helped bolster bicycle sales in the U.S., where sales overall have been flat since the 1990s mountain-bike boom slowed.

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Road bikes -- which retail for an average of $1,150 -- accounted for 28% of sales at specialty bike dealers last year, up from 16% two years earlier, according to the Costa Mesa-based National Bicycle Dealers Assn.

The biggest beneficiary has been Trek Bicycle Corp., in tiny Waterloo, Wis. The company’s marketing director, Dick Moran, signed Armstrong to an equipment deal in 1997 after Armstrong’s illness, but before his first Tour victory.

“It was purely almost as a human-interest thing, that he thought it would be worth the investment,” Trek spokesman Zapata Espinoza said. “He laughs at it now, almost hysterically.”

The appetite for Trek’s bikes -- including its $8,000 carbon-fiber models, many of them purchased by baby-boomer recreational riders with expendable income -- has helped made Trek the leading manufacturer in the specialty bicycle market.

“We can’t make enough,” Espinoza said.

Armstrong has pushed the company’s advances in technology.

“Lighter and stiffer is his mantra,” Espinoza said.

Many say Armstrong’s drive to eke the most out of his bike and his body is what he has bequeathed to a sport once known for athletes’ casual approach to the off-season.

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“No one trained like Lance and I admire that,” said Jan Ullrich, the 1997 Tour champion and five-time runner-up who once astonished observers by saying he would “race myself into shape in the first week of the Tour.”

Julich, Armstrong’s contemporary and sometime-teammate, has watched him evolve.

“He understood his body and learned about nutrition,” Julich said. “He trained hard all year long. He didn’t wait to start until April.

“He and [Johan Bruyneel, Discovery Channel team director] got into doing stuff like wind-tunnel testing and paying attention to every detail about the equipment -- the helmet, the bike, the clothes -- everything that could shave even a tenth of a second off the time,” Julich said. “They were willing to be innovative. They weren’t tied to tradition.”

In addition, Armstrong took what to some seemed a radical new approach: He adopted a singular focus on the Tour de France at the expense of any other race. And while others left it to the team director, the equivalent of a coach, to scout each stage of the race, Armstrong took on the task himself.

“Lance brought a new level of professionalism, a different level of professionalism to the sport,” said Bjarne Riis, the 1996 Tour winner who is director of the CSC team. “He also brought about the idea of focusing everything on the Tour de France and using every other race as just a preparation for the Tour.

“Is this good for the sport? I don’t know. ... But in the way he trained, the way he paid attention to details, that would be what I would think of as Lance Armstrong’s legacy to the sport of cycling.”

At USA Cycling, the sport’s governing body in the U.S., few have any assurance there will be another Armstrong. But there is confidence that he has given the sport as a whole a boost.

In February, the Tour of California will make its debut. The Tour de France-style race, owned and promoted by AEG, will cover more than 700 miles, starting in Northern California and concluding in Southern California.

Jim Ochowicz, president of USA Cycling, likes to say Armstrong has turned cycling in this country from an eight-legged spider into a centipede.

At the Home Depot Center in Carson, Connie Paraskevin-Young, a five-time Olympian in speedskating and track cycling -- sort of a distant cousin of road racing -- recently started a youth program at the indoor velodrome.

“Many of these kids had never even seen a track before,” she said. “We showed a nice music video that had a tape of Olympic scenes, all different sports, and included one of Lance, and they said, ‘There’s Lance!’ ” she said. “There is a trickle-down effect. What we need to do in our sport is have the programs in place to take advantage of it.”

Today is Armstrong’s final day on cycling’s biggest stage. In Sacramento, architect Pam Whitehead will be watching on TV.

Five years ago, at 35, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and had a radical hysterectomy that ended her hopes of having children with her husband.

“When I got out of the hospital, the first book I read was, ‘It’s Not About the Bike,’ ” Whitehead said. “In the book, one of his doctors came up to him and said, ‘Once someone becomes a cancer survivor, there is this ‘obligation of the cured.’ ”

Since 2001, when Whitehead became involved with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, she has raised more than $71,000, including $25,000 this year.

This month, she celebrated the five-year anniversary of her surgery by throwing a Tour de France viewing party as a fundraiser.

This fall, she’ll ride with Armstrong in a special event for those who have raised the most money this year during his annual Ride for the Roses weekend in Austin, Texas.

Watching Armstrong’s final moments wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France today, Whitehead said, will be “kind of sad.”

“I do wonder when there will be another person come along like him,” she said. “There have been a lot of sports icons out there, but no one like Lance. If someone would have told you his story, what he accomplished after what he’s been through in life, someone would think you were writing fiction.

“It’s really nice to see a professional athlete who has gone through an experience like that and has utilized his growing celebrity to help other people and help research for cancer and instill hope in cancer survivors.

“He could have gone back to cycling and not mentioned much about cancer. He chose not to.”

Pucin reported from France, Norwood from Los Angeles.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Magnificent seven

A look at seven prominent sports figures who have won seven consecutive titles in their respective sports:

*--* Name Sport Category Lefty Grove Baseball American League strikeout champion (1925-31) John Wooden Basketball Coached UCLA to NCAA titles (1967-73) Wilt Chamberlain Basketball NBA scoring champion (1960-66) Michael Jordan Basketball NBA scoring champion (1987-93) Wayne Gretzky Hockey NHL scoring champion (1981-87) Ingemar Stenmark Skiing World Cup men’s slalom champion (1975-81) Margaret Smith Tennis Women’s Australian Open champion (1960-66)

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