Living strong, Armstrong’s an unstoppable force

This is the power of Lance Armstrong.

People he has never met strain to touch him — if only with their fingertips, as if he can deliver salvation.

People he has never met strain to get near him — but to spit at him in fury, as if he embodies evil.

Love and hate are woven into the life of this 38-year-old Texan, a seven-time winner of cycling’s most grueling race, the Tour de France, a man who gives of himself to cancer patients in ways others can’t because he was one, a man who tried to stay retired only to get back on his bike to raise money for charity.

Last year, he overcame a broken collarbone and some snarky comments to ride in the Tour de France, stealing the spotlight from eventual winner and now ex-teammate Alberto Contador.

The world then knew Armstrong would be back with a vengeance. And he is.

He has a new team, of which he is part-owner, and a baby on the way — his fifth. And he will be trying for his eighth Tour de France victory come July, a goal set in Paris last summer when he stood third on the podium, not his customary first.

And beginning Sunday, he will ride in the weeklong Tour of California, the Nevada City-to-Thousand Oaks race that is America’s biggest cycling event and a tuneup for the Tour de France.

But it’s not easy.

“For the first time in my life, I’ve felt a little overwhelmed with stuff,” he admitted the other day. “I can juggle a lot of things emotionally, but physically at this age, the combination of travel and training, working with the Lance Armstrong Foundation, working with the new team, it takes a toll on me. I’m not 28 anymore.”

He is proof, though, that miracles happen. He not only survived testicular and brain cancers, he thrived, setting a sports record by repeatedly winning the Tour de France. Cycling coach and friend Jim Ochowicz has seen him go into a cancer ward and patients ask to touch him. “It’s as if they believe they can be saved by him,” Ochowicz says.

But for others, Armstrong’s fortunes show that good does not always triumph. Red-faced fans at the 2005 Tour de France waved placards at him, accusing him of being a doper. Though he had never tested positive, he was cursed and spit on during a dramatic time trial up the iconic L’Alpe d’Huez.

Last July, Armstrong’s Tour de France comeback found him on the Astana team with Contador, who was the heavy favorite to win. Astana was coached by Armstrong mentor Johan Bruyneel, but it was not enough to soothe the rivalry.

When Armstrong made a surprise move early in the 21-day race and got within a second of the lead, Contador was seething. “Even if he is a great champion,” Contador said later, “I have never had admiration for him, and I never will.”

Armstrong is unbothered. “We’re rivals,” he said of Contador. “But the best guy won last year. Who knows about this year.”

Contador now says his hateful words had been from a buildup of emotion.

“I think our case is not exactly a rivalry,” Contador wrote in an e-mail from Spain, “but the consequence of [Armstrong] having returned to active cycling on the same team that I rode on and to both have the same objective, [winning] the Tour de France.”

The love-hate issues surrounding Armstrong did not stop RadioShack from building him a new team. Lee Applbaum, the company’s chief marketing officer, said Armstrong’s appeal beyond cycling, or even sports, was more important.

“His personal story of nearly dying, of overcoming adversity,” Applbaum said, “taking all of his notoriety and channeling it back into the Livestrong foundation, that drives a message globally. Our relationship is less about cycling and more about our effort to connect communities.”

This year, Armstrong doesn’t have to spar with Contador over who will be team leader. Armstrong is the team’s biggest star, and the anticipated Tour de France conflict has fueled delicious speculation around the world. But not so much from Armstrong, who has spent the last week in Santa Barbara to prepare for this week’s race.

When asked about winning an eighth Tour de France, Armstrong instead talks about his routine.

“I still love the training,” he said. “I still love that aspect, the six-hour ride, take my time, have my coffee, read the news, then head out about 10 through some of the most beautiful landscape, nobody’s bugging me. Other than throwing a football on the beach with my kids, nothing is better.”

Not everyone embraced Armstrong’s return to competitive cycling. Bob Stapleton, owner of the HTC-Columbia team, feared Armstrong would steal the show — and bring renewed attention to doping controversies that had dogged the Tour de France.

Since 1999, when Armstrong first won the race, at least 14 Tour de France riders have served doping suspensions or retired after testing positive. They include 2006 winner Floyd Landis, Jan Ullrich of Germany and Ivan Basso of Italy, who had been considered heir apparent to Armstrong after coming in second at the Tour in 2005.

Doping issues aside, one thing was undeniable to Stapleton. Armstrong is a force.

His return to the peloton pushed Versus’ television ratings up by 100%. And when he signed up for the Tour of California last year for the first time, the crowd along the route grew about 25% to nearly 2 million.

Stapleton also saw how crowds surrounded Armstrong’s hotels last summer in France, how media enveloped the Astana team bus every day, pressing Armstrong for answers about himself, about Contador, about doping, about the past — and the future.

“He’s a lightning rod no matter what,” Stapleton said. “But this was very telling to me: Every night during dinner — that’s 23 nights — Lance sat at the table and paid attention to every detail. I would notice him staring at every one of his teammates. He would take note of what they ate, he would ask them questions, Alberto included. Do you know how energy-consuming that is?

“This is a guy who’s won seven Tours, who was 37, who didn’t need to do that. That told me everything.”

Life is different now for Armstrong, who once was known for monk-like living as much as for dating singer Sheryl Crow. Late last month, he and girlfriend Anna Hansen announced they were expecting a second child together. The couple have a son Max, who is nearly 1. Armstrong also has three children with his ex-wife, Kristen — Luke, 10, and twins Grace and Isabella, 8.

“Five is a pretty big number,” Armstrong said. It was not something he ever expected to love so much, being a father of a large family.

“What I found out with Luke is that I love watching them grow and change and the challenges that come with this,” Armstrong said. “It’s hands down the most exciting thing I’ve ever been involved with. Who knows? We might not stop at five. The older kids are pushing for a sixth so they can each have one.”

Along with being the family guy and the corporate guy with his foundation, Armstrong has played an integral role in every aspect of the RadioShack team — including deciding who would ride with him and designing the red, black and gray outfits the team will wear.

“I’ve got two hats right now,” he said. “One is as a rider and maybe the symbolic leader and doing everything I can to help Levi Leipheimer win. The other is being part-owner and getting to know RadioShack somewhat intimately in all aspects.”

There are other big names in this year’s Tour of California. They include Britain’s Mark Cavendish, considered the world’s best sprinter; David Zabriskie, the current U.S. national time trial champion; 2009 Tour de France runner-up Andy Schleck of Luxembourg; and Beijing Olympic time trial gold medalist Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.

But no, Armstrong will not win the Tour of California. His role here, as it was a year ago, is to be a lieutenant in the peloton, working to help Leipheimer win a fourth straight title. That’s the way in cycling. A member is selected the leader and the rest of the team works for him. In France, Leipheimer will be the one paving the way for Armstrong.

Yet with Armstrong, it is love, not hate or rivalry, that will color every stage of the Tour of California because he is riding for cancer patients. One of them is 17-year-old Jimmy Fowkes, who is dealing with a third recurrence of brain cancer. Fowkes met Armstrong after raising more than $13,000 for Livestrong.

“He said he was amazed that a 13-year-old could raise so much money,” said Fowkes, who had been newly diagnosed at the time. When Fowkes later went through a stem cell transplant, Armstrong sent text messages. When the cancer came back, Armstrong texted again, pushing Fowkes to keep fighting. Then last year, Fowkes found some white spots on his arm.

“A doctor told me the cancer was back and I was going to die,” he said. “Lance texted me right away and told me to believe what was in my heart and to wait for test results. I was really down that day. You can’t believe what that text meant.”

Turns out, the spots were scar tissue from radiation.

“Who am I? But he cares and it’s real,” Fowkes said. “His critics believe bad stuff about him? I wish I could talk to them.”