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Happy he got cancer!

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During our lives . . . we experience so many setbacks, and fight such a hand-to-hand battle with failure, head down in the rain, just trying to stay upright and to have a little hope. The Tour is not just a bike race, not at all. It is a test. It tests you physically, it tests you mentally, and it even tests you morally . . . There were no shortcuts, I realized. I wouldn't be able to win a Tour de France until I had enough iron in my legs, and lungs, and brain, and heart. Until I was a man." — Lance Armstrong in "It's Not About the Bike"

As we speak, the Tour de France is well into its 2,000-plus mile, 20-plus day romp through the French and French-neighboring countryside, lumbering through the Alps and the Pyrenees on its annual way to the finish line on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

It seemed an appropriate time to pick up and read Lance Armstrong's book, "It's Not About the Bike," published just over a year ago by Putnam. The book chronicles the story of Armstrong's initial Tour de France win in 1999, a triumph that followed a successful battle with testicular cancer that had dropped Armstrong out of bike racing and into chemotherapy for the better parts of 1996 and 1997. That he could come back two years later and win what has been called the most demanding event in all of sports is the stuff of legend and fat publishing house contracts.

That Armstrong would win the Tour yet again in 2000, and possibly this year as well — few are betting against him as the race heads for his forte, the mountains — has only added to the saga. Cancer survivors and would-be survivors, as well as mainstream Americans — not exactly the heart and soul of bike-racing — are following this year's race closely, again pulling for the guy who shaves his legs and used to shave his head.

The world needs as many heroes as it can get, and we'll take Lance Armstrong, scars and all, who freely reveals that he's glad he got the cancer. It defined his life. It refined him. It taught him about humanity and compassion. No sooner did he get out of the hospital with a clean bill of health — he had been given less than a 40 percent chance of surviving — than he set up the Lance Armstrong Foundation to fight cancer. When the disease messed with Lance, it messed with someone who would mess back.

Still, there is an honesty in Armstrong's first-person storytelling that drops him well below the sainted angel category and gives the book a depth beyond any simple I-beat-cancer-and-the-Tour theme. This Texan from a broken home grew up with a chip on his shoulder, and it's still there, cancer recovery and all. Respect him, admire him, like him even, just don't cross him. This is not a man you cut in front of in traffic. His basic nature is jerk. It could be he beat the cancer out of sheer orneriness. The Tour, too.

The only difference is that in the fight against cancer he banded with others — doctors, nurses, fellow patients — all of them united in their cause and focused on a common foe; whereas in bike-racing, it's always Lance against the world, fists clenched and elbows out, constantly looking to break away. In the Tour de France, the only way you can win is when everybody else loses.

"The truth is that cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me," the bike-racer tells us. "When I was sick, I saw more beauty and triumph and truth in a single day than I ever did in a bike race."

Compelling testimony from someone who has been in the thick of both.

Lee Benson's column runs Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Please send e-mail to benson@desnews.com and faxes to 801-237-2527.