"Quite frankly, I came back better and stronger than I was before. And I think some of these [riders] would agree. Simply because you have a whole new perspective of the day, you have a whole new perspective on your opportunity to exercise, however long you have, perhaps because six or eight or 12 months earlier, you thought, 'I may never do a bike ride again.' And then you are given that opportunity and that gift back. It's an amazing feeling."
The 25 Tour of Hope bicyclists have spent four months building aerobic capacity and cycling endurance under a program designed by Carmichael Training Systems, a Colorado Springs coaching outfit whose founder, Chris Carmichael, designed Armstrong's Tour de France regimen.
Because many of the riders have children and full-time jobs, the program emphasized high-intensity interval training, in which the riders pushed their bodies over shorter distances than will be encountered on the Tour of Hope itself. Three group training camps helped identify the strongest riders, so they could be paired with weaker riders and help pace them. Special attention also was paid to cancer patients who may dehydrate quickly, one lasting side effect of chemotherapy, Carmichael said.
"Even Lance doesn't do as well in the heat post-cancer as he did pre-cancer," Carmichael said.
On a recent summer morning before the Tour of Hope began, participants Doron Kochavi and Mona Patel were riding up a steep Angeles Crest Highway grade toward Mt. Wilson, the 5,710-foot summit perched above Pasadena. Patel's heart rate had zoomed over 180 beats a minute, but Kochavi was barely sweating, climbing nearly effortlessly. Neither is a cancer patient; Kochavi's son, Ari, was diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 4 (he is now a healthy 21-year-old), while Patel's younger brother, Ramesh, died from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and her mother has battled breast cancer.
"It's going to be very tough," Kochavi said of the around-the-clock, cross-country ride. "It's a cumulative effect, especially when you have to wake up at 2 in the morning and it's a freezing cold night. But if Ari can do all of his treatments without complaining, how can I complain?"
In preparing for the ride, Kochavi shed 17 pounds. Other riders -- some of whom already were strong recreational athletes, and some of whom were not -- made similar improvements.
Mary Kreis discovered she was pregnant and had an unusual mole on her hip while riding across the country a year ago. Diagnosed with melanoma, she then gave birth to a healthy girl, who is now 8 months old. "They really took a chance on me," Kreis, 35, said of her pre-tour fitness. "I started from below ground."
Keith Bellizzi, who found out he had testicular and then kidney cancer in 1994, has logged as many as 20 hours and 300 miles a week on his bike in preparation for the cross-country ride. When he didn't have time to ride outside, Bellizzi would clip his bike into a stationary trainer and work out in front of the television, watching DVDs of Armstrong's past Tour de France wins for motivation.
"Right now I am in the best shape of my life, which is a result of all of the training we have been doing," said Bellizzi, 35, who has lost 14 pounds prepping for the ride.
Bellizzi said he had been biking for more than 10 years, and used his time in the saddle to get his body back into the shape it was before he had cancer. Still, he said, "This will be the most physically athletic experience I have ever undertaken."
Physical exhaustion is not the only price many of these riders have paid in training for the ride. Less than two weeks before the Tour of Hope commenced, Patel crashed hard while on a long ride with Kochavi in the San Gabriel Valley foothills. She was knocked unconscious, broke her collarbone and had to be evacuated by helicopter. Yet when the ride began last Thursday, Patel was in the pack, taped up, determined to finish.
Said Armstrong: "There is a lot of competition just to be named to the squad. So I can understand her desire not to give up her spot. That's really, really admirable."