Lance Armstrong could be back riding stages of the Tour de France this summer after former England footballer Geoff Thomas persuaded the disgraced cyclist to join him for part of his charity ride this summer which aims to raise £1 million for the charity Cure Leukaemia.
Thomas, like Armstrong a cancer survivor, credits the Texan with providing him with the inspiration to overcome the disease, and after he went into remission a decade ago rode the entire route of the 2005 Tour one day before the race tackled it.
This summer, the 50-year-old will lead 20 cyclists in recreating that ride, and has invited Armstrong, who in 2012 was stripped of the seven consecutive editions of the race he won between 1999 and 2005, to join them for part of the journey.
According to Mail Online, Thomas believes that despite the controversy that Armstrong’s participation would provoke, it could also help him raise more money for charity.
But Betsy Andreu, whose husband Frankie was a team-mate of Armstrong's at US Postal and who testified against him during the SCA Promotions arbitration hearing in 2005, saying she was present in an Indianapolis hospital room when Armstrong admitted to doctors he had used performance enhancing drugs, believes Thomas is making a mistake.
Writing on Facebook, she said: "How Geoff Thomas can forgive Lance for what he's done to other people is beyond me. The egg on the face will be hard to wipe off."
After speaking to Armstrong by phone in January, Thomas travelled to Austin, Texas for a face-to-face meeting, and asked him if he would join the One Day Ahead Ride for a couple of stages.
After some initial reluctance, Armstrong replied: “Of course I will,’ he says. ‘I have to say I’m humbled you’ve made the effort to come all this way.”
Back in the UK, Thomas spoke with Mail Online at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham’s Centre for Clinical Haematology, built partly with the help of money the former Crystal Palace and Wolverhampton Wanderers player raised himself.
Recalling being told in 2003 that he had chronic myeloid leukaemia, Thomas said: “Two days after I’d been diagnosed a friend gave me his [Armstrong’s] book. And Lance was the person who really dragged me out of what was a very dark place.
“I had just been given three months to live. Even after the first treatment I received, when the tests showed I was actually in a chronic state, I was looking at a maximum of three years. Unless I could find a donor.
“Lance’s book, It’s Not About The Bike, gave me something positive. He inspired me to fight the disease. It’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced what it’s like to be told you’ve got cancer but he got me on a more positive path.
“I read the book in a couple of days but I kept going back to it during my treatment.”
Learning that fellow patients who died may have had a chance of survival had they been able to benefit from certain medication not available to them, he decided to raise funds for the hospital.
The 2005 ride raised £250,000 and saw Thomas awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Helen Rollason Award – presented via videolink by Armstrong himself, in the year he won his seventh and final yellow jersey.
Seven years on, in 2012, Thomas had to come to terms with the fact that the man who had inspired him so much had won those by cheating.
“A lot of people felt conned and I was no different,” he said. “I had my suspicions, of course. After 2005 I became fascinated by cycling. I got to know people in the sport. I listened to what some of them were saying and, as a former professional sportsman, I’m not naive.
“I was still disappointed. But even then my mind was divided. As a sportsman I was angry that it was all a lie. Doping is wrong. But in the context of the illness, and the connection I had as someone who had also survived cancer, the sport was kind of irrelevant.
“All that ever really mattered to me was his attitude towards the disease; the desire to fight it and the desire to make a difference when he got better.”
Thomas remains divided in his opinion of Armstrong – on the one hand, someone with whom he shares so much, a fellow athlete who overcame a life-threatening illness, on the other a confessed drug cheat.
“There are huge sections of the book that, for me, remain sincere and truthful,” he said.
“Yes, there was also a degree of deception. But that was part of a much bigger conspiracy, as we can now fully understand with the publication of that UCI report last week,” he said. “I’m not here to defend Lance, and I’m certainly not trying to present him as a victim.
“He has made his mistakes and now he’s paying the price. But none of that actually concerns me. This isn’t about cycling or doping or the UCI. This is about cancer and saving lives.”
But Thomas believes Armstrong is genuine when it comes to helping others with cancer. “As soon as you talk to him about cancer it’s obvious he wants to get back and help. I sensed a lot of pain there, that the door was closed on him by Livestrong. Because that’s where he wants to get back to.
“But I have a vehicle that can get him involved again now. And after what he did for me 12 years ago I’d like to do that. I’m not a religious person but I believe in right and wrong and I also believe in forgiveness.”
He rejected thoughts that Armstrong is manipulating him, maintaining that he believes Armstrong can still inspire fellow cancer sufferers.
“If anything I’m using Lance here,” he insisted. “I’ve pursued him. I’ve flown to Texas to see him. I’ve persuaded him to get involved again.
“But look, this actually isn’t about Lance and [it] isn’t about me,” he added. “It’s about the people who got me to the top of those mountains back in 2005, when my body really wasn’t ready to take on a physical challenge like that,” he added.
“It’s about Clare, Stephen and Mark. They were friends I made in the unit and they were desperate to survive. And they died so young because the drugs that might have saved them weren’t available.”
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