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Tour de Lance

Armstrong draws a large audience and inspires local cancer survivors during the grand reopening of a local fitness center
by: Vern Uyetake, Lance Armstrong signs a jersey worn by Jimmy Fowkes’ 9-year-old sister, Molly. The family and Armstrong also had their photo taken together. Jimmy is a local brain cancer survivor

In years past, Lance Armstrong would have spent last week undergoing physical exams and team presentations in preparation for the Tour de France, which started Saturday.

He'll always have Paris, but these days, with his illustrious career as a professional cyclist behind him, Armstrong has other business to tend to.

On June 28, he attended the grand reopening of the renovated 'Lance Armstrong 24-Hour Fitness Super Sport,' located on the Tualatin-Lake Oswego city line. It's the sixth in the country to bear Armstrong's name.

The seven-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor arrived at the club dressed as laid-back as his demeanor in a black T-shirt, jeans and sneakers.

Hundreds of fans gathered around a makeshift stage to catch a glimpse of Armstrong as he spoke about cancer research and how he spends his retirement.

'It still freaks me out, I have to say,' Armstrong said of his celebrity, looking around at the décor at the 24-Hour Fitness facility, which includes mural-sized photos of Armstrong, quotes and a pictoral history of his life and career.

His trademark color, yellow, of course, is also part of the scheme.

Several cancer survivors, including Lake Oswego resident and Armstrong enthusiast Jimmy Fowkes, stood in the crowd.

Earlier, Fowkes and his family had the opportunity to meet Armstrong through an arrangement by the Lance Armstrong Foundation.

Fowkes, 13, asked Armstrong to sign a Discovery Channel cycling jersey and an issue of Sports Illustrated. He also signed a SpongeBob SquarePants shirt worn by Fowkes' 9-year-old sister, Molly.

'I was kind of really awestruck at meeting him and then after awhile I calmed down,' said Fowkes, who underwent surgery in January to remove a malignant brain tumor.

The Fowkes were pleased with the amount of one-on-one time Armstrong spent with Jimmy.

'He was very low key,' said his father, Dan Fowkes. 'Everybody had said in preparation that he was just a regular guy and he seems that way ... very down to earth. I think he really wants the attention focused on the issues surrounding cancer. He doesn't want all of the attention centered on himself.'

Later, emcee and Oregonian columnist Jonathan Nichols asked Armstrong a number of questions, but didn't mention the recently published reports in a French newspaper covering banned substances that Armstrong has continually denied taking.

Instead, the conversation focused on the positive, including Armstrong's work on behalf of cancer patients and survivors. The successful sale of his Livestrong bracelets has brought in $60 million to date.

'It was a pretty good idea, I think,' Armstrong said.

Despite the sometimes bad publicity, Armstrong, 35, continues to use his celebrity power to secure endorsement deals and bolster his cause.

For some, the connection certainly pays off. Having Armstrong's name on the club inspires member Steve Schoenbrun to push himself during workouts.

'The more I come here, the more I want to stay,' he said.

Schoenbrun, a 47-year-old Sherwood resident, won a contest to meet Armstrong and have his copy of Armstrong's book signed.

'He's really cool,' he said.

The previous day, Armstrong spoke with congressional leaders in Washington, D.C., about the importance of maintaining - and strengthening - funding for cancer research.

'Taking what we know and applying it would save 200,000 lives every year,' Armstrong said. 'That has to happen right now ... We think a disease that could become the No. 1 killer in the United States should become a political issue.'

He wouldn't take political sides, but opted to poke fun at his bike rides with President George W. Bush.

'He was breathing so hard, I felt bad for him,' Armstrong said with a laugh. 'The rule of not getting in front of him on the ride was tough. The secret service was in front of us with Uzis, so I thought I'd better behave.'

Armstrong is set to return to Portland in late July to kick off the second annual Livestrong Challenge ride and run, which raised about $1.3 million last year.

'It's just another opportunity to go around the country and spread the word and build a community,' he said. 'Hopefully it won't be 35 degrees on the starting line (like last year).'

These days, he doesn't cycle to compete, but exercises through cross training to keep fit and have fun. Although he said he doesn't run regularly, Armstrong is training for this November's New York City Marathon, the world's largest.

'If I broke three hours, I'd be happy,' he said.

Family remains another priority for Armstrong, who recently purchased a new home and appreciates spending free time with his three children.

Heather Hill, a Lake Oswego resident who was diagnosed and treated for breast cancer in 2001, brought a bike seat and a silver pen to the appearance with hopes for an autograph.

'I read his book and was so motivated and inspired,' said Hill, now 32. 'I love to ride and think about his story.'

Though disappointed she didn't get to meet her hero, Hill said she was pleasantly surprised at Armstrong's candor.

'I came out because Lance is an inspiration to me as an athlete, a cancer survivor and an advocate taking his experience and making it better for everyone else,' she said.

Armstrong's visit was also a long-awaited highlight in Ben Byers' life. The Beaverton resident and 24-Hour Fitness employee told Armstrong that his courage helped him pull through testicular cancer.

'It hit me like a brick wall. I didn't know how to handle it or respond,' Byers said of his diagnosis at age 19.

But after one of four surgeries to remove a tumor, Byers drew inspiration from his hospital bed by watching Armstrong compete in his second Tour de France.

'I thought, 'If this guy can overcome cancer and do what he's doing now, there's no reason why I can't beat this thing and become 100 percent normal and live a normal life.'

Byers, now an avid cyclist, used fitness, in true Armstrong fashion, to rebound from his illness.

'Seeing what he's done has inspired me to see the world in a whole new way,' Byers said. 'I consider myself blessed and when I see what he's done for other people, I want to give back to the people who helped me.'