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Where does the Lance Armstrong Foundation go from Here
By Staff
Date: 3/17/2006
Where does the Lance Armstrong Foundation go from Here

Where Does the Lance Armstrong Foundation Go From Here?
Inside the Skinny Tire Festival Launching LAF Advocacy for Survival in 2006

By Dave Shields

In the minds of many, Lance Armstrong’s story has forever tied road cycling with the battle against cancer. Last week at the Moab Skinny Tire Festival I had the opportunity to speak with some key figures in the LAF movement to find out where the organization is headed now that the inspiration for their foundation has retired from the sport that made him famous. They were in attendance to acknowledge the model that the Moab Skinny Tire organizers had built for a fund-raising event, and to preview their brand new Advocacy Program.

Barry Jackson Advocacy Program Director, Dennis Cavner Chairman of the Board, Chris Carmichael and Mark Griffith, Festival Founder at Red Cliff's Adventure Lodge.

Dennis Cavner is the current Chairman of the Board. He’s an Austin entrepreneur with a seething hatred of cancer and a clear vision of what he believes LAF can become. Cavner lost his father to lung cancer when he was nine. His mother succumbed to lymphoma four years ago. For him, cancer has been “a monster in the closet” for his entire life. It’s something he learned to shut away and not talk about. That’s why he was stunned on October 2, 1996. That’s the day he watched a press conference where Lance Armstrong publicly announced that he had the disease, and furthermore, that he was going to beat it. For Cavner, it was a life-changing moment.

He followed the story closely as Armstrong not only made good on his promise, but added an exclamation point by winning the 1999 Tour de France. Cavner looks back upon that victory as the galvanizing moment for a powerful new movement. The fight against cancer, surely a noble cause, now had a symbol, and his name was Lance Armstrong. Several years later the yellow wristband idea came along, and the phenomenal sales proved beyond any shadow of doubt the potential this movement had. To date over 60 million of the little rubber things have been sold.

Riding through Arches National Park past the
"Three Gossips" at the Skinny Tire Festival

Cavner came to realize that if all we did was disseminate what we already know, we could detect cancer much earlier and cure many more people at far less cost. His anger as he cites the statistics surrounding the disease is obvious: 1.3 million diagnoses a year, 500,000 deaths annually, 1500 deaths per day! Cavner was incredulous when he told me that if the current budget passes, this will be the first time since 1971 when the federal dollars dedicated to the cancer fight have decreased—this despite Armstrong’s well publicized ride with George W. Bush on his Texas ranch.

Cavner describes Armstrong as a man driven by challenge. He says that since retirement, the cyclist has dedicated himself to the cancer fight, and that he sees his legacy of seven Tour de France victories as secondary to his fight against the disease that once nearly took his life. According to Cavner, “Armstrong is dedicated to making cancer a national priority, and to getting control of the disease.”

In order to do that Cavner believes that LAF is the perfect candidate to lead the fight, organizing the numerous groups attacking the disease and its various aspects. He sees all of this as a way to turn “a terribly destructive process into an incredibly positive experience.”

Lance Armstrong’s coach, Chris Carmichael, spoke mostly about an aspect of cancer that went somewhat unnoticed before LAF, that of survivorship. He freely admits that he once believed that Lance would die of cancer, and even talks of that as an aspect that he could accept at some level. When Armstrong didn’t succumb, then returned to cycling and posted his best placing ever in the Tour of Romandie, Carmichael became certain they were in the midst of something special, then came a twist he couldn’t accept. For no apparent reason, Armstrong abandoned on stage one of his next race, Paris-Nice. For several days Carmichael couldn’t get through to Lance on his cell phone, and he knew that meant he was being avoided. When they finally talked Lance told him he’d decided to hang up his cleats. Carmichael recalls saying, “Don’t tell the media! Let’s talk first.”

The Lance Armstrong Foundation has since given definition to what Lance was going through at this point, and these challenging re-integration with life obstacles are now called Survivorship. It’s one thing to overcome the disease, and it’s another to get back to the way things were. Cyclists I spoke with on the roads of Moab noted how critical this latter part of the healing process was for them or their loved ones.

Carmichael related how Armstrong took it to a new level. He described in vivid detail a ride that he talked Lance into taking before announcing his retirement. Bob Roll tagged along as a training partner, but was left in the dust as the roads bent upward and Armstrong rediscovered his passion. “He attacked this non-descript mountain in the middle of nowhere through lousy weather as if it mattered. This was his Super Bowl. This was his Tour de France.” From that point forward Carmichael says that Armstrong was changed. No longer an athlete who held an increment back as an out… a built in excuse for failure… Lance gave 100% all the time. According to Carmichael, “Lance is not afraid of failure. Imagine what you could do if you weren’t afraid. The possibilities are endless. All you need are goals.”

The preview of the Advocacy Program was left to Barry Jackson, also of LAF. Unfortunately, it didn’t meet the level of acceptance that LAF executives were probably hoping for. The idea is nice. It’s apparently meant to be another prong in the attack against the disease. An organized stand for patient’s rights, a platform for petitioning Congressman when relevant legislation comes on the floor, a basis for organizing events along the lines of the Moab Skinny Tire Festival.

Jackson chose a tent revivalist style approach to the meeting. There were pre-orchestrated yells of different sorts from the back of the room and the crowd was encouraged to participate in drills that felt more appropriate for an Amway meeting.
During the next day’s ride to Dead Horse Point the Advocacy presentation dominated conversation. I heard top fund raisers question the thinking behind the strategy, and wondering what could be done to course correct. LAF has proven their ability to communicate the stories of cancer survivors, and to motivate donors to get involved as a result; so why were they borrowing a page out of a multi-level marketer’s motivational manual? The majority of the people at that meeting had already raised money for cancer and seemed to feel insulted by the “rah rah” approach.

I attended the 2003 Ride for the Roses, the LAF’s signature event in Austin, and still consider it one of the most inspirational events of my life. While there, I didn’t experience anything like the advocacy presentation. Instead, I heard the stories of cancer survivors and I learned about their passion for and love of life. I’m certain there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after we watched the debut screening of a documentary called “A Lion In the House: Stories of Survivorship.” It was about three young cancer victims and the fights they waged against the disease. I highly recommend it, not just to casual readers of this article, but also to the LAF executive team. It’s important that they re-examine what they’ve done so well in order to build upon that success. (Review of movie here.)

The good news is that LAF appears to be an agile organization with more than enough strength and resilience to recover from a hiccough like this. When top fund raiser, Dr. Alan Klein of Denver, talked with Barry Jackson about impressions of the new program he says that Barry listened. He was fully prepared to tweak the program.

Samantha Bonsack with helmet cam on capturing footage of a rider at Dead Horse Point each registered rider at the Skinny Tire Festival receives a full length official video mailed after the event. Samantha makes a point of catching each of the riders in action on the helmet cam.

LAF has taken a leadership role in the cancer fight, and I look forward to seeing what adjustments they make to the Advocacy Program going forward. I’m confident that it can become another key weapon in their important fight against a disease that has devastated millions of lives, and I hope you’ll consider petitioning your congressman to make certain that government funding to fight cancer is not reduced at a time when we are finally gaining some control over the disease.

Dennis Cavner dreams of a day that the New York Times headline says “We Beat Cancer.” He knows it’s going to be a long and difficult fight. He emphasized that the foundation is not about cycling, though the sport is a great vehicle for awareness and fund raising. The foundation is not about Lance Armstrong, though he’s a great symbol for the fight. This foundation is about people with cancer in their lives and the battle to eradicate the disease. It’s a goal that can only be accomplished one person at a time, and that’s why he’s attending grass roots events like the Moab Skinny Tire Festival. I have to agree with him that Moab is the perfect place to energize oneself to keep fighting the good fight.

Dave Shields is the author of the bestselling and Benjamin Franklin Award Winning novel, The Race. His sequel, The Tour, will be on bookstore shelves this April. By special arrangements with the publisher the Daily Peloton copies are available here.

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