Lance Armstrong, Citizen
Credit: Getty Images
This is what it feels like to hang out with Armstrong: really damn good. He's warm, generous, and funny, despite a couple of blind spots. He has a fierce dedication to his mother and his three kids, whom he's bringing up with his ex-wife

Kristin in Austin, Texas. His "people," a swarm of managers, agents, publicists, and nonprofit development guys, are pretty much the coolest people that one meets in these jobs. The hawklike contours of Armstrong's face are less emaciated than they appear in photographs, with dimples that come out when he smiles, and he has a tendency to clap everyone in sight on the shoulders, including the ladies, who sometimes get an extra pat. He's still tempted by competition, signing up for the Leadville 100 in August, but he thrives on attention: Like Bill Clinton, he spends about half his time working on the foundation and the other half flying around the country for well-paid lectures and meetings with sponsors (he recently testified on Capitol Hill). "Lance is an intense, focused leader and very detail-oriented," says Doug Ullman, president of the Lance Armstrong Foundation. "We talk every day, sometimes three times a day, to make him aware of everything that's going on, but he's not a micromanager."

Armstrong was born in Plano, Texas, to a 17-year-old mom and a dad who ditched them when Armstrong was two. "Lance was born at the tail end of Vietnam, and it was tumultuous times for our country back then," says his mom Linda Armstrong Kelly, a thin blonde with a beautiful smile. "His father was really rebellious and left me a single parent with no high school education. When he left, he gave up his paternal rights to Lance." About a decade ago Lance's father tried to reconnect with his former family, but neither Armstrong nor Kelly was interested. "It's interesting what can happen when someone gets rich and famous," Kelly says ruefully. Her next husband, Terry Armstrong, provided Lance with his surname, though Lance didn't like him much. Kelly has since been married four times. "My mom's my best friend," says Lance.

When he was a kid it was the two of them against the world. Kelly, a secretary at cell phone company Ericsson, pulled herself up by her bootstraps to become a global account manager and used the extra dough to give Armstrong a better life. A lonely boy who loved running, biking, and the band Poison, Armstrong began competing in 10-Ks at 10 years old and bike races a couple of years later. He was both determined and genetically gifted, with an incredibly high V02 max and very low lactic acid levels, as well as a heart the size of a pumpkin. "Some people are born with four cylinders, some are born with 12," says Armstrong. "Without tooting my horn or sounding arrogant, I was born with 12."

As anyone with a TV knows, in 1996 the promising rider who turned pro at age 21 in 1992 and won the world championship in 1993 (as well as two stages of the Tour de France, in 1993 and 1995), started feeling uncomfortable down there. He winced through the pain for six months before seeing a doctor, by which point cancer had spread from his testicles to his brain and lungs, giving him a 20 percent chance of recovery. To save his life, doctors had to act swiftly. The day after his diagnosis they operated on a testicle, removing a tumor; the next day, with a painful scar, he masturbated into a cup at a sperm bank in case chemotherapy made him infertile (it did, and some of those zillions of sperm created his children). After brain surgery it seemed like game over for Armstrong, but he pulled himself through by the sheer force of will. Within a year he was cancer-free, and within three he won his first Tour de France.

Even if you aren't sure cancer can be defeated by human will, it's hard not to get emotional when thinking about Armstrong's superhuman feats and their impact on those suffering from the disease. "After Lance, no one of us could ever say again it was too hard, the odds stacked against us were too high, the fight already lost," Elizabeth Edwards, a friend and political connection, has said. "The fight I fight is for me and my family, but the power to fight belongs in good measure to Lance." In a way, Armstrong has become a VIP's high priest of cancer; his is one of the phone calls important people receive after their diagnosis. Recently he reached out to Senator Ted Kennedy through Senator John Kerry, a friend. "Kerry was on a bike ride, but he sent a text about Teddy – all of Kennedy's friends call him Teddy," says Armstrong. "I figured, 'Fuck it, I'm going to say Teddy too,' and I sent him a text that said, 'You tell Teddy to kick some ass!' "

On the plane, Armstrong wolfs down a breakfast burrito as we begin to dive down to Columbus for the next stop on the LiveStrong Day national tour. He changes into jeans, his preferred mode of dress, because "the college kids don't need the cufflinks," and starts to work his BlackBerry, which is decorated on its backside with an image of a skull.

Now is the time for action. The event coordinators and advance team clip on their earpieces and whisper about "staging." We jump into a new convoy of cars. The police escort drives very fast to the Ohio State University, where hundreds of doctors and students await his arrival. A burly dude wears a T-shirt that says i'm making cancer my bitch. They wave their hands toward him as if he were a rock star or a guru, and Armstrong grabs a few of them, issuing his healing touch. It's like a homecoming for a football star: The brass band toots the school's anthem as red and yellow confetti is shot over the crowd, landing in Armstrong's hair. He grabs a mike for an opening joke about the legendary football game between OSU and the University of Texas–Austin. "Man, I was so excited about that," he says. "McConaughey and I had a heck of a tailgate party before that game, even though it did not work out very good." The crowd roars with laughter.

There is something a bit workmanlike about Armstrong as a public speaker, a tendency to hide behind facts and figures instead of stirring emotion on the stump. He rattles off statistics about cancer deaths (560,000 every year); cancer funding ($5 million to $6 million at the National Cancer Institute, and falling); and the projections of how much cancer will cost society in the next 15 years ($1 trillion). He pulls some heartstrings about Senator Barack Obama, who lost his mother to cancer in 1995: "Imagine you're Senator Obama and you're sworn in as the 44th president of the United States," says Armstrong. "I'm telling you, if I was him, the only person I would want there is my mother."

He's about to list about 20 more facts when an ambulance passes by in the distance, its sirens on full blast. Armstrong stops speaking, grips the podium, and listens for a second.

"That ambulance could be taking someone from hospice to hospital, or it could be going from house to hospital," he says, eyes searching the crowd. "I don't know. I don't know where it's going." It's an odd moment, and it takes Armstrong a couple more seconds to return to the drudgery of facts and figures – a moment of genuine selflessness, or messianic fervor.