BEECH MOUNTAIN, N.C. Far from the Tour de France, Ken Cluley stands on the pedals of his bicycle through another steep climb, willing himself to the top of Beech Mountain.
It's no coincidence that the 49-year-old Florida resident is making this brutal climb during Lance Armstrong's push for a fifth straight Tour de France victory. Beech Mountain is famous among cyclists as the place where Armstrong regained his will to win after a bout with cancer.
''That's why I'm here,'' Cluley, of Palmetto, Fla., said Wednesday as he took a break about halfway between Banner Elk and the top of the mountain. N.C. Highway 184 gains 1,450 feet in altitude in those three miles.
Cluley, vacationing with his family in the mountains, said he made the side trip to Beech because of Armstrong.
After four consecutive wins in the Tour de France, the story of Armstrong's spring 1998 stay in the Blue Ridge Mountains has taken on the aura of legend. It's cycling's equivalent of the inspirational scene in every ''Rocky'' movie where the boxer whips himself into shape for the climactic bout.
Armstrong, who survived treatment for testicular cancer, was out of shape and considering retirement from pro cycling in the spring of 1998. In a final effort, coach Chris Carmichael brought him to the mountain town of Boone for a week of riding.
Armstrong says he regained his competitive edge as he reached the top of Beech Mountain one morning during that trip.
''I was a bike racer again,'' he wrote in his autobiography, ''It's Not About the Bike.'' ''If I ever have any serious problems again, I know that I will go back to Boone and find an answer.''
Carmichael brought Armstrong to Beech in part because of the rider's previous success there. In the mid-1990s, when the Tour Du Pont passed through this range, its most famous stage finished atop the mountain.
Armstrong won the stage in 1995 and finished first or second each year from 1993 to 1996.
''Beech is special; it has all the ingredients,'' Armstrong said after winning at the mountain in '95. ''It's as close as we get to European climbs in this race. It's a classic.''
Cluley knows the story by heart.
''He decided he wanted to come back here because he'd had success here,'' he said. ''If he was going to find 'it,' he was going to find it here.''
Unlike Armstrong, Cluley's cycling career will not be made or broken by his slow, steady climb up Beech. As a vehicle passed him on one steep slope, he joked to its occupants: ''Got a rope?''
But Cluley said it meant a great deal to him to follow in the tracks of Armstrong's skinny tires. He and his son watched Armstrong race at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and Cluley has been through a cancer scare of his own.
As he pedaled his humble racing bike bought used on the Internet auction site eBay.com Cluley's wife, Charlene, followed close behind, a one-person support team in the family minivan.
''I just wanted to see what it feels like on these climbs,'' Cluley said after coasting to a stop in front of the Beech Mountain Town Hall elevation 5,085 feet. ''You see these (Tour de France riders) suffering every day on TV, you want to know what they feel like.''
Jonathan Lubkemann was 28 and a serious amateur racer when Armstrong came to Boone five years ago. He kept up with Armstrong's group during one 65-mile ride.
''It was the fastest I've ever ridden that road and ever will ride that road,'' said Lubkemann, now a vice-president at the local branch of the BB&T bank and father of three children.
Now that he's a dad, Lubkemann spends less time on his bike.
The ride with Armstrong remains his claim to cycling fame.
''I enjoy bringing it up when I'm out riding with people: 'Last time I came here, I was with Lance Armstrong,''' he said.
Lubkemann and others in Boone's cycling community are following Armstrong's latest Tour de France bid closely. Bill Pressly, owner of the Boone Bike and Touring shop, said people stop in all day to watch coverage of the race on television.
Like Elvis, Pressly said, Armstrong is gone from Boone, but definitely not forgotten.
''There's a rumor that he's in town every couple months,'' Pressly said. ''I hear everything. He's buying property, he's coming to ride.''
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