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Joly battles back from cancer

Sébastien Joly (FDJeux) will be the first person to tell you that he’s not going to win seven Tours de France, let alone one, after fending off a bout with testicular cancer that struck him midway through the 2007 season. Comparisons to Lance Armstrong are inevitable for the 28-year-old Frenchman, who returned to competition in February after missing last year’s Tour as he underwent surgery and radiotherapy.

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By Andrew Hood

Joly is just happy to be on his bike again.

Joly is just happy to be on his bike again.

Photo: Andrew Hood

Sébastien Joly (FDJeux) will be the first person to tell you that he’s not going to win seven Tours de France, let alone one, after fending off a bout with testicular cancer that struck him midway through the 2007 season.

Comparisons to Lance Armstrong are inevitable for the 28-year-old Frenchman, who returned to competition in February after missing last year’s Tour as he underwent surgery and radiotherapy.

“You cannot compare our stories. He was a rider who won the world championships at 21 and was already at a high international level when he was stricken with cancer,” Joly told VeloNews. “I am a rider at a national level. I can never dream of winning the Tour. I am a rider capable of winning a French championship or maybe a stage in the Tour. My reality was never to win the Tour, before or after cancer.”

Joly is grateful to be healthy again and back in the business of racing his bike.

Joly returned to competition at the GP Marsellaise in February and then raced the Mallorca Challenge, where VeloNews caught up with him. He’s next scheduled to race at the Three Days of West Flanders later this week.

“I didn’t feel good at the team time trial event (in June) and I felt pain. I told my trainer, who told me straight away to go the doctor. From there, it wasn’t good,” Joly says. “The doctors found a cancer and I was operated on 10 days later. It was very scary. They said I had 99 percent chance of survival, but it’s a shock when you hear that news.”

Instead of going to the Tour, Joly was flat on his back going into the operating room wondering about his future.

The prognosis was good, because the cancer was found very early and it hadn’t spread beyond his testicle. After surgery, he underwent 15 sessions of radiotherapy and lost more than 13 pounds of weight, much of it muscle mass.

“The problems are behind me now, but I still have quite a bit of controls and follow-up visits to the doctor,” he continued. “Right now, I’m happy to be healthy again. My program right now is to try to regain my position as a rider, to get back to the level where I was before I became sick. It’s a slow process. I cannot go too fast right now.”

A pro since 2000, he’s hoping that his cancer comeback story will quickly fade into the background so he can focus on racing and not become some sort of media star for what he’s overcome instead of what he’s accomplished on the bike.

Joly expressed his appreciation of the support he received from his FDJeux teammates and management. He returned to the team last fall and participated in the team’s training camps over the winter.

He also exchanged e-mails with Armstrong, who encouraged him to fight and stay positive and offered assistance when Joly’s illness made headlines last summer.

Joly laughs when people suggest cancer will magically transform him into a Tour winner.

“My cancer was very different than Armstrong’s, whose was much more advanced than mine. With me, it was only in the first stage and we caught it very early,” Joly says. “I don’t think the cancer has affected me for the better or for the worse. It was a localized treatment and I had a fairly fast recovery. I am already back to my normal racing weight and I am regaining my fitness level step by step.”

He’s optimistic that by mid-season he should be back at his best and is taking aim at the French national championships in June as a motivating goal. He acknowledges earning a spot on the Tour de France will be challenging.

He confesses he views life on and off the bike with a different outlook. He has new appreciation for what he called “the gift” of racing his bike professionally, but now doesn’t sweat the small stuff.

“I’m looking at life differently now. The small problems don’t matter as much and that’s an important change for me. I enjoy life more day-in and day-out. I remember seeing 10-year-old children with cancer, very sick, facing death,” he recalls. “It was a big shock to realize you have cancer. You’re young and healthy, then suddenly you’re facing your own mortality. I was one of the lucky ones. I will never forget that.”

For Joly, suffering on the bike is easy compared to what other cancer patients face.

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