By Jean-François Quénet in Saint-Quentin
Sébastien Joly was diagnosed with testicular cancer on June 25, the day of his 28th birthday, after winning Paris-Camembert. Instead of starting the Tour de France with Française des Jeux, he underwent an operation and then completed radiotherapy treatment on September 11.
"I was in a state of semi depression," Joly recalled. "Since I was 15, my life was the one of a full-time and healthy athlete. Cancer is a frightening word."
He resumed training slowly at the end of September. In November, he joined his team-mates for a cyclo-cross training camp in Renazé, the home of the Madiot brothers, his bosses at Française des Jeux. "It was a fabulous feeling to meet my colleagues again," he said. "With what I've experienced, I can say the world of cycling is a real family. I have received supportive messages from many cyclists and staff members, not only from my team."
One noteworthy message of support came from fellow testicular cancer survivor Lance Armstrong on the same day the news was made public. "He offered me his help and I answered nicely to him," said Joly. "It was in French though. I know he understands and I was without strength [so] I couldn't force myself to write in English. Anyway, I thanked him and told him I'd come back to him later if any help was needed but at the time, the doctors were the most important people for my treatment."
Joly tried to keep Armstrong's e-mail secret initially. "I wanted to stay quiet. I didn't want to make any show of my disease. I just wanted to be healthy again. I refused the idea of people looking at me as the French Lance Armstrong, because I'm not. The only thing we've had in common is the same cancer, but not at the same degree.
"Mine was not life threatening. I didn't need chemotherapy. Then there was the prediction that I've heard a few times but which doesn't make me smile at all: people telling me that I'll win seven Tours de France now. Hey, I'm not the guy who was a World Champion age 21. I'm only an average French cyclist. I don't expect to become better; I'd just liked to get back to my level."
At the pre-Christmas Française des Jeux training camp in Saint-Quentin in Picardy, Joly was wearing one more warm riding jacket than everybody else. He was six kilos lighter than one year ago three kilos of fat and three kilos of muscle were still missing, he reckoned. "I have found the rhythm again," he said with a satisfied large smile. "I have done three hours of intense mountain biking with no problem. On the road, I know that four hours aren't a problem either. I just don't know how I'll cope with six hours rides. And the main uncertainty is the competition. I have no idea what I'll be able to do at races."
Therefore he hasn't set a date for his come back yet. "It could be in February or in March, it doesn't matter really because I'm not in a situation of setting goals for myself yet," he explained. "I have mixed feelings. I'm impatient to pin a number on my back but I also don't want to make any mistakes in my recovery process. I still have to go for tests once every three months and for a complete check up once every six months. I don't know when I'll be competitive again."
"If in any way I improve on my cycling, it'll be mentally," he continued. "On that aspect, I'm much stronger now. In three months, I've become five years older. I enjoy life and cycling even more than before. I have been shocked by the children I've met at the recovery centre where I had my treatment in Lyon. Shall I get myself involved in a charity action, it'll be for the comfort of the children who have cancer. Two associations have contacted me already. I'm not going to change the medical research but if I can help to raise funding at the level of what I can do, I'll be happy to do it."
In December he rode for the "telethon", which is for diseases other than cancer. "In the past, I'd have done the minimum of what I should do for good actions. Now I see things differently." He hasn't asked Armstrong for help because he didn't need any for his recovery.
"I wouldn't mind speaking with him [Armstrong] now in relation to his foundation because I've learnt a lot about testicular cancer since June and I've been in touch with other athletes who have faced the same disease. In particular, I've met a triathlete, Pierre Dorez, who originally hails from the same French province as me, the Drôme in the Rhone Valley. He has explained to me many things about the communications of scientists from all over the world about testicular cancer research. Sharing our experiences has benefited me a lot. He now promotes his own sports clothing brand, Zerod, and he even sponsors Laurent Jalabert for his triathlon rides."
Joly has kept quiet about his experience and intends to continue to do so. He hopes that when he returns to racing in two or three months, that he won't be looked upon as a curiosity although he knows he'll be a different person after his battle with cancer.