That he survived is a miracle. That he came back to win the Tour de France a record six straight times is beyond that.
Now, as he races to the finish of his remarkable odyssey, millions are projecting on him their desire for a heroic conclusion -- a seventh victory -- when so many others have fallen short and cynicism is endemic.
"The idea of a hero who was given up on in a way and makes his triumphant return is a very powerful theme," says Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, who teaches classical mythology at Wesleyan University. "There is something genuinely mythological about it."
Physical prowess is always involved. Armstrong would not have such status if he were, say, a politician.
Szegedy-Maszak compares Armstrong to Odysseus, thought lost after the Trojan war, but instead put through a series of tests by the gods before returning home and regaining his rightful status, "through a combination of strength and cleverness," as he puts it.
Or Achilles, who, sulking after an insult, withdrew from fighting in Troy. "He sits out for a while and comes roaring back," Szegedy-Maszak says.
But he thinks the best comparison might be Philoctetes, the greatest of Greek archers, who was bitten by a snake while on his way to Troy and abandoned by his compatriots. Because of a prophecy, he was brought back, his wound healed by the gods, and was a key figure in the Greek victory.
"Armstrong is such a powerful figure precisely because he has lived that dream that we can find our way back from the edge of the abyss," Szegedy-Maszak says. "And not just come back to a day-to-day existence, but come back as champion of champions. Just how great is that? It doesn't get any better."
LeMond took a similar journey, nearly killed in a hunting accident after his first Tour win, sitting out two years recovering, then returning to a triumph considered the most exciting finish ever as he made up a seemingly insurmountable amount of time in the last day's time trial to win by eight seconds.
But that remained a great sports story, not a great myth. Perhaps that's because gunshots come from men; cancer comes from the gods.