The commercial is supposed to begin with Armstrong bellowing, "Alphonse, why do people talk like this when they're using their cell phones?" Guest tinkers a bit. "Say 'Alphonse' with a little more anger."
Armstrong adds some decibels.
Guest says, "Now say it a little slower, with attitude."
Armstrong slowly drawls, "Al, Phon, Za."
The bone-tired crew cracks up. Lance cracks a sly smile and begins humming the Mexican Hat Dance between takes. During a break, I tell Armstrong that the suits rate him a nine out of 10 on the celebrity acting scale.
"Really?" says Armstrong as he autographs a never-shrinking pile of posters. There's no smile, just an arched eyebrow. "Who's a 10? Did they say?"
It's a little surprising that Guest hasn't made one of his mockumentaries about the Tour de France. It's all there: skulduggery, buffoonery, pomposity. And that's before the riding starts.
You know the basics, which is a damn good testament to Lance's dominance of cycling – a sport huge in Europe, but one that, without Armstrong, draws American ratings south of George Lopez. The bio is familiar. A brash, fatherless boy from Plano blasts onto the scene in the early '90s. He's got a giant heart – both metaphorically and literally – and seemingly a tiny brain. He launches mountain-stage attacks that are bravely idiotic in a young Steve Prefontaine way, as they lack planning and timing and basically consist of Armstrong going to the front and holding on until he bonks, spectacularly dropping to the back of the pack. His front-running is comic-tragic in cycling, where you ride as a team and strategy is more convoluted and conspiracy-laden than the Trilateral Commission.
Armstrong wins a couple of Tour de France stages but withdraws from the three-week, 2,000-plus-mile grind in three of his first four attempts. Then in 1996 he gets testicular cancer. It spreads to his lungs and brain. His chance of surviving is less than 50-50. Some sponsors melt away. Most think he'll never ride again. But he does. Somehow, better than before. Maybe it's the gut check of the cancer; maybe it's hiring Belgian Johan Bruyneel as his coach, a man who is an amalgamation of Dr. Phil and Bill Parcells.
Lance becomes a master tactician. In 1999, he wins the Tour. There's a best-selling, actually readable memoir. And then he wins again. And again. Repeat until you hit seven. This does not please the French. Or the Germans. Or the Brits. Or anyone outside of the contiguous United States. He wins races by minutes, not seconds. Comparing Armstrong's times to pre-Armstrong times is like the distance between Roger Maris's 61 and Barry Bonds's 73.
And that's the problem. The entire European community thinks he's doping. In cycling, this is like being accused of smoking pot at a Phish concert. But here's the thing: Armstrong never tests positive, despite being pricked a couple of hundred times. The Euros start combing through his trash, questioning ex-friends and ex-employees and producing complicated mathematical formulas suggesting it is scientifically impossible for Armstrong to ride as fast as he does. They come close in 2005 – finding some urine samples of his from 1999 that might have tested positive for blood doping – but the second half of the samples were spoiled, leaving the matter still unclear.
"By the last two years, we weren't having any fun," says Bruyneel. "It was, get off the bus, race, deal with accusations, then do it again. It became a really hard job. Imagine trying to do your day job, whatever it is, right in Times Square, and that's what every day was like."
In his spare time, Armstrong starts LiveStrong, a foundation that immediately becomes a player in the fight-cancer world. After winning his seventh yellow jersey, he retires at the age of 34. "I won't miss the Tour," says Armstrong, who then heads out on tour with Sheryl Crow, his post-wife girlfriend. Armstrong splits from Crow in 2006, a move that frankly bothers more Americans than the alleged doping.
At that point, it's good to be Lance Armstrong. There's talk of a run for governor. He pals around with Bono and becomes the rarest celebrity spokesman: one who actually knows what he's talking about. It's not all do-gooding. Armstrong hits a player phase; Kate Hudson and Ashley Olsen make romantic cameos.
Then the strangest but inevitable thing happens. He gets back on the bike.