As a cycling fan I went to some lengths to see the stage production of Ventoux, currently touring in the UK, after I missed it in London. But it is an interesting piece of theatre as well: it’s not all about the bike.
So what is it? A double hander, with one actor playing Armstrong, the other Pantani, restaging a famous Tour de France contest between the men on the iconic climb of Ventoux in 2000, helped along with a couple of turbo bikes and some big coolboxes, of the kind you might use to store, say, doped blood. There’s some back projection as well, and also from time to time the audio of the commentators Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen. As far as I can tell, the script is “found,” edited from actual words spoken or written by the cyclists, which is the modus operandi of the production company, 2 Magpies Theatre.
In terms of the racing, that stage was epic. In 2000, both men had won the Tour once, Pantani in 1998, Armstrong the following year. They had contrasting styles: Pantani a maverick who would race when he felt good, Armstrong the calculator who stacked the odds with a strong and dedicated team. On Ventoux that day they went head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s a slightly bleached out version of the footage, with an Italian commentary and an appropriately insistent music track:
With hindsight, we know that both men stacked the odds in other ways as well. Pantani died in Rimini in 2004 of a cocaine overdose, but we also know that he had used EPO, which boosts performance, especially when climbing, and that Armstong’s entire team was doped up. Liggett’s commentary on the day, used in the play, notes the pace that his team-mates Tyler Hamilton and Kevin Livingstone were setting on the early part of the climb, and we know from Hamilton’s later testimony that both he and Armstrong had had blood transfusions to top up their red blood cells on the rest day, the day before the Ventoux stage.
What the play does well is explore why, when we know all of this, we still admire Pantani and regard Armstrong as a cheat. (Sure, Armstrong was a cheat, a systematic cheat, as the USADA’s Reasoned Decision outlines in jaw-dropping detail, portrayed on stage as flurries of yellow legal paper. But we know that Pantani cheated too). And, by rearranging the chronology of the stage, so we hear parts of it twice, knowing the result long before we hear the drama of it, it also reminds us that even when corroded by doping, cycle racing is still thrilling when two well-matched riders duke it out at the edge of their physical limits.
And some of that explanation in the play comes from Armstrong himself, in a speech taken from an article he wrote long after Pantani’s death, and after his own disgrace and lifetime ban from the sport.
Pantani wasn’t a star, he was more like a rock star. He had the aura, he had the following and he was huge. As an American coming over and playing a European sport, I was in a different position… If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist. He had all the panache in the world, all the panache you could fit into a small climber, and I, if I’m honest, didn’t have that.
Here are the actors talking about the production.
Even if you’re not interested in cycling, it’s an interesting piece of theatre. If you are, it’s compelling.