Posts Tagged ‘Marco Pantani’

Armstrong, Pantani, and ‘Ventoux’

5 May 2017


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 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 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, going head to head over the last kilometres. Here’s the footage, with an appropriate 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 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 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.



Reaching the heights, touching the void

27 February 2009


Although I love professional cycling, despite its flaws, I have delayed reading Matt Rendell’s biography of the Italian climber Marco Pantani, who won the Tour de France and the Giro in 1998, and died of a massive cocaine overdose in a hotel room six years later, dogged by (well-founded) drugs scandals. The book got fine reviews, and Rendell knows the sport well (he is (co) author of one of the best books about being a team domestique). The reason I put off reading it was that I knew it would depress me.

The best way to summarise this is through a couple of lines in the final chapter:

Looking back, Marco’s successes, like any number of world records, gold medals, and winning sequences in recent sporting history have a phantom quality. … They weren’t events at all, but phantasmagorical experiences with no clearly definable reality that existed chiefly in the emotions they caused in millions of indivdual minds. The emotion most associated with Marco is euphoria, yet we know now that it was triggered by the poisons that flowed through his veins and made his flamboyant style possible.

It’s worth exploring this further. One of the most exciting sights in cycling is a climber attacking the field and gaining the minutes he needs to win – and Pantani’s stage win at Les Deux Alpes in 1998, when he attacked on a climb in atrocious conditions, descended recklessly, then climbed again, to make enough time on Ullrich to seal his Tour victory – was one of the most exciting days of racing in my lifetime.

But in a (literally) forensic analysis, Rendell demonstrates that Pantani had been blood doping through the use of EPO almost from the start of his professional career. At the same time, he kicks away one of the cycling fans’ supports. Almost all of the successful cyclists in the 1990s used EPO (Bjarne Riis, tour winner in 1996, has admitted it; Ullrich hasn’t but the evidence is against him, there are still questions over Armstrong’s win in 1999). So the fan’s defence is that EPO use must  have levelled the playing field – while quietly disregarding the talented but non-using Charly Mottet, who never finished the Tour higher than fourth. Rendell suggests that athletes respond differently to EPO, and that Pantani’s success might just suggest that his body was better attuned to the drug.

So far, this ia familiar story about 90s cycling – or even modern professional sport. But there are two other stories in Rendell’s narrative as well. The first is about the nature of cycling in Pantani’s native region of Emilia-Romagna, with its strong Communist traditions. The first chapter of the book places cycling, and Pantani, deep in their social milieu.

The second is perhaps more revealing. Rendell suggests that Pantani’s sporting success disguised a pattern of mental illness that might have otherwise been recognised more clearly – and which seemed to be inherent in his growing cocaine abuse after 1999. More: this might have been part of his make-up as a sportsman which enabled him to take the risks on descents which contributed to some of his victories, and also to some of his crashes. The other half of this, of course, is that some of the experts who tried to help Pantani identified this problem – but the cyclist’s fame and wealth, and some of his advisors who lived inside this bubble and benefited from both, meant that it was always impossible to address it.

The initial newspaper article, which led to the book, can be found here.