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Green Light in the City

Cycling in Nottingham: Ventoux on Stage

18 March 15 words: Mark Patterson
illustrations: Christopher Paul Bradshaw

"The dreadful mountain provides a stage on which the physical and mental suffering of the Tour de France, is brought sharply into focus"

The Italian man who runs a little coffee bar in West Bridgford has a poster of a professional cyclist pinned up behind the counter. “That’s il Pirata,” he tells you, “He is my hero.” Is? Was. Marco Pantani - The Pirate - snorted his way out of his earthly existence ten years ago. Yet, as the poster and the hero worship by my coffee-serving friend suggests, il Pirata’s legend is very much alive, and not just in his native Italy.

This February, in London, a small Nottingham theatre company staged the debut of a play about the lives, legends and rivalry between Pantani and former multiple cycling champion Lance Armstrong. Titled Ventoux, the drama re-enacts the 2002 duel between Armstrong and Pantani on the dreadful mountain which provides a stage on which the physical and mental suffering of the Tour de France, and professional cycling in general, is brought sharply into focus.

Pantani and Armstrong left their competitors far behind that year. And while the American was just in front for most of the way up Ventoux, he appeared to ease off at the top, allowing Pantani to finish first. Then the slanging match began. Victory was a ‘gift’ to Pantani, said Armstrong. Pantani responded that he didn’t need Armstrong’s gift since he was a champion anyway - he’d won both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia in the same year. Armstrong said he thought the Italian lacked grace and likened him to an elephant because of his big ears. And anyway, Pantani’s best efforts were behind him, he said. So it went on.

After that year’s tour, the two cyclists’ lives separated. Pantani stopped racing, spiralled into a depression and, in 2004, was found dead aged 34 in a Rimini hotel room, poisoned by excessive cocaine consumption. As for Armstrong - well, we all know what happened to him. The man who had beaten cancer and won the Tour de France seven times was eventually exposed as a dope cheat and a bully, who had enforced a code of silence among cyclists over the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. He was stripped of his Tour de France titles, banned for life and stepped down from his own cancer foundation. Thing is, Pantani wasn’t exactly innocent either since he had been disqualified from racing in the Giro for doping in 1999 and his reputation then and after his death has been marked by other doping allegations.

Today, armed with knowledge of Pantani and Armstrong’s drug use, their rivalry on Mont Ventoux can’t be seen as a magnificent test of spirit and physical endurance - rather as a battle of wills between one, and possibly two, drug cheats in an era of drug cheating. But should we also see their race as a kind of lesson about the price that individuals pay to win? These issues are at the heart of the Ventoux stage play by Nottingham’s 2Magpies Theatre.

“There isn’t a big moral ‘doping is bad’ story,” says Tom Barnes, who plays Pantani. “It doesn’t need that message. Pantani is a hero and is revered in Italy with a big bronze statue in his birthplace, but the play is about what you do to achieve something - and everyone knows what that feels like. Everyone has cheated to get somewhere and got away with it. That’s what it’s also about.” On stage, Barnes takes his place on a turbo-trainer bike alongside Andy Routledge, who plays Armstrong.

Pantani is in pink and his trademark bandana, Armstrong is in his winner’s yellow. Screens behind the performers show director Matt Wilk’s own film of the hour-long ascent up the mountain while the dialogue, part live, part flashback, part flash forward, is all taken from reported speech - TV interviews, articles, books, documentaries. “All the words we use are verbatim,” says Barnes. “They’re all things they’ve actually said and things they’ve been overheard saying. There’s a brilliant clip of Lance Armstrong going up the mountain when he gets on his radio and shouts for the benefit of the TV cameras, ‘I’m having a great ride, I’m feeling really good.’ But it’s not a biopic; we’ve taken different bits from different places and put them in the same scene. The scenes are reconstructions of things that were actually said.”

While there are only two performers on stage, there is a third character in this story - Tom Simpson, the British champion who died on Ventoux in 1967 and whose memorial is located near the summit. Simpson, the Durham lad who lived in Harworth in Nottinghamshire, and whose life story is supposedly being filmed by Shane Meadows, wasn’t clean either. He also used artificial stimulation but, in his day, it was alcohol and amphetamines, not EPO and blood transfusions that the pros used. “The Simpson story,” says Barnes, “reminds us that cheating to win in cycling, in sport, in life, may be old hat but it catches up with you eventually.”

Nevertheless, if there’s a villain to the piece, it’s Lance Armstrong. Could it be any different? Arguably, it’s not just the bullying and long orchestration of a doping regime by Armstrong that gets people’s goats - it’s his arrogance and lack of humility about everything. “Lance didn’t love cycling - he loved winning and cycling was his way of winning,” says Barnes. “But he said something like ‘If I was the carpenter then Marco Pantani was the artist.’ And that totally summed Pantani up - he just loved being on a bike, it was all instinct and he fell out of love with cycling, which tortured him, and the great hero died alone in a hotel room.”

As for Armstrong: “There’s always a part of me who will think he’s an amazing figure - he overcame cancer and set up the foundation which did incredible work. At the same time, you can’t get over the fact that he wasn’t doping like anybody else - he was the ring leader. He wasn’t the puppet - he was the puppetmaster." 

Ventoux will be staged at Curve in Leicester on Wednesday 29 and Thursday 30 April and will be staged at Lakeside Arts Centre later in the year.

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