Varicose veins more bulging and entwined than appears probable, along with an aversion to acute suffering, are but a couple of distinctions between ordinary folk and professional cyclists. For those not familiar with a sport that makes a virtue of tolerating pain beyond ordinary thresholds and who think they’ve seen all that varicose veins have to offer, make sure your next online search terms are "George Hincapie leg".
Not pretty viewing admittedly, but then there's a strange brutalism to riding a bike competitively, one evidently not kind to the body or psyche. We might as well take the Tour de France as an example, as Nottingham-based 2Magpies Theatre have on the recently ended tour of their play Ventoux, held at the Djanogly Theatre in the Lakeside Arts complex. A stage-race lasting almost a month and with barely a rest day throughout, it asks of its riders the constitution to bear riding, give or take, around 120 miles a day, one after the next, with the mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees occasionally stood defiantly in the way.
For those for whom the Tour is an annual feast of flopping out on a comfortable sofa in solidarity with a peloton of riders galloping along at least twice as fast as an average rider can manage over distances maybe quadruple what we can sustain, the mountain stages are, unlike the peloton's specialist sprinters, what viewers look forward to most. Mont Ventoux, or the Giant of Provence, is a beast by any measure: winds of 200+ mph have been recorded at the summit, and British cycling great Tom Simpson lost his life there during the 1967 Tour. Despite the amphetamines found later to have been coursing through his body to compensate for the ordeal of riding 131.4 miles that day, he pushed his body and mind well beyond their capacity, collapsing dead on the bike still clipped into his pedals, barely half a kilometre from the top.
The mountain was again the backdrop to an infamous stage in 2000, when Lance Armstrong – then chasing his second Tour win, before his total of seven overall victories were declared void once the scale of his doping conspiracy was uncovered – did battle up its slopes with the pure climber Marco Pantani, or Il Pirata. The classic stage provided the background for Ventoux, with the production aiming for an examination of the rivalry between a pair of the sport's most infamous and divisive figures. Armstrong needs little introduction, but the mercurial Pantani, whose lithe physique and iron determination made him a formidable climber, led both a colourful and tragic life. Plagued by doping allegations of his own throughout his career, he fell into depression once he'd hung up his wheels and died alone in a hotel room on Valentine’s Day 2004, having fallen victim to the fourth and, this time, fatal cocaine overdose he'd suffered in the space of just a year.
Plenty for Alexander Gatehouse, playing Armstrong, and Tom Barnes, director of 2Magpies and cast as Pantani, to chew on then. Despite the conceit of focusing on the battle between both riders up Ventoux, the play jumped from place and time with a lack of focus that occasionally made the 2000 stage appear an afterthought. Running for one hour and with just the two men on stage throughout, along with a couple of bicycles and a few other props – notably cocaine and brandy, those crucial elements of a sporting diet – for company, as well as a projection showing actual footage of the 2000 stage, meant there was no hiding place for either actor, and the flaws in the plot and production were as exposed as they were. This spartan presentation never reached the riveting level an intimate play might produce, and nor did it evoke the mysterious fascination of watching athletes struggling tortuously up a mountain, despite seemingly nothing much happening for great stretches, as those transfixed on television broadcasts do with relish each year.
But as rough as it may have been around the edges, Ventoux was as brave as the cyclists it depicted, and the lack of budget and resulting props led to them being utilised in imaginative ways: a drinks cooler acted as expected, along with becoming a vessel with which to depict death. Ventoux may not have been as memorable as an unforgettable Tour stage, but it stood boldly – like the mountain itself – as an original contribution to the captivating drama that is professional cycling, and the flawed characters who make it so.
Ventoux was performed at Nottingham Lakeside Arts' Djanogly Theatre on Tuesday 23 May 2017
Nottingham Lakeside Arts website