BWW Review: VENTOUX, Vault Festival
Mont Ventoux - The Giant of Provence. The mountain's reputation in cycling is as stark as its peak, soulless and sole, looming white rock jutting upwards, alone on a carpet of fecund greenery, glaring down on Cezanne's landscapes. It is the climb feared above all others in the Tour de France, the mountain that sucks the air from the lungs, and, in 1967, sucked the very life from England's beloved Tom Simpson.
For 28 years, Le Tour had only sent its riders up the mountain once, in 1987, when France's hero, headbanded Jean-Francois Bernard had won a time-trial, a format where only the top men have to go at 100%. But in 2000, much was changing about the Tour: 1999 had seen the race renewed (or so it seemed) after 1998's shambolic edition, blighted by police raids, disqualifications and defaults. That race had been won by Italian climber Marco Pantani - I know, I was in Paris to see him over the line - and the 1999 Tour had seen the Yellow Jersey pass to the symbol not just of new hope for the race, but new hope for (and it's no exaggeration to say this) mankind, cancer survivor, Lance Armstrong. Things didn't turn out that way.
2 Magpies Theatre's Ventoux recreates the now infamous showdown between cycling's most compelling, most tragic figures, as they conquered the mountain's myths on Stage 12 of the 2000 Tour. It tells of how the men got to be riding together that day and what happened to them in the days and years to come.
Tom Barnes plays the Italian, a whip thin man low on self-esteem, uncomfortable among fans and cameras, but a racer of unsurpassed beauty on a bike, a man who could dance on the pedals and fly up the mountains. He had been nicknamed "Elephantino" as a junior for his sticky out ears, a look exacerbated by premature baldness, but had been rebranded as "Il Pirata", his headscarf covering those ears and shining pate. He really deserved a name that captured the poetry of his performances, something like his spiritual forebear, the winner of the 1959 Tour, Federico Bahamontes, - he was The Eagle of Toledo.
Riding on bikes mounted on rollers alongside him on the empty stage (just as they rode up the last 5km of Mont Ventoux 17 years ago) Alexander Gatehouse plays Lance Armstrong. The Texan was Pantani's opposite in every way. He was all self-belief, with an ego boosted by people continually telling him he could walk on water and with his own miracle cure of testicular cancer to back it up. He bullied his bike up the slopes, spinning the pedals outrageously quickly, stared out opponents and and denied doping with a ferociously aggressive self-righteousness, whether such claims came from the Press or the Peloton. He was the ugliest of ugly Americans - but he did good, even great, works raising money for cancer research and winning bike races. And if our sporting (indeed, our artistic) heroes had to be good guys too - well, we wouldn't have many left - so we turned a blind eye to his attitude, and much else.
I watched Stage 12 for almost five hours and I wasn't surprised when Armstrong did what cycling convention demanded and stopped pedalling a turn from the finish line to allow Pantani to claim the win. The American had pulled out the gaps he needed to his Yellow Jersey rivals and he had Time Trial stages to come when he would pulverise the field. The Italian didn't see it that way though - he railed at Armstrong's "gift", his Latin pride bruised. The rift, always there between the men, widened into a chasm - but that was always going to happen. Pantani was cycling's past: insular, instinctive, insecure outside its European base; Armstrong was cycling's future: businesslike, scientific, Anglophone.
With film projecting the mountain road on to a screen behind the actors and contemporary commentary (all the riders named on Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen's calling of the stage - I think - turned out to be dopers and one, like Pantani a pure climber, Spaniard Jose Maria Jimenez, was to lose his life even before the Italian), the stage is brought animated convincingly. Intermittently, Barnes' Pantani buries his head in a bucket the way the man himself buried his head in cocaine, while Gatehouse's Armstrong need only say the words the Texan said for so many years (before saying different words to Oprah in 2013) to show his cynicism, his arrogance and his disgraceful behaviour towards those who challenged him, his one irrefutably unforgivable inexcusable sin.
Over its 60 minutes or so, the play tells the story of two very different men fairly and with unblinking veracity. If Pantani's life of fan adulation leading to a squalid end alone in a hotel room has the trajectory of a rock star's demise, Armstrong's epic success and subsequently epic fall from grace has an unmistakably Shakespearean narrative arc. Both men's stories have been told on film and in books, but the immediacy of theatre and the subtle understanding shown by director, Matt Wilks and his two actors, tell an old story anew. If you're a cycling fan, you will learn much about two deeply flawed "heroes"; if you're not a cycling fan, you'll learn much about two deeply flawed human beings.
These days, the Texan is still embroiled in court cases, his just deserts working their way through the system. The Italian, though, is more myth than man now, statues being erected to mark his brief life, but also, perhaps, to mark the passing of a more innocent time in cycling, in sport, in life.
My writing on Pantani and Armstrong and cycling in general is available here.
Photo Julian Hughes.