A theatre company from Nottingham embarks on a national tour of its show Ventoux this month. Depicting the famous duel between Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong in the 2000 Tour de France, it dramatises their rivalry as well as weaving in their history of doping.
Roland Barthes, the French philosopher, famously described Mont Ventoux as a “God of Evil to which sacrifices must be made. It never forgives weakness and extracts an unfair tribute of suffering.” The Giant of Provence, with its lunar landscape, high winds and energy sapping summer temperatures strikes fear into the hearts of the toughest of riders and has produced some of the greatest bike races of all time. And it’s famous, of course, for claiming the life of Tom Simpson.
Possibly the most well known race on its slopes was the epic battle between Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong on the 2000 Tour de France. Doped to the eyeballs with EPO the combatants may have been, it remains however, one of the all time great mano-a-mano duels on a bike. 17 years later, one is revered, having lost his life, the other disgraced having been exposed a drugs cheat.
At the time both were champions in their own right - Pantani winning the Tour de France in 1998, and Armstrong winning in 1999. The two titans went head to head in the 2000 tour with the ‘pirate’ breaking away from the leaders on the lower slopes of Ventoux in a trademark slashing and ferocious attack. Armstrong followed, then caught the diminutive Italian, and they spent the rest of the climb attacking but also matching each other pedal stroke for pedal stroke. As they reached the summit it was the bald Pantani that won the stage on the ‘bald mountain’.
Armstrong later diminished the epic struggle that had preceded the win by claiming that he gave Pantani the stage as it would not affect the fight for the yellow jersey. Then, with typical crassness he called him ‘elefantino’, in reference to his protruding ears, a nickname that Pantani hated.
As well as dramatising the race itself, Ventoux the stage show covers both riders’ lives before and after that monumental day.
Tom Barnes, who wrote and acts in the play, first became interested in professional cycling when Bradley Wiggins won the Tour in 2012. “Something clicked in my head and I began looking at the history of it and came across this brilliant race. There were so many different facets to it – a great rivalry on the biggest, steepest mountain in France that had this whole mystical history to it…it was a ready-made stage show.”
While they were developing the project the acting company went to Ventoux and cycled up the mountain. Andy Routledge, who plays Armstrong, says, “It was a great way of soaking up the atmosphere and get a taste of what the actual mountain is like.” They took a car with a film crew and it’s this footage that appears on a screen behind the actors on stage during the performance.
Writer Tom Barnes, who plays Pantani says that, “We take elements of live art and contemporary performance but it’s got this very strong, true narrative that runs through it.” Some of the dialogue is quoted verbatim from the riders’ interviews and books and they have been able to draw on this material as a starting point in the dividing process between these two very different characters.
Ventoux will be performed at the London Vault Festival from 15th – 19th February before embarking on a national tour in March and April. For tickets and venue details go to the 2 Magpies’ website.