Stage 12 of the 2000 Tour De France has gone down in legend – and notoriety.
It saw cycling giants Marco Pantani, who had won the ‘98 Tour, and then-fast-rising star Lance Armstrong face-off in a nail-biting race to the top of Mont Ventoux.
The race is now tainted by drugs – the 2000 tour was the second of Armstrong’s seven back-to-back Tour wins, but he was stripped of all the titles when the extent of his doping came to light in 2012. While Pantani never tested positive, doping allegations dogged his career, plunging him into depression until his 2004 death of a cocaine overdose.
Ventoux recreates the gruelling race to the top in this show devised by 2Magpies Theatre, which debuted in Edinburgh in 2015 and has played in 120 venues since then, with artistic director Tom Barnes also playing Pantani. Tom has now taken a purely directing role for its latest tour.
As the show’s co-creator, it was when Tom started cycling himself, and got intrigued by the history of the Tour that he came across this great rivalry.
‘At the time, it was considered this amazing, titanic battle between the two greatest cyclists of the era, and in the context of that year’s Tour De France it was really pivotal. In the bigger picture it was a catalyst for Marco Pantani dropping off and a springboard for Lance Armstrong to go on and win seven in a row. And everything that happened to Pantani afterwards, you can almost trace back to that moment.
‘It’s this incredible real-life story that if you made it up, it would be a bit too ridiculous. But it all happened. So I thought it lent itself to the stage in that respect, but I didn’t think anyone would be interested – it would be too much of a niche thing to restage stage 12 of the 2000 Tour in a theatre.
‘But there are certain people if you say to them: “Stage 12 of the 2000 Tour De France”, they’ll go: “Oh yeah, what a race!”’
But the show hasn’t just drawn in cycling fans.
‘It’s been really interesting because our audience has been split – it’s half people interested in the theatre, and half people who are just interested in cycling and it’s often their first experience of going to their local theatre.
‘There are obviously cyclists and clubs across the country and one of the things I like about it as a story is that you can do it anywhere and you can go and ride Mont Ventoux if you want, but you can’t just go and play at Wembley, so it’s accessible in that sort of way.
‘And people who are into cycling they like the whole thing that goes around it - I think it captures the imagination.’
The two actors use specially adapted bikes, which as Tom says: ‘They’re really versatile so we can move them around quite a bit on stage and use them conventionally and unconventionally, it’s an interesting dynamic.
‘Doing the show at such frequency, you’d develop quite unusual leg muscles, and Alex [Gatehouse] who plays Lance Armstrong does a lot of track cycling, so he’s had a great season on the track! It’s been really good sprint training. Sometimes it’s very high intensity and then nothing, so it is almost like high intensity interval training, and it’s inadvertently quite a good hour-long workout.
‘The Tour De France is a stupid sport really, you’d never make it up now, as it’s just too hard. It’s actually got easier over the years for that very reason. It’s 21 days and you’re cycling about 4,500km – it’s almost six hours every day on a bike. The amount of energy that’s expended is ridiculous. To try and condense that down to an hour-long show is quite a challenge.’
Perhaps surprisingly though, it’s not the physical exertion that Tom found most difficult.
‘It needs a good baseline of fitness, but for a cyclist it’s not that bad. The challenge then is the talking at the same time, and there’s a lot of eating and drinking, because that is a big part of that routine of the Tour De France. The eating and drinking is probably the hardest part!’
The whole issue of doping in the Tour is something Tom has clearly spent a lot of time studying, and how the landscape has changed since 2000, with some practices while not against the rules are not entirely ethical either.
Does he think it’s now drug-free?
‘It’s so hard to say, I’d like to think it is, but it’s interesting how it is constantly on the periphery. And when someone excels at sport, the first thing that is often said is that they’re doping, which is what [British four-time Tour winner] Chris Froome had to deal with, and he’s an exceptional athlete.
‘It can be hard to shirk that.’
But at the heart of the show is the human drama of these two great, albeit tainted, athletes.
‘Doping is the context, but what’s most interesting about the Armstrong/Pantani thing is just how different they were, and the completely different body shapes and styles.
‘And the different way they dealt with things, and how offensive, by which I mean “attacking”, Armstrong is, and insular Pantani was. When they were accused of doping they reacted in wildly different ways, but they had basically done the same thing.
‘How they are perceived now is very different because of the different fates they had. You have this idea of who’s the hero and who’s the villain going into it, and I think cycling fans will particularly, and this challenges that a little bit. It almost makes you feel a little bit of sympathy for Lance Armstrong, which is quite a hard thing to do.
‘But then you look at it in the context of these two against each other and you think, what is the difference?’
New Theatre Royal, Portsmouth
Friday, October 19
Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham
Wednesday, October 31