BACK in the day, when I was a commissioning editor for a publishing house, I tried to acquire a book called LA Confidentiel.
The ‘LA’ in question was the American cyclist Lance Armstrong and the ‘confidentiel’ were the allegations about his use of drugs in winning the Tour de France.
The book was written by the Sunday Times journalist David Walsh, and like every other commissioning editor in London, I was (wisely) overruled on publishing the book by the company lawyer: when Walsh printed an extract of the material in the Sunday Times, Armstrong sued, and was awarded £300,000 to settle the case.
Since then, thanks to the dogged pursuit of David Walsh, it turns out that the allegations were in fact true: Armstrong confessed to using performing enhancing drugs, was stripped of his seven Tour titles and the Sunday Times successfully sued him in return to get their money back.
From being the man who beat cancer to become one of the all-time cycling greats, Armstrong’s story now has the rise and fall of a tragic Shakespearean hero.
Next week, the Salisbury Playhouse plays host to Ventoux, a play based around the duel between Armstrong and the Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, which took place on the slopes of Ventoux during the 2000 Tour.
Mont Ventoux, nicknamed the Giant of Provence, is a mountain climb of Tour legend – a relentless pull up through the forest until the riders emerge into a barren, rocky, almost lunar landscape.
It is a mountain that has played host to both cycling heroics and tragedy over the years: in 1967, the British rider Tom Simpson died on the slopes from a combination of amphetamines and heat exhaustion.
Speaking to Tom Barnes, who plays Pantani in the production, he described to me how he was drawn to the rivalry between the two cyclists, and also their contrasting legacies: while Armstrong is now largely shunned by cycling fans, Pantani, who died in from cocaine poisoning in 2004, remains a hugely popular figure.
The 2000 battle offers a snapshot of the cyclists before the drugs revelations became public, and adds an intriguing third character into the dynamic – that of the mountain itself.
The production of Ventoux is cleverly done – Tom and fellow actor Alex Gatehouse performing their roles on bicycles, in front of rolling footage of the mountain climb.
And it’s one, too, that taps into the sport’s rich tradition for dramatisation, from the play Beryl to the film Belleville Rendez-vous and Tim Krabbé’s novel The Rider.
The result is a fascinating tale about the lengths that some people will go to, to get to the top.
Ventoux is on at the Salisbury Playhouse from April 27-29.