Pedal Pusher examines truth of Tour de France cyclists
Edinburgh Fringe drama tells story of competitive cycling casualties
This article is from 2010.
Sporting achievement is notoriously tricky to turn into theatre, doubly so if it’s the world of cycling. Roland Smith tells Thom Dibdin that a cinema classic inspired Pedal Pusher
In our world of headlines and heroes, Lance Armstrong’s image is fixed thanks to his seven Tour de France wins, whether it’s closing in to take a sprint finish by a split second or pumping his way to yet another epic first place in the mountains. Or he might be thought of as the cyclist who survived cancer. Either way, the image is of the individual. He was the man in the yellow jersey, the American who came over to rival the greatest European cyclists at their own game, a terminally ill patient who picked up his bike and rode away.
Yet Texas-born Armstrong is no lone-star cycle-boy. His ride to celebrity has been picked out and defined by those around him. In the intricately structured world of team cycle racing there is no success without the technical support crew and fellow riders, just as defeating cancer comes with the help of a fleet of medics. For director Roland Smith, who has attempted to bring something of the passion, focus and sacrifice of road cycling to the stage in Pedal Pusher, there are also the competitors. Jan Ullrich and Marco Pantani won the Tour in the two years before Armstrong’s first win and any one of the three could have come through to become the race’s all-time hero.
‘The whole premise of Pedal Pusher is that at one moment in time, any one of those three riders could have been the greatest cyclist of their generation,’ says Smith. ‘It could have been Marco Pantani if his demons had not got the better of him. It could have been Jan Ullrich if he had had the self-control or the discipline to not get caught up in his celebrity status in Germany. It ended up being an American called Lance who went on to win the Tour de France seven times in a row.’
Told in flashback from the moment Pantani’s prone body is discovered in his Rimini hotel room in 2005, dead from a cocaine overdose, Pedal Pusher uses a mixture of interviews, archive footage and news reports to recreate the battles between the three. The play draws on a triple-attack of inspiration. There’s the examination of a sport where the winning hero is only the figurehead for a whole team of unseen support. Then there’s the drive of the individual, of the twentysomethings determined to succeed at any cost with a work-hard, play-harder philosophy.
‘That’s brought into sharp focus with these guys who trained very hard and the stories about the added extras that they were doing, effectively just to win a bicycle race,’ Smith says. ‘There was something about the absurdity of how much value they were putting on those superhuman feats of climbing mountains.’ Finally, Smith was keen to explore the way that performance space works, to look at why a spectator in sport is so different to a member of a theatre audience. ‘You don't have people screaming or building such strong allegiances with characters as with sportsmen, with heroes.’ Talking to him about cyclists and the Tour, however, and it becomes clear that there is an even deeper-seated drive behind Pedal Pusher. The same simple drive which pushes the riders in the first place.
‘Being able to get on your bike and just cycle away is freedom,’ he says, remembering his childhood and tearing away with a pack of pals on their dodgy mountain bikes after school to take on the fields and paths around his Winchester home. ‘I still get that in the mornings when I jump on my bike to cycle to work. Reading the accounts and histories of the three cyclists we focus on, there is still that magical element of loving being on the bike and loving the freedom of it that gets buried under the weight of the job, of the competitiveness.’
There still remains the thorny question of bringing sport to the stage. For that, Smith has drawn his inspiration from cinema and Martin Scorsese, creator of Raging Bull, one of the most successful artistic representations of sport ever made. ‘The thing that we found was not trying to do everything at once,’ he says, pointing to how Scorsese showed each fight in a completely different way in order to bring out various truths about boxing as a whole.
‘We never try to recreate a race. It is about what each specific moment is able to draw out. Perversely, when cyclists are moving most slowly up the side of a mountain is when they're using most effort. Whereas if they are descending, they are absolutely still on the bike. Any movement is going to send them off the road.’
For his text, Smith has taken verbatim statements of the riders’ words from press conferences and conversations to give them more weight, mixing in dramatically constructed interchanges between the riders, choreographed with actual race reports.
‘There is a scene in which we create Lance Armstrong’s time trial, layered with a monologue which is taken from various accounts about him surviving cancer. Although it is not the actual ride, we try to follow the sweep of the road with the physicality of the riders. Then there is one scene where three of the actors are in chorus, counting off the kilometres, while another performer is giving the emotional response and telling the story behind each of the moves. It is about drawing out those aspects using the real text, using the facts to create the performance.’
From doping controversies to split-second finishes, from personal catharsis to public humiliation, the Tour de France is certainly a fitting subject for drama. It seems that in mixing physicality with dialogue while drawing back to look at key turning points, Theatre Delicatessen’s Pedal Pusher has taken a yellow jersey where others got lost in the mountains.
Pedal Pusher, Zoo Roxy, Roxburgh Place, 0131 662 6892, 8–30 Aug (not 15, 22), 4pm, £12 (£10). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £8.