When Marco Pantani died in 2004 from a suspected drug overdose in a hotel room in Rimini, 20,000 people formed a two mile queue to pay their respects at his funeral. 'Il Pirata' remains one of the most loved cyclists of our time. Monuments have been erected in his memory on the Mortirolo pass, the Col du Galibier and in his hometown of Cesenatico. Meanwhile the Giro d'Italia celebrates his legacy with the Cima Pantani, a mountain stage of the Grand Tour dedicated to him each year.
Pantani seemed to come from nowhere in 1994, winning a famous stage of the Giro when he attacked at the bottom of the Mortirolo to win at Aprica, and coming second overall in the GC that year. Seen as the saviour of Italian cycling, he captured the hearts of the adoring public with his aggressive, attacking style, often coming from far back, launching audacious assaults on the leaders of the peloton when the mountains loomed. Dolomites, Alps, Pyrenees: nothing could stand in his way and he won eight stages apiece in both the Giro and the Tour de France. His 1995 record of 36 minutes, 40 seconds on Alpe d’Huez still stands to this day.
His greatest year came in 1998 when he joined that rare, select club of riders to win both the Giro and The Tour de France in the same year. And of course it was in the mountains where he ate into his opponents’ time advantage. In Italy it was the Marmolada climb, then Plan di Montecampione where he dropped Tonkov with 3km to go. In France it was the first mountain stage of that year’s tour when he set off on a crazy attack at the bottom of the Galibier with over 40 km to the finish with unthinkable acceleration in horrible, cold, wet conditions. As Pantani flew his way up to Les Deux Alpes, Jan Ullrich in the yellow jersey, crumpled, fell further and further behind, and eventually limped in a full nine minutes after the victorious Italian.
Pantani’s slashing attacks were often ferocious and have been described as simple, primitive and basic by some. Certainly, there appeared to be something feral and untactical in the way he would stand up out of the saddle, swinging his bike inelegantly from side to side with a grimace on his face, each pedal stroke a gargantuan effort. Not for nothing has he been called the Patron Saint of long odds and long climbs. When asked as a child why he flew up the mountains so fast he replied, “To stop the pain.” And this is why he evokes such feelings of loyalty, support and love. He suffered when he made those attacks. For the Pantani fan, swap the words: basic, primitive, untactical for: flamboyant, quixotic, brave. Lance Armstrong once described him as ‘more an artist than an athlete – an extravagant figure, a Salvador Dali. That’s why people were fond of him.’
Speaking to Matt Rendell who went on to write a great book about the man, Pantani admitted: ‘I’m a non-conformist…I’ve never been meticulous or calculating on or off the bike. I ride instinctively, responding to the moment. There’s chaos in everyday life and I tune into that chaos.’
Chaos. Sadly it was a deep chasm that Pantani fell into. Hiding behind the cartoonish mask of ‘Il Pirata’ with his hoop earrings and bandana, he suffered, not only on those heroic climbs, but in the deeper, darker reaches of the human psyche too. He depended on the adulation of his success and when that was taken away he sunk into terrible depression. In 1999, leading the Giro by a comfortable five minutes and with only one mountain stage left to race, a 52% haematocrit level (2% above the accepted level and an indication of EPO use) forced the organisers to expel him from the race.
Of course, cycling in those days was a murky world. Pantani himself described it as ‘like the Mafia.’ Marginal gains back then, meant something different to skin suits and aerodynamics. It’s often been said that it was impossible to compete at the highest level without joining the ranks of the cycling omerta, that secret, closed community of dopers.
Legions of champions from that era have been found out and shamed, served their bans and even returned. Pantani tried to come back after his ban too. In 2000 he and Armstrong stormed up Mont Ventoux in a classic stage that left a decimated field behind them. Armstrong claimed that he let Pantani win the stage that day as it had no bearing on him retaining the Yellow Jersey, a claim that Il Pirata denied and said was insulting. The bad feelings were compounded when Armstrong called him Elefantino, a reference to his prominent ears and a nickname that he hated.
Pantani made a few sporadic attempts to reach the heights of his early career after that, but he was plagued by paranoia and doubts which led to him disappearing from training camps and hiding out in Cuba. There were reports of him taking cocaine and alcohol abuse. Then, in 2003 when his team was not invited to race in that year's Tour, he was admitted to a psychiatric clinic which specialised in nervous disorders, drug addiction and alcoholism.
Pantani's death has always been shrouded in rumours and conspiracy theories. Holed up for days in a second class hotel in an off season seaside resort in February there are stories of him looking haggard, shouting to himself, furniture hauled around the room as he barricaded the door, only venturing out to accept a pizza or omelette delivered by a local restaurant. In the early evening of February 14th 2004, he was found dead in his room. An autopsy revealed he had a cerebral edema, heart failure and acute cocaine poisoning. He was 34 years old.
As recently as March this year, there were revelations by the Italian police that suggest Pantani's paranoia may have had some real grounding. The Naples Mafia, the Camorra, stood to lose a great deal of money if Pantani won the 1999 Giro as a result of illegal bets. It was they who bribed medical staff to alter his blood values to show a high haematocrit count that resulted in his ban. His mother has always maintained that it was these events at Madonna di Campiglio that sparked her son's spiral into drug abuse and depression. 'Finally we got the truth. I've been looking for confirmation for years,' she said. 'I won't get Marco back, but now I'm at peace with myself. Finally.'
Even though Pantani was never officially convicted of doping, it is almost beyond doubt that he was a serial EPO user. Why is it then that Pantani remains revered by most, while others guilty of the same offences were judged, condemned and are still outlawed? Of course, that Pantani descended into such a terrible personal turmoil and ultimately came to a tragic end demands our sympathy in itself. However, there is more to it than that. The film director, James Erskine who made the film, ‘Pantani:The Accidental Death of a Cyclist’ says that, ‘while he played a part in his downfall for sure, we also explore the idea of him being a victim of a sporting system.’ There has been a tendency when we look back on cycling in the late 90s and early 21st century to blame the individual sportsmen rather than the world that they were part of. As Erskine says, ‘lives are ruined for those who don’t dope, lives are ruined for those that have no choice but to dope, lives are ruined for people who failed a doping test.’
One only has to read David Millar’s first book, ‘Racing Through The Dark’ to understand some of the pressures facing the individuals and the devastation to their lives when they got found out. While Millar found a way to climb out of that dark abyss after his downfall, Pantani couldn’t.
Erskine’s film includes images of a young 12 year old Pantani. His mother remembers how as a boy he would spend hours disassembling, then putting his bike back together. When he wasn’t riding over the hills of Romagna he was washing the same bike in the family bath and when he slept, it lived in his bedroom with him.
And it’s these images and stories of the boy, Marco, that tell us that Pantani was just a simple man who loved cycling. He also happened to be one of the greatest climbers of all time, but sadly, at a time when there was little choice about what route to take in being the best, proving that he was the greatest. So when I look back on video clips of Il Pirata and the Texan slug it out all the way to the summit of Mont Ventoux I feel the same admiration for him now as I did back then, and I always will. Pantani gave it everything. As Erskine says, ‘what greater sacrifice to sport than losing your life?’