Cycle Heroes March 9, 2010

International Cycling Heroes - Marco Pantani

Marco Pantani entered the world in Cesena, a small administrative centre in the Italian region of Romagna on 13th January 1970. Pantani’s father, Ferdinando, but more regularly referred to as Paolo, and his mother Tonina had married, in 1968, and Marco already had an older sister, Laura, who was known as Manola. Why nobody was capable of picking one name and sticking with it is beyond me. Times were hard for the Pantani family, and Marco was taken to work in hotels with his mother at a very young age, and allegedly demonstrated a fledgling daredevil spirit by climbing from hotel balcony to hotel balcony.

With little money for toys, little Marco became a big fan of fishing and his grandfather would routinely load him on the back of his bicycle and go to fish for freshwater trout. Young Pantani’s interest in the saddle extended still further when a change of address introduced him to Guerrino Ciani, a man of his grandfather’s generation and a keen cyclist and founder member of the Fausto Coppi Sports Club who began staging an all-day amateur ride which sought out the hardest climbs in the locality. Guerrino established a youth section off the back of the success of this event, which was where Pantani began competing, heavily influenced by his older companion and Nicola Amaducci, his son-in-law. Pantani was plagued by a crippling shyness in his youth and Amaducci thought his personality was suited to cycling.

The youth section of the Fausto Coppi Sports Club did not take long to produce a talented group of young riders, of which Marco Pantani was one. Amaducci remembers: “He enjoyed riding his bike, and we saw in a matter of a year or two that he had something the other children didn’t. In 1983, when he started racing, the races for the juniors still included climbs, and he was always ahead on them.....even in those days he went well – very well.”

Up until 1983, Pantani had been using a bike borrowed from the sports club but, hearing of his hobby, his father and grandfather agreed to each part-fund Marco’s first racing bicycle. Visiting the local factory founded by 1939 Champion of Italy, Mario Vicini, Pantani picked out a more expensive dark red “Tour de France” bicycle that reluctantly met with agreement. Marco began training in earnest, constantly analysing his position on the bike, and carrying an Allen key with him so he could adjust his position at his whim. It was though, in fact, Marco’s uncle Dino who initialled accompanied to races every Sunday.

Personally, my recollections of Pantani stem, essentially, from one distinguishing characteristic that stood him apart from the peloton. As I fret at my rapidly receding hairline, it is worth my remembering that the shiny bald pate that made Pantani so distinguishable was already establishing itself at the tender age of 15. This, in a country where fashion and looks were king, pushed Pantani even further into isolation, but what this might have cost him in swigging Strongbow in the field behind the sports club, he gained in spending the time developing his ability in the climb that astounded those who witnessed it. 

Pantani went on to have a successful amateur career, culminating in victory in the 1992 Baby Giro – the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia. The victory was entirely based around his climbing prowess, and his transition to the professional ranks was an immediate consequence. What was not immediate was professional honours, but Pantani gave an indication of the impact he would go on to make in the Grand Tours by winning two stages and finishing overall second in the Giro d’Italia in 1994; unsurprisingly, his stage victories came in the mountains.

The Italian made his Tour de France debut in the same year, and gave further notice of his arrival at the top of the pro cycling tree with a podium finish in 3rd, and followed up in 1995 with 13th place, but two stage wins. Pantani managed this despite having been struck by a car whilst training for le Tour but, if he thought he had dodged that type of bullet, he was unfortunately mistaken. He went on to claim 3rd place in the 1995 World Championships but then, in the Milan – Turin race, Pantani collided head-on with an SUV during the lightening fast descent into Turin, breaking his leg in two places, and putting his whole career in jeopardy. 

Pantani would return to the saddle in 1996 after a gruelling rehabilitation, and was back at the Giro in 1997. In an incident best filed under “you can’t make this stuff up”, his comeback was thwarted by a black cat, which ran across the track during a descent, causing a pile-up which ensnarled Pantani and saw him crash out of the race. The cat incident did not prevent Il Pirata, the nickname Pantani acquired due to his bandana and earring, competing in the summers Tour de France, where he again won two stages and romped home in another third placed finish, establishing a record time for the climb of Alpe d'Huez in the process. 

Enter 1998, Pantani’s annus mirabilis. Managing to avoid cycling under ladders or over cracks in the pavement did him the world of good and he recorded 18 race wins during the year, not least a maiden triumph in the Giro d’Italia followed by an epic victory in le Tour, making up some nine minutes on Jan Ullrich in the mountain stages to become the first Italian to win the great race since 1965.

However, Il Pirata’s annus horribilis was to follow hot on its antonym’s heels. At first, the success of 1998’s endeavours seemed destined to recur, but with four stage wins in the Giro d’Italia under his belt and another victory seemingly under his bandana, Pantani was disqualified for a high red blood-cell count, suggestive of EPO (it would later emerge that Marco had recorded a similar reading after his 1995 horror crash). He incurred only a two-week suspension, as was mandatory at the time, but chose to stay away from the sport for the remainder of 1999, having been disgraced by the media over the incident. It was the first signs of the deep depression that would eventually consume the man.

The 2000 Tour de France was Pantani’s most eventful. He had returned at the Giro, deciding to ride only the day before the event, but acquitted himself well under the circumstances. He was rarely on the pace during le Tour, but was Lance Armstrong’s equal on Mont Ventoux, the pair leaving the field in their wake. Armstrong appeared to purposely ease off to grant Pantani the stage victory; a gesture that the brooding Italian took exception to. Armstrong then did no end of good for the relations between the two men by seeing the necessity to refer to Pantani as “Elefantino”, as Marco was not blessed with insignificant ears. Pantani romped to another stage victory before finally trying to crush Armstrong on the next stage. Il Pirata did not quite have enough, and though he caused Armstrong some significant inconvenience, it was the Italian who broke with stomach problems the cited cause. He dropped out of the race and the Tour de France never saw Marco Pantani again. 

The Giro d’Italia had still not seen the last of Pantani. Still depressed, he entered the 2001 event, threatening only sporadically and about to withdraw when the police raided competitors’ hotel rooms. Needless to say, his track record Pantani was targeted by the search teams, who found traces of insulin on a syringe in his suite. Marco copped an eight-month ban, which was later chopped by two months.

For all intents and purposes, that was that for Pantani in pro cycling. He started the 2002 Giro but struggled so badly he withdrew rather than face further humiliation and though he managed to complete the race in 2003, a snub form the Tour de France organisers sparked further depression and Pantani checked into a clinic in northern Italy suffering from clinical depression in the June. 

The following February, Pantani checked into a hotel in the Italian Adriatic coastal city of Rimini. On St. Valentine’s Day, he was found dead from a heart failure brought on by a cocaine overdose, his body surrounded by empty jars of anti-depressants. Twenty thousand mourners attended his funeral, held in his hometown where, from his diary, his manager read: “For four years I've been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice.” Pantani’s sad demise saw an outpouring on sentiment and support that might have been of greater use during his desperate last months, with stages of le Tour and the Giro dedicated to their former winner and generous comments from competitors, colleagues and friends throughout cycling. Armstrong mused: "This is terrible and shocking news... regardless of our battles on or off the bike, I had a deep respect for Marco. Cycling has indeed lost a great champion and a great personality,” and President of the Italian Professional Cyclist's Union, Amedeo Colombo, went on to say: "We want to remember the man first, before the racer. Because Marco was one of the most extraordinary champions that cycling has ever known but he was also a rare person, of a rare sensitivity. Maybe that's really what killed him." 

Notwithstanding the fact that it was definitely cocaine that killed him, Pantani’s is a story with a difference, and Colombo hints at a point which he fails to make. Again, like many champions tainted with alleged and proven associations with drugs, Pantani was a cyclist of obvious and wonderful talent, one of the most conspicuous and flamboyant climbers the sport has ever seen, but there is a litany of circumstantial and actual evidence that he was as guilty of the crimes he denies. A biography of Il Pirata by Matt Rendell insinuates Pantani used EPO throughout his professional career, and that all his great victories were achieved with artificial hematocrit levels. 

“He often told me he heard voices. He never told me whose voices they were. They were his affair.” This, a quote attributed to Pantani’s mother taken from Rendell’s biography, lends further credence to the view that Marco was a deeply flawed character, racked by self-doubt and insularity and perhaps more susceptible to the doping bandwagon which has hurtled through the sport and a need to be “like all the other sportsmen”. That Pantani seemed to choose the path he did strikes a sadder chord for me than it does with many others like him for, ultimately, it cost a man his life.


THE DEATH OF Marco Pantani - A Biography MATT RENDELL (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)


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