14 February 2014. The 10th anniversary of a sad day in sport. A decade ago, the winner of the 1998 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France died.
In RIDE #24, there was a tribute to Marco Pantani.
The introduction read: “Cycling has lost one of its controversial heroes. Marco Pantani will be remembered by most for his attacking antics in the mountains he loved so much. But his life ended when he failed to ride out of the deep valley of depression…”
Here is some of what we published Marco Pantani shortly after his death on 14 February 2004…
Farewell Marco Pantani – ‘Il Pirata’ (13 January 1970 – 14 February 2004)
“Forza Pantani! On a day Italian fans have been waiting 33 years for, Marco Pantani changed the face of the Tour de France.”
Monday 27 July 1998 is a day the tifosi will fondly remember.
[There] are the events many will remember Marco Pantani for. Heroics on the climbs. Comebacks after crashes. Victories dedicated to his loyal tifosi. Perpetually testing the strength of the biggest stars of his generation. A persona larger than life – complete with a shaven head, at times covered by his signature bandana, and ears that earned him another, less endearing moniker of ‘Elefantino’.
All that is now gone. The heroics began to fade after his exclusion from the Giro on the eve of certain victory in 1999. The comebacks were interrupted with court appearances. The victories became sparse and his loyal fans and good friends alike struggled to comprehend Pantani’s self-enforced isolation. Testing his rivals’ form was replaced by testing of another nature. And, at the start of his final year in the peloton, even the trademark ears were tucked back by cosmetic surgery.
Pantani’s addiction to cycling survived through 2003. He contested his beloved Giro (finishing 14th overall, over 26 minutes behind Gilberto Simoni) and talked of his wishes to return to the Tour. Amidst the hope, however, was the constant presence of the nihilism which depression can conjure.
Marco Pantani’s doldrums were a typical example of the euphoric highs and intolerable lows that affect many in modern society. Riding through the peaks and valleys of depression was harder for Pantani than coping with the terrain of the Tour. He approached his final days in a hotel in Rimini hoping that solitude could offer some solace, but his heart gave up hope before he reached the road which turned upward again.
Amidst the innuendo and confusion which surround his death one thing cannot be denied: Pantani’s panache on the bike has etched him into cycling folklore. Whether he chose the route taken by the winner of the 1973 Tour de France, Luis Ocaña (who ended his own life in 1994 after a torrid bout of depression) or the years of punishment in the peloton contributed to Pantani’s mortality was widely debated in the days following the discovery of his body. But over a month after his body was found the doctor investigating the case, Giuseppe Fortuni, filed a report which stated Pantani’s death was “caused by acute cocaine intoxication”. Questions about his doping practices from journalists and the carabinieri alike were something Pantani claimed added to his depression. In all honesty though no one in the world had sufficient access to determine the extent to which drugs – performance-enhancing or recreational – truly affected his life.
What we got were glimpses of a person with an innate ability to climb mountains on a bike. In so doing Pantani became an inspiration for fans, a nemesis for his rivals and, because of timing, the victim of numerous investigations into practices which cannot be condoned. If he cheated – as several instances strongly suggest – he wasn’t as alone as he was on the day he died.
– Rob Arnold
The downward spiral
– By Jean-François Quenet
The euphoria of Pantani’s successful campaign in 1998 didn’t last. His expulsion from the Giro on the eve of victory in 1999 signalled the beginning of the end.
There was a time when Marco Pantani thought about life. “While we ride our bikes, just across the sea people are fighting and dying,” he exclaimed during the 1999 Giro d’Italia while still at the height of his illustrious career. “It’s unbelievable!”
Marco’s popularity was such that he was given a platform to offer his opinion on more than the cycling which made him famous. His observations about the war in Kosovo came in the first week of the race. It was less than a year after Pantani won the Giro d’Italia/Tour de France double, and the sprinters had been plying their trade in the Italian national race. The defending champion played up to the media, offered his perspective on world affairs, and steadily worked his way towards the top of the general classification.
On the second Saturday of the Giro, the peloton raced a 253km stage from Pescara to the 2,130m high summit at L’Aquila Gran Sasso d’Italia. Inspired by the mountainous terrain which helped him become a cycling superstar, Il Pirata danced his way up the climb and onward to victory. It was the beginning of the business end of the bike race and Marco Pantani was back in the maglia rosa. Finishing in second place that day, 23 seconds behind Pantani, was José Maria Jiminez.
The next stage, held on the 23rd of May, two days before the race visited Pantani’s hometown of Cesenatico, saw Il Pirata finish third in a time trial raced on a pancake-flat course around Ancona. The last pure climber to win the Tour finished behind Laurent Jalabert and Ukranian time trial specialist Sergei Gontchar, but ahead of Dario Frigo and Alex Zülle. Above all, one image will remain famous from this race against the clock: a few metres before the end of the 32km stage, Pantani overtook the rider in second place overall, the charismatic climber Jiminez.
That was 1999. This is 2004 and both these champions are buried in the cemeteries of their respective villages in Italy and Spain, dead at 34 and 32.
These two riders suffered a sad end similar to other stars who have passed away at an early age. Like Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, they were physically and mentally destroyed. And many would argue it was because of an addiction to drugs. It can happen to cyclists as well, especially because performance enhancing drugs easily pave the way to recreational drugs. And sportsmen are no stronger than other humans trying to come to terms with a dangerous habit.
In reality, the beginning of Pantani’s personal anguish began 13 days after he passed Jiminez in the time trial. His world collapsed around him in Madonna di Campiglio, when the UCI officials took blood from his veins. The sample showed Pantani was riding with a hematocrit level of 53 per cent. It was above the legal limit and he was forced out of the Giro with two days to go. He was in the lead of the race and his expulsion came on the morning after his fourth stage victory in that year’s Giro.
“Pantani, perchè?” Pantani, why? The headline of Il Corriere dello Sport screamed the question everyone was asking. In the wake of the so-called ‘Festina Affair’ in the 1998 Tour de France, even the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) launched a strong media campaign entitled ‘Non rischio la salute’ – I don’t take risks for my health. The committee’s doctors came to the Giro and did additional blood and urine tests, wanting to believe that they were more efficient than the UCI’s. Pantani was the leader of the opposition to the CONI investigations.
Alongside Jalabert, the reigning world champion Oscar Camenzind, and another hero of the tifosi, Mario Cipollini, Pantani threatened to quit the race with all the other riders if these doctors came back for any more blood samples. Then, in a controversial move, Giorgio Squinzi, the owner of the Mapei squad, declared his riders were available for any kind of testing. This was the catalyst that caused Pantani to launch a verbal attack on Squinzi’s riders. His tirade was such that it brought the likes of Classics strongman Andrea Tafi to tears at the back of the bunch. Pantani’s antics were more like a true mafia boss than a patron of the peloton.
His confidence was such that he could chastise those in the peloton who didn’t adhere to his point of view. And on the bike Pantani was equally assured. For most of the race’s three weeks he was dominant. He won four stages including an extremely spectacular one at the top of the sanctuary of Oropa despite a chain problem at the bottom which, once repaired, saw him overtake 49 riders on the final rise.
He was on another planet.
It’s not CONI but the UCI that is capable of stopping a rider. And at the 1999 Giro, Dutch referee Wim Jeremiasse was the blood controller. (He died before both Jiminez and Pantani, passing away in a frozen Austrian lake in February 2000 when judging an ice skating competition.) With his group of doctors and commissaires, he had to test the top 15 of the Giro on June 5th and although the plan wasn’t to visit the overall leader so early, on reading the map they realised they were close to the Touring Hotel. Jeremiasse showed up just after 7.00am. He asked Mercatone Uno’s director, Giuseppe Martinelli, to present Pantani and Marco Velo before 7.30. Martinelli led them into his own room, located in front of Pantani’s number 26. Although there was no time to prepare a saline drip – a common practice used to reduce a rider’s hematocrit – Il Pirata didn’t appear worried. The day before, the team doctor had checked Pantani’s readings and judged them to be acceptable… an hour and half later, Martinelli was informed that his champion was out of the race.
It was a huge shock, even though it had happened to many other riders since morning blood tests were introduced in March 1997. A furious Pantani broke a window in his room with his fist and refused to come out of the hotel until 1.00pm. When he did, the media was still waiting. “I could say so many things, but it would only be more words,” said the former race leader. “I have restarted after terrible accidents but this time we have touched the bottom. I’ll struggle to get over it.
“Now I would appreciate some respect. I want to send my regards to the tifosi. I feel sorry for the sport of cycling which…” He didn’t have time to finish his words. Surrounded by policemen, he was forced into a Citroën, direction home.
The next day another sports newspaper, Tuttosport, sprouted the headline: ‘È Innocente!’ He’s Innocent! Pantani also believed it. He was out of the Giro but still felt innocent. Wasn’t the Festina scandal enough of a blow for cyclists and their entourage to understand that something had to change in their world? After the 1998 Tour, Pantani was described by the race’s president at the time, Jean-Claude Killy, as “the man who put the church back in the centre of the village”. His climbing abilities were supposed to have saved the 1998 Tour. Hindsight makes us question if Pantani’s victory in France was really the best way for cycling to be refreshed.
The illusion of the magnificent rightful heir of Fausto Coppi – the name of Il Campionissimo on Pantani’s jersey when he was 15 – and the legend of Il Pirata didn’t die in Madonna di Campiglio. In 2000 he was taking a pause, or a rest, in his career when he showed up at the start of the Giro d’Italia in Rome where he was blessed by the Pope. He said he had resumed training on Easter Day. Apparently religion was Marco’s new motto.
Did he manage to ride his bike again because of God or was it something less pure? With so little training Pantani was expected to last less than a week in the Giro, but at the end of the three week race he was still there. And in control. He ruled the gruelling climb up the Col d’Izoard and helped his partner at Mercatone Uno, Stefano Garzelli, win the final maglia rosa.
A little over a month later Pantani was back at the Tour de France. He claimed two stage wins: a controversial one when Lance Armstrong apparently gave him the win at the summit of Mont Ventoux, then an unquestionable display of climbing prowess to Courchevel. That day, eight million Italians were watching RAI television! Never before had a bike race rated so well in Italy. But the Pantani story consists of ups or downs – very high or very low, with not much in between – and he abandoned the race the next day. Again it was in suspicious circumstances. In the middle of the night his team staff desperately looked for the race organisation to inform them of his retirement. Why not wait for the morning? Was he avoiding another visit?
Less than 12 months later, Pantani again departed the Giro after insulin syringes were found in his hotel room during a police blitz at the 2001 race that involved 200 carabinieri. He denied the pre-packed injections were his. True or not, Pantani seemed to become paranoid after his Giro expulsion in 1999. He even suggested the whole plot was organised by Fiat’s Agnelli family because he had a personal sponsorship with Citroën.
Although Il Pirata made the occasional race appearance and continued to collect a salary from Mercatone Uno until the end of 2003, he was plagued with anxiety. While people fought and died in different wars he still rode his bike, albeit with a different perception of his peers and others around him.
He described Armstrong as “a cartoon hero”, a fake champion, and he complained that the Italian judicial system chased him too hard. “I’ve been questioned by judges more times than any Mafioso,” he declared.
Others shared his sentiment and it was the 1961 Giro winner Arnaldo Pambianco who came to his defence when he spoke to the media. “In Madonna di Campiglio, eight carabinieri caught [Pantani] in his room,” said Pambianco. “But there were only two to arrest [mafia boss] Toto Riina… it’s unfair!”
Should Marco be forgiven for alleged drug cheating even if he was the victim of a plot? Surely the seven court cases open on him are an exaggeration of the problem. Doesn’t the Italian judiciary have anything else to do? Beyond the investigations into Il Pirata’s association with doping, there are several other high profile trials on similar topics being conducted in Italy. But few have been able to achieve any resolution. Dr Michele Ferrari first faced the courts in January 2002. After two years and many hours of apparently useless interviews, there’s still no conclusion! How can the system be taken seriously? The absence of a verdict doesn’t seem to be doing much to hinder the habits of drug cheats.
Pantani’s last race was the 2003 Giro d’Italia. He finished 14th. “This is the best Giro I ever rode,” he told his manager, Manuela Ronchi. “In the past, when I was winning, I was the hunter and now I’m the prey.”
Before Madonna di Campiglio, Pantani was a likeable person. At the finish line of the Tour de France he stopped frequently to chat with his fans. He also had plenty of time for the media and he would happily shake the hand of a journalist after an interview. After Madonna di Campiglio he became a different person. “He never accepted his exclusion,” Ronchi told French journalist Philippe Brunel of L’Équipe. “For almost five years [Marco] has lived with this feeling of being humiliated. He felt guilty about having disappointed his fans and parents. Imagine the suffering and shame that these people felt. He was ashamed himself. He thought he had no more privacy. He felt harassed by the media. It was an obsession.”
It was also after his fateful exclusion from the Giro before stage 20 in 1999 that Pantani began to experiment with recreational drugs. He missed the parade of former winners of the Tour de France on the Champs-Élysées after the centenary race because he was in a psychiatric clinic in Abano Terme.
In January 2004 he went to Cuba as part of his recovery plan and it was here that he met another sports superstar who was seeking treatment for his abuse of drugs, former soccer player Diego Maradona. Pantani was offered further assistance to get rid of the scourge that was ruining him. The schedule was meant to include a visit to a clinic in Bolivia on 27 February… but he never made it.
Marco Pantani’s body was found in a hotel room in Rimini on 14 February. He had checked into the nondescript lodging on his own just one week earlier. The hotel staff said he kept to himself and rarely left his room. The sombre setting where he died was only 10km from his home and not too far from Ancona, the site of that famous time trial in 1999. Once more, he had caught up with Jiminez. The Spaniard died a little over three months earlier while seeking treatment for severe depression.
An autopsy revealed that Pantani died from “a cardiac arrest caused by a cerebral and pulmonary oedema”. A range of notes were found in the hotel room. And there was no disguising the desperate sentiment that was revealed in the various scribblings… “I’ve remained alone.”
“No one has managed to understand me, not even the world of cycling nor my family.”
“They wanted to punish only myself.”
“It was a plot against me.”
“I want to be back on my bike.”
At the funeral, Ronchi read a passage written by Pantani in his passport during his Cuban visit. “I want my history to be an example,” wrote Pantani. “I was humiliated for nothing and I was in the courts for four years. I lost the desire to be like other athletes. The sport of cycling paid and lost. I’m suffering with this letter.”
“The world understands that my colleagues have been humiliated in their hotel rooms with hidden TV cameras… that tried to ruin many families. After that how can you not hurt yourself? I don’t know why I stopped myself in these moments of anger.
“If I made mistakes I’d like to know that there is proof, but when my sporting life and above all my private life was violated I lost a lot. What is left? Just a lot of anger and sadness for the violence of the judicial system. My true story should be an example for other sports. There should be rules, yes, but equal for everybody. There’s not a job where you have to give your blood and where the families of your colleagues are woken up during the night. I was always afraid of being spied on at home, in hotels and by TV cameras. I ended up hurting myself to not give up my intimacy, the intimacy of my girlfriend and of other colleagues who also lost, of other families who, like me, were attacked.
“Go and see what a cyclist is really like. How many people were involved in my sadness as I tried to make a comeback with my dreams as a man which were muddied by drugs, but after my life as an athlete. This document is the truth. My hope is that real men or women can read it and defend equal rules in sport for everybody. I’m not a liar, I feel hurt and everybody who believed in me has to speak out.”
As soon as Pantani was buried Italian police went hunting for drug dealers. Just before dying the former cyclist had reportedly withdrawn 20,000 Euro (approx. AUD$34,000) from his bank account. In his last words Pantani complained about being left alone, but his old cycling friends such as Roberto Conti said they tried to help him. Alas, they always received the same answer: he didn’t want any help and preferred to be alone. The last five years of his life are full of contradictions like this. Had he quit cycling and drugs after Madonna di Campiglio, Marco would probably be a happy man today, maybe married to his Danish fiancée Kristin who left him last year.
Can Pantani’s sad end now be an example for a new generation of cyclists? It’s possible, but it must start from education, not ignorance. With a topic such as drug abuse, however, the latter is often considered a safer option for fear of corrupting young minds. A declaration by the Italian minister for communication, Maurizio Gaspari, on the day of Pantani’s funeral reflects little change in attitude. “When I get to talk to my son about the Giro d’Italia, I’ll tell him about [Gino] Bartali and Coppi but certainly not about Pantani.” But does he know that Coppi himself admitted to taking ‘la bomba’?
If previous examples in the world of cycling are anything to go by, it’s difficult to imagine that the legacy of Pantani’s tragic end will offer a better understanding of the dangers of substance abuse. Should Il Pirata be remembered for his stunning racing victories or for his sad downfall? In all honesty, it’s likely that he will be regarded as a more fascinating hero than any living legend in the sport and that his death will hardly prevent anyone from taking drugs.
– Jean-François Quenet