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Marco Pantani: A tragic figure

  • By John Wilcockson
  • Published Feb. 15, 2004

By John Wilcockson

Fans gather at Le Rose Hotel to pay tribute

Photo: AFP

No cause has yet been established for the cardiac arrest that ended Marco Pantani’s life on Saturday afternoon. A dozen jars, some part empty, of three types of anti-depressants were found in the small apartment where he died at a residential hotel in Rimini on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The time of death was put at 4 p.m., several hours before the hotel porter discovered the body, dressed only in jeans.

Pantani’s death is a tragedy, made more poignant by the fact that it came on St. Valentine’s Day, just a month after his 34th birthday, in a hotel called the Rose. Pantani was alone. He split with his long-time Scandinavian girlfriend a year ago.

The outpouring of grief and recognition for Pantani has been remarkable. When his body was removed from the hotel in the early hours of Sunday morning, a crowd of 200 people in the street applauded as the ambulance departed. Pantani was still an icon to the public, despite the frequent allegation of doping, and his subsequent hounding by the Italian judicial system.

Another of Italy’s major sports figure, retired skier Alberto Tomba, commented, “I’m speechless. This is a real tragedy. I knew Pantani well. I believe he was alone at the very time he was most in the need of help.”

Pantani’s career had incredible highs…

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Dammiano Zoffoli, mayor of Pantani’s hometown of Cesenatico, 10 miles north of Rimini, said, “I stayed close to him, even in his most difficult times. I will remember him as a very charitable young man. Few people knew that he worked for a group that helped handicapped people.”

Lance Armstrong, the only man who has won the Tour de France since Pantani’s 1998 victory, said Sunday: “I had deep respect for Marco. Cycling has indeed lost a great champion and a great personality.”

Pantani was one of the few riders who contacted Armstrong when the Texan was recovering from cancer to offer him a place on his team. That didn’t work out, but when at the 2000 Tour, Armstrong allowed Pantani to outsprint him atop Mont Ventoux to take one of the Tour’s most prestigious stages, he said, “I thought it was the right thing to do, the classy thing to do. I like Pantani and I respect him. And I know the last 12 months have been tough for him.”

Armstrong was referring to the depression Pantani had experienced in the 12 months since being excluded from the 1999 Giro d’Italia, when a surprise blood test a day before the finish of a race he’d virtually wrapped up, revealed an over-the-50-percent hematocrit reading. Prior to that test, crowds would mob his hotel every day, children and their parents just wanting to touch him as if he were the Pope rather than a simple cyclist.

Humiliated by his public condemnation in the media, Pantani withdrew into a solitary world to which he returned again and again.

It looked as though he had shaken off his demons in the spring of 2003 when he returned to racing after a 10-month absence. He showed that he had worked extremely hard through the winter to find a level of fitness that he hadn’t shown since before his first brush with drugs infamy at the Giro four years earlier.

Pantani started the Giro last May determined to show that he was still worthy of the status of contender, and eager to go on to ride the centennial Tour. Many saw his former drive and determination return at the Giro, particularly when he attacked on the steep climb to Zoncolan. A crash on the second-to-last alpine stage prevented him taking a top-10 finish in Milan, but 14th place overall was a worthy result for a rider making a comeback.

Two few weeks later, after being snubbed by the Tour de France organizers, Pantani’s depression returned and he checked himself into a psychiatric clinic near Padua. He remained there several weeks. Then in a brief interview last fall, he told a local journalist in Cesenatico that he was 30 pounds overweight and that his life as an athlete was at an end.

The staff at the Roses hotel, where Pantani checked in last Monday, said he seemed “out of it.” Living there like a recluse this past week, he was using room service for most of his meals, although Friday night he ate at a neighboring restaurant. “An omelet,” according to the manager.

It was Marco Pantani’s last supper.

The cycling career of Marco Pantani
Marco Pantani, known as Il Pirata (the Pirate) was the fastest climber of his generation, known for his incredible accelerations that left his opponents in the dust. In 1998, he became the first Italian since Felice Gimondi in 1964 to win the Tour de France, and one of an elite group of cyclists to win both the Giro and Tour in the same season.

Here’s a rundown on the main points of his career:

• Pantani was 22 when he turned pro in August 1992 after a successful amateur career that included an impressive victory in the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia.

• On his second appearance at the pro Giro d’Italia, in 1994, Pantani blew the race apart in the Dolomites with back-to-back stage wins. He finished second overall behind the Russian, Evgeni Berzin, with multi-Tour and -Giro champion Miguel Induráin in third. Pantani followed this with third place in his debut Tour de France.

• A pre-race crash kept Pantani from riding the 1995 Giro, but he recovered in time for the Tour de France, claiming his first two mountain stages (including the prestigious Alpe d’Huez victory) and took 13th place overall.

• In October 1995, Pantani was one of the chief animators of the mountainous world road championship in Duitama, Colombia, taking the bronze medal behind Spaniards Abraham Olano and Induráin.

• A week after returning from the 1995 world’s in high-altitude Colombia, Pantani competed at the Milan-Turin race, a minor classic in Italy. On the fast descent into Turin, he was involved in a frightening head-on crash with an SUV, sustaining multiple fractures to his left leg that threatened his career.

• In the hospital, Pantani had the regulation blood tests, and several years later, it was revealed that his blood hematocrit percentage following the accident was more than 60 percent. Between the accident and the revelation four years later, the UCI had begun regular blood tests at races, and any rider caught with an above 50-percent reading was given a compulsory two-week suspension — on the suspicion that the athlete was using the banned blood-boosting drug, EPO. But even though that program didn’t start until well after Pantani’s accident, it didn’t stop the Turin prosecutor from indicting Pantani on a so-called “fraud in sport” charge — a case that was eventually dismissed because the law itself had only been passed in 1999.

• Pantani fought back valiantly from his broken leg, suffering through months of rehab, much of it in a pool, and he made a tentative comeback to racing in August 1996.

• On his return to the grand tours, Pantani crashed out of the 1997 Giro in a pileup caused by a black cat crossing the road on a descent. He returned to racing a month later at the Tour de France, and promptly took two more mountain stages (including Alpe d’Huez again) and finished in third overall.

• Injury-free at last, Pantani won 16 races in 1998. He won the Giro (and two stages) and the Tour (two more stages), coming back from a poor first week to take the yellow jersey from Jan Ullrich on a dramatic stage over the Galibier to Les Deux-Alpes. Pantani stood 4th in the UCI World Rankings. The Pirate was praised for emerging as a beacon of hope from a Tour that endured the Festina team doping scandal.

• In 1999, Pantani appeared headed for another overall win at the Giro, having won four mountain stages and holding a lead of 5:38 over the runner-up. Then, only two days from the finish, a blood test at Madonna di Campiglio showed that he had an above-the-50-percent-limit hematocrit reading. The automatic 14-day suspension put him out of the race.

• Shattered by the experience, disgraced in the media, even though he had never tested positive at any drugs control (he still hadn’t at the time of his death), Pantani went into a deep depression and did not race again that year.

• The Pirate made his big comeback at the 2000 Giro, which he rode for training. Then, at the Tour, he won the mountaintop stage finishes, ahead of Lance Armstrong, on Mont Ventoux and at Courchevel. He followed this with a long, brave (some said foolish) attack on the next stage to Morzine. Pantani’s aggression split apart the race, and even though he himself eventually blew up, his effort caused Armstrong’s Postal team to make an all-day chase through the mountains, and Armstrong bonked on the day’s last climb, putting his yellow jersey in jeopardy.

• Pantani was still not over his depression, and he began the 2001 Giro with a lack of racing miles, but made an impression on the opening road stage when he attacked in a rainstorm and caused a big break to form. He soon faded however, and was about to pull out of the race when the police raids of riders’ hotels took place. Pantani was among the 50-or-so people who were listed on the suspicion of possessing banned substances. He was then one of the very few singled out by the prosecutor — there were traces of insulin on a syringe found in his hotel room. Despite the circumstantial evidence, the Italian cycling federation said it had good cause to suspend Pantani for eight months. On appeal, the international sports tribunal cut the suspension by two months.

• All the allegations and court cases — another “sporting fraud” charge had been leveled against him, this time for his high hematocrit reading at the 1999 Giro — heightened the Pirate’s depression and continued to affect his racing. He started the 2002 Giro but suffered like a no-hoper. He pulled out rather than live through more humiliation.

• Despite his life having fallen apart, Pantani began training again in the winter, first in Greece, then in Spain. He split with his girlfriend, moved out of his mansion and returned to the basics. He eventually put together a new team with the help of his first directeur sportif Davide Boifava — who believed that his man could still come back at age 33 to the top level.

• Pantani’s appearance at the Coppi & Bartoli event last April was his first race in 11 months. On the final day, he took second place and placed 10th overall.

• While he was completing his best race since the 2000 Tour, Pantani was summoned to appear in a Trento court to open a hearing on the sporting fraud charge that followed the 1999 Giro blood test. And then he competed and completed his final Giro.


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