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Pantani intrigue simmers in Italy

MILAN (AFP) — Doubts over the expulsion of champion cyclist Marco Pantani from the 1999 Giro d’Italia resurfaced Monday after new claims of Mafia involvement in his downfall.

Pantani died on February 14, 2004 from an overdose of cocaine and prescription drugs. He was found in suspicious circumstances in a Rimini hotel room. His family has argued that a third party may have caused his death, although investigators believe that years of drug abuse and his fragile mental state after being kicked out of the Giro ultimately led to Pantani’s downfall.

Last year, a convicted underworld figure, Renato Vallanzasca, claimed that “key” Mafia figures looking to win big on a Pantani defeat in the 1999 Giro predicted that “Pantani will not finish the race.”

On Monday La Repubblica newspaper released an audio tape in which another, unnamed detainee backs Vallanzasca’s claims. He said the Camorra, an Italian Mafia crime syndicate based in Naples, played a decisive role in making sure Pantani did not make it to the Milan finish line.

In a tapped telephone conversation, the unnamed caller tells a female listener that Vallanzasca’s claims were true. “Basically, the Camorra made Pantani lose the Giro … by changing the [doping] tests and making sure he tested positive,” said the caller. “This is something that should be known, the mother [of Pantani] should also be told.”

Asked by the female listener if the claims are true, the caller says “yes” five times.

Pantani led the Giro with only one mountain stage left when he underwent an early morning doping test and was thrown off the race. The Italian had a red blood cell count just above the UCI threshold. Although this was not proof of doping, it was enough to end his participation “on health grounds.”

Pantani went on to suffer depression and never regained the form or success of his top years.