Winning and losing in sport is often portrayed sensationally as a matter of life and death. In the case of Italian cyclist Marco Pantani he lost, and sport arguably took his life. Casting aside the rumours, the conjecture, the very Italian polemic surrounding the passing of one the country’s great sons, his death remains a great lost to the sport of cycling. James Erskine’s Accidental Death of a Cyclist provides a more generalist view of Pantani’s story and is worse for it. Pantani and Italy, so intertwined so passionate and yet the film understates this symbiotic relationship.
Based on Matt Rendell’s widely acclaimed book The Death of Marco Pantani, the film is bolstered by fantastically chosen archive footage and interviews with key players in his story but unfortunately weakened by laughable reconstructions. Covering all the major bases, the film provides a good overview of Pantani’s rise through the ranks, his early successes before a career threatening crash, the high point of his Giro-Tour double of 1998 and his subsequent decline with all the entrails between.
The grainy films of a nervous, young Marco are real insight into the man behind the ‘Il Pirata’ mask. A man whose eyes Greg Lemond looked into and saw, ‘those of a kid.’ One particular clip that springs to mind is Pantani getting back on his bike after his career threatening crash at Milan-Torino. A childish grin spreads across his face as he nurses his bike around a garage in a full Carrera team tracksuit. “Well, I can still ride a bike,” he quips. In another a younger Pantani, arms folded is effectively asked if he is a good climber. “Yes, I am not bad on the climbs,” he shrugs with huge understatement.
The re-enactments meanwhile add little to the story. Pantani played by an actor is often pictured climbing on the hoods of his bike rather than the drops which was his trademark – an elementary mistake. These clips add little to the otherwise expert insight from Matt Rendell himself, journalist Richard Williams, Tonina Pantani and Greg LeMond amongst others.
Pantani provided all of his adoring Tifosi the chance to escape with him and that is just why they loved him so. Roving escapes at the bottom of mountain climbs, breaking the shackles of the metronomic Armstrong or Indurain, you can see how easy it must have been to be caught up the whirlwind that surrounded him. Reverberating Italian commentary accompanies some of Pantani’s best in race moments and these are the real pièce de résistance of the film, immediately making your hairs stand on end. Just how much he resonated with the Italian public is clear to see in the aftermath of his death with seas of people, stunned, weeping; bandana’s tied round their arms in remembrance. “Cycling has lost its number one,” is one comment.
What’s strange in this new epoch of cycling is how past riders are remembered. Somehow, Pantani despite the allegations and his positive test is still revered. Idolised as ‘the best climber the sport has ever seen’ or a ‘rider whose like has never been since’, yet somehow he escapes the criticism levelled at most riders of his generation. Arguably it was his sad death that elevated him above the riders who cheated but never paid the ultimate price, riders like Lance Armstrong who is painted as the chief villain of the EPO era and is widely criticised and chastised as a result.
Given the recent news that the police are to reopen the case into his death in light of recent evidence provided by his mother Tonina; the Marco Pantani story is set to run on and on. Certainly this says as much about Italians love for conspiracy and conjecture as it does about their idolisation of Pantani. Here’s hoping recent Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali can capture the heart and minds of the ever passionate Tifosi once again.