Marco Pantani was like many other cyclists: he loved cycling, he was passionate, fearless and more than anything, he wanted to win. But, he was also like no other cyclist, putting the combination of passion and determination into practice to make him the only winner of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year, something not even Lance Armstrong attempted. But, on Valentines Day 2004 he was found dead, alone in a hotel room in Italy. Aged 34, Pantani had overdosed on cocaine after a period of depression and addiction.
With his distinctive bandana and gold earrings earning him the nickname of ‘il Pirata’ (the Pirate), Pantani’s aggressive riding as an attacking climber projected him to fame in the 1990s, with 36 professional wins, the Maillot Jaune 6 times and the Maglia Rosa 14 times in his career.
“YOU CAN’T WIN THE TOUR DE FRANCE ON MINERAL WATER”
As we’ve all come to learn, cycling in this era was, what can only be described as, a dirty sport. The Festina Affair of 1998 shone light on the behind-the-scenes activities and the depth a team would go to to make sure they were the best. The following year, Pantani was disqualified from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for a hematocrit reading of 52%, 2% above the upper limit set by the UCI to determine EPO usage, which lead to persistent allegations of doping throughout the rest of his career, leading to his subsequent mental health issues. However, Pantani was never actually found guilty of doping during his living years* and evidence as laid out in the film, suggests that his positive tests were a result of coup within the governing bodies of the Giro d’Italia in a bid to allow other teams some glory.
“I AM QUITTING CYCLING, IT’S LIKE A MAFIA”
Having recently finished Tyler Hamilton’s ‘The Secret Race’ and part way through David Millar’s ‘Racing Through The Dark‘ (yes, I’m a few years behind!), it’s clear that doping was the blood of the sport for many years. If you wanted to be ‘in’ with the A team and any chance of winning, you had to dope. Bradley Wiggins highlights this, stating “If you were going to survive and if you wanted to win or make a living you had to do what you were told to do.”
Fundamentally, there was a deep psychological want and need to be accepted in the peloton. Joining a pro team at the ripe age of 22 having won the ‘Girobio‘, the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia; I can’t help but think Pantani was coerced into believing that what he (and his team) was doing, was just part of the job. And so, when the public turned on him following doping allegations, calling him a cheat, he could feel nothing but shame. “I’ve been pressured, I’ve been humiliated” he states in a post ban interview. “Today I don’t associate cycling with winning. I associate it with terrible, terrible things that have happened to me and people close to me.” He had been let down.
This film however, isn’t about an exploration of doping in Pantani’s era, but the story of a cyclist. Interviews with his family, close friends and fellow cyclists of the peloton, depict Pantani as a humble man who loved his family and his sport.
“Marco Pantani was not a saint. Even Pantani would probably not have believed that Pantani was a saint.” Ned Boulting
Clean or not, Pantani is still today hailed a hero by many. The King of the Mountains. An intriguing story, The Accidental Death of a Cyclist provides a unique, but sad and tragic insight into a heroic cyclist and the sport of his era.
PANTANI: THE ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF A CYCLIST IN CINEMAS FROM MAY 16TH
*It’s only in 2013 that samples of Pantani’s samples were retested from the 1998 Tour de France and found positive for EPO.