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.
I, like many of you I am sure, were brought into the sport of cycling due to the seductive story of Lance Armstrong. A man returning from his deathbed to win the hardest endurance event in the world – WOW what a story. Arguably there is little that can be added to the monster of a story that it was and still is.
The discourse has been mounting higher and higher through the early years of Armstrong’s dominance, the rumours and his subsequent decline. However, this Mount Ventoux of a narrative has recently been capped by the release of The Armstrong Lie. This documentary without doubt slaps more layers of intrigue, controversy and questions to the ever expanding bounty of media available. One thing is clear though, the documentary shows how Armstrong tricked millions into entering his web of deceit. Road cycling literature is becoming more and more prevalent in the English/American market, but beyond A Sunday in Hell film and documentary’s are conspicuous by their absence. Step forward Alex Gibney. The project began after Armstrong controversially announced his intention to come out of retirement to promote awareness of his Cancer charity Livestrong. Gibney agreed with Armstrong to make the documentary allowing the film maker unbridled access. However, as Armstrong began his fall from grace so the documentary changed, taking a radically different tact. It begins with an overview of the early years, the Americanisation of the European pro-peloton by ‘Le Texan’ and his merry band of US Postal brothers. In tune with this, the cinematography of is undeniably from across the pond. Talking heads, Reed Albergotti, Jonathan Vaughters, George Hincapie, Daniel Coyle and Frankie Andreu amongst others, although sometimes full of cheesy soundbites do provide interesting comment. Meanwhile, there is some fantastic archive footage, Armstrong continually maintaining his innocence one on one with Gibney, suggesting he has never tested positive, a bespectacled Michele Ferrari, team briefs on the Astana bus during the 2009 Tour de France and quite sensationally Armstrong entertaining both the UCI and USADA doping testers at his home. During the documentary Armstrong insinuates that his admission on the Oprah show was “too much for the general public and not enough for cycling fans.” This is true of the documentary as a whole. I was crying out for more details, more tidbits, more admissions, yet all that emerged was the usual stories. The administration of drugs on the floor of the team bus during the tour, the hospital room ‘admission’ same old, same old. But, one aspect the documentary does explore, one which is well discussed in the written media is the character of Armstrong. Bullying, harassing, controlling the narrative. It is fascinating to see this on film. He stills performs ‘the look’ into the camera denying Betsey Andreu’s accusation that he admitted taking performance enhancing drugs in that hospital room as he lay riddled with cancer. He also still denies taking drugs or blood transfusions during his 2009/2010 comeback. For me this clearly suggested that despite his admission, Armstrong himself has not changed one iota. However, one thing has changed for sure – I doubt there are many people that still believe him. Gibney suggests in his narrative that he was no ‘fanboy’ of Armstrong’s, however the unbridled access he got during that Tour meant his peers felt he was becoming one. The documentary does have whiffs of positivity for Armstrong but in the end does portray him in the negative light he deserves. The sport of procycling has come a long way since the first and second retirements of Armstrong in 2005 and 2010. It may be too early to say but here Gibney has closed the chapter and what was tumultuous period in the sport. Maybe now is the time to leave the ghosts of the past behind and promote today’s new generation of riders. Cycling Shorts rating: 76%