Marco Pantani. If ever there was a single human being who embodied all that is the bittersweet reality of professional cycling over the past 20 years it was the diminutive, bald-headed Italian who was known with no little affection as ‘Il Pirata’ when he was in his pomp.
And what a romping, stomping reign he enjoyed between 1994 and 1998, when he was widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest climber.
The phrase ‘dancing on the pedals’ seemed to have been coined exclusively for the native of Cessena.
In that golden period he claimed a haul of six stage wins in three Tours de France and one overall win in 1998, as well as four stage wins in three Giro d’Italia, as well as a second GC place in 1994, and a much heralded overall win in 1998, sealing a rare Tour/Giro double and a place – or so it seemed – in the pantheon of the greats.
And then it all unraveled. Like a glorious façade built on poorly laid foundations, one brick after another became dislodged, and very soon the myth of The Pirate lay in a crumpled heap.
The beginning of the slow, grisly end that led to his tragic demise began at the 1999 Giro, where he returned a hematocrit level of 52%, 2% above the already questionable allowable limit of 50.
Rumors seeped out of the woodwork like squirming termites.
One such rumour, later corroborated as fact, had his hematocrit level after a training accident in 1995 recorder at a hospital as a whopping 57.6%. Another said he had been on the juice since a junior.
Pantani soldiered on however through all the trials and tribulations, his legion of fans forever by his side, pushing him on up mountains both real and metaphorical.
He was, in the eyes of many, a god and a victim simultaneously.
One thing is sure. Marco Pantani had two prodigious appetites – for victory, and for dope.
After his expulsion from the 1999 Giro, he confessed to his then-girlfriend that he had started using cocaine.
In his excellent book The Death of Marco Pantani, Matt Rendell details the large quantities of cocaine that the Italian snorted his way through in his last years, crashing car after car as a result of his binges.
His friends document that he became increasingly paranoid and delusional. It all came to a terribly sad but almost inevitable on the 14th of February, 2004, as a result of complications brought on by a cocaine overdose.
He was 34.
Pantani is in the news again thanks to his mother, Tonina Pantani, who claimed just recently that her son may have been murdered.
“My biggest concern,” she said, “is that he may have been killed. In my opinion, Marco had ruffled someone’s feathers.”
Those feathers were ruffled, claim Tonina, because her son was about to expose the extent of doping within pro cycling.
Without meaning any disrespect to Tonina’s grief, this theory cannot really be considered anything more than fanciful.
Marco Pantani killed Marco Pantani. And yet, Tonina goes on to say something very interesting, that she believes that there may have others in the hotel room where Pantani died.
And this is something I agree with.
Who was there? I couldn’t possibly list them individually, but there were hundreds, possibly thousands of people.
The UCI hierarchy were there, by default of allowing the new generation of game-changing drugs to rampage through the world of cycling from the early 90s until – well, until now.
Pantani’s army of supporters and fans were also there, having cheered him on so fanatically when they knew, in their bones if not in their conscious minds, that what he was achieving in his heyday was impossible for a drug-free human.
The ‘yes men’ that surrounded the star were also there, the managers who looked away or even encouraged the acts that took place in hotel rooms and delivered Pantani his power.
His teammates were there too, those that also doped and kept quiet, and those who brought the dope in the first place.
Commentators and journalists were also present, those vanguards of truth that abandoned their posts when men became supermen, trumpeting victories that all but the most imbecilic could see were dirty.
The list goes on, from race organisers to legislators, it includes so many.
They were also present when the young European pros started dying in their sleep in the early 90s, and when Frank Vandenbroucke perished in a similarly lonely hotel room in West Africa in 2009, also aged 34.
These two men in particular, Pantani and Vandenbroucke, were prime candidates for an early grave, having exhibited weaknesses of character that, fortunately, most professional cyclists escape.
But their whole professional careers – and indeed their whole adult lives – are indicative of just how bad things had become in the sport by the time they were in their ascents to stardom.
The star system was in full swing by then, the sport had a ruling body that was not interested in taking care of rider welfare nor in sufficiently tackling the rampant, institutionalised drug abuse that was rotting the core of cycling.
Everyone was swept up along in it, save a very unique, strong few. Some, like these two, were finally submerged, drowned by the merciless flow of the torrent that was the sport they loved.
And we stood by, and watched the whole thing.