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Marco Pantani: The birth of 'Il Pirata'

Marco Pantani's death was one of the biggest tragedies in cycling. Are we to blame for the pressure on the riders in the EPO era?

Marco Pantani portrait
Jeremy Whittle
15 Feb 2019

June 1994, northern Italy. In the bars and cafes lining the lidos and spiaggia of the Ligurian coast, the Giro d’Italia is in town and the hot afternoon air is thick with excitement. Marco Pantani – racing on feel, not science; on instinct, not downloads or performance analytics – seems poised to end the ‘reign of the machines’, specifically the robotic Miguel Indurain, whose time-trial-based dominance of both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia is stifling the sport.

In 48 hours, the previously unheard of Pantani has become a household name. A brace of stage wins in the two toughest mountain stages of the Italian fans’ beloved Giro has made him an overnight sensation – revered, cherished, lionised even, a new superstar to sit alongside names like Bugno, Baggio and Maldini.

Italians love beauty and great art. Even if they’re just lighting a ciggie, parking a car, bringing you a coffee, it has to be done with panache, with style, with eleganza.

They have waited a long time for their next great cycling hero but now they seem to have unearthed a rough diamond, a rider who embodies the dramatic beauty of cyclist conquering mountain…

At this early stage of his career Pantani is a self-conscious and geeky upstart, with a fast-growing reputation for breaking free in the mountains, but even so, as he starts the Giro, he isn’t really supposed to be the star of his team, Carrera.

That honour is bestowed upon the show-boating Claudio Chiappucci, whose exploits (most famously his monumental breakaway to Sestrieres in the 1992 Tour de France, 40 years after Fausto Coppi’s own victory at the Italian ski resort) have consecrated his status among Italian fans.

But Pantani is burning up with ambition, and he knows Chiappucci’s powers are fading. With his wisps of hair, bug-eyed Briko sunglasses, innocent riding style and heart-on-his-sleeve tactics, he’s a heroic tyke, buzzing the peloton in stifling heat and inflicting pain on ‘the machines’ in the high mountains.

Pantani has already hurt race leader Evgeni Berzin and Indurain (as the Spaniard targets a third consecutive Giro-Tour double) by making his mark on the longest stage of the race, the 235km marathon from Lienz to Merano.

After attacking in mist and drizzle 2km from the summit of the Passo di Monte Giovo, Pantani settles into one of his trademark breakneck descents.

With his backside perched over his rear wheel and his belly on the saddle, he’s brushing guardrails and clipping corners as he descends faster – much faster – than any of his pursuers, on his way to his first professional stage win.

The next day on the shorter stage over the Stelvio Pass to Aprica, he does it again, but this time by taking swaggering control of the peloton on the dreaded Mortirolo and Santa Cristina climbs and breaking the race apart.

After the events of the previous day, Indurain, Berzin, Bugno and the others know what to expect this time, and yet they can only flail their bikes up the gradients as Pantani skips clear. Just as he had done when racing as a junior, he delights in exposing their weaknesses, and they have no hope of holding him back.

This time, however, the gaps aren’t measured in seconds, but in minutes. His win is perhaps – arguably – the most flamboyant of his career. The tifosi swoon and Italian cycling has a new superstar.

After this, every time the road goes uphill, in the Giro or the Tour de France, Italians will be on the edge of their seats. Almost overnight, with two stage wins in the 1994 Giro, the boyish Pantani becomes Italian cycling’s saviour, its everyman, speaking for the generations of romantics raised on Coppi, Bartali, Gimondi and the others.

Berzin holds onto the overall win in the ’94 Giro, but Pantani is deemed the moral victor.

Revenge of the climber

Pantani always took pleasure in making his rivals suffer in the mountains. His playgrounds were the most dreaded climbs such as Alpe d’Huez, the Mortirolo and Mont Ventoux because it was here that he was able to hurt his rivals the most.

As Pier Bergonzi, La Gazzetta dello Sport’s veteran cycling writer says, ‘Marco personified the “revenge” of the pure climber – that’s why he was so loved.’

Unlike time-trialling demigods such as Indurain, Pantani was not a machine. Instead he was at that time, as Lance Armstrong once described him, an ‘artiste’ improvising his way to victory.

These days, Armstrong, who developed a bitter rivalry with the Italian, labels him a ‘rock star’. In some ways, given how Pantani’s story ended, it’s very fitting.

‘He has been romanticised because he really was a rock star,’ Armstrong tells Cyclist. ‘He had that allure. I’m not sure cycling has seen anything like it since.’

Also, as the American says, that image has been fortified by the fact that 10 years after he first exploded onto the pro scene, Pantani died, like the most tragic and legendary of rock stars, young and alone, on Valentine’s Day 2004 in a cheap hotel room, surrounded by the paraphernalia of cocaine addiction.

‘Marco is still an icon because he represented something unique,’ Bergonzi says. ‘His tragedy is part of his legend, part of the romance of his memory.’

True, but there’s also no doubt that his death broke Italian hearts.Like many of his generation – Generation EPO – Marco Pantani was a flawed, shooting star. As his fame grew, so, exponentially, did his problems.

By the time he had won the 1998 Giro and Tour, he was no longer boyish, shy Marco, but ‘Il Pirata’, a studiously cultivated brand, referring to himself in the third person, surrounded by a fawning entourage, too immature to see his own mythology starting to spiral beyond his control.

Like all great showmen, Pantani would save his best for the big occasions – the showpiece mountain stages in Grand Tours watched by millions across the world on live television.

Before the scales fell from that audience’s eyes and the excesses of Gen EPO were fully revealed, Pantani – and to a lesser extent, fellow climbers such as Chiappucci, Richard Virenque and José María Jiménez – built their reputations on defying pain and demolishing their rivals on the toughest climbs.

The most famous rival-crushing display of Pantani’s career came in the infamous, drug-blighted 1998 Tour on the Alpine stage over the Col de Galibier to Les Deux Alpes, when he humiliated another supposed ‘robot’, Jan Ullrich.

If his attack in icy fog and drizzle in the final kilometres of the long haul up the Galibier from Valloire was enough to crack Ullrich, Pantani’s descent from the Galibier’s summit to the saddle of the Lautaret, and on down to the foot of Les Deux Alpes, less than three years after his legs had been mangled in a crash at Milan-Turin, was fearless and demented. Pantani broke Ullrich that day.

In doing so, he shattered the notion, bandied about the previous summer after the German’s one and only Tour win, that Ullrich would, like Indurain, go on to win a handful of Tours.

Ullrich crossed the line at Les Deux Alpes in a state of near-collapse, almost nine minutes behind Pantani, escorted by Bjarne Riis and Udo Bölts. Telekom’s veteran duo shepherded their protégé through the finish line, Riis and Bolts steering the glassy-eyed Ullrich past the scrum of reporters and TV crews and back to his hotel.

Pantani had executed a remarkable turnaround in the race. He hadn’t even been placed in the top 10 as the Tour entered the Pyrenees on stage 10. By the time it exited the Alps on stage 17, he had a six-minute lead on a shell-shocked Ullrich. David had smitten Goliath.

As what was left of the race convoy stumbled into Paris, Pantani was hailed as the saviour of a race that had been characterised by scandal, perhaps more than any other event in the modern history of professional sport.

In celebration ‘Il Pirata’ dyed his goatee yellow (while his team-mates dyed their hair to match), and returned to Italy a hero. He was acclaimed by Italy’s Prime Minister, Romano Prodi.

‘There is no relationship between Pantani’s success and the negative events that have recently concerned the sport,’ Prodi said. ‘His victory was so clear that I have no doubt he was clean.’

Prodi wasn’t alone in his rose-tinted sentiments. Others hailed Pantani as a shining light amid a sea of sleaze, pointing to his natural talents, his God-given gifts, as if they really believed that he was indeed an ‘Angel’ of the mountains.

Pantani was no longer what he had always been, simply a cyclist: now he was a winged celebrity. And, as the pressures of celebrity grew, so began his steady descent into paranoia, infamy and, ultimately, addiction.

March 2005. In the dining room of the Long Beach Sheraton, Hein Verbruggen is getting defensive. ‘I liked the guy. I was there that day,’ Verbruggen says of the day in June 1999 when Marco Pantani fell from grace. But he accepts that ‘Pantani was never the same again’ after one of the most dramatic episodes in the Giro’s long history.

The UCI President has a lot to be defensive about. Pantani’s rapid decline was fuelled by the implied guilt of his failed haematocrit test at Madonna di Campiglio, less than a year after Prodi had hailed his propriety. Pantani was disqualified from the race for ‘health reasons’, but the clear implication was that his high haematocrit levels were the result of EPO use.

‘The system for those controls [which resulted in Pantani’s test failure] was set up with the teams and the riders,’ Verbruggen says. ‘They wanted it, they all signed and agreed to it. Pantani was one of them. I think we did what we could.’

Pantani had been sailing close to the wind in that year’s Giro – his imperious strength fuelling suspicion and resentment. He’d already run riot, winning four stages and humiliating his rivals.

There was talk of growing bitterness and jealousies, enough talk to fuel conspiracy theories. Even now, after all the doping confessions of the past decade, many still believe that Pantani’s test failure was a set-up.

After he failed the UCI haematocrit test that day, Pantani’s frailties were laid bare. He protested his innocence and remained defiant, but the bluster and ego of ‘Il Pirata’ quickly dissolved.

All that was left was a wide-eyed and frightened kid. Those who have documented his downfall believe his cocaine habit took hold soon after the test failure as he sought refuge in excess. And as this was happening, across the Alps, another ‘saviour’ was being born. Pantani was almost forgotten as Lance Armstrong, back from cancer, won the 1999 ‘Tour of Renewal’.

Marco Pantani death

Even though Pantani had not actually tested positive as the haematocrit test was not definitive proof of doping, around the world he was seen as a fraud – the latest bad apple in cycling’s rotten basket.

While the tifosi wept at the news, the anger of the Italian authorities was as profound as once had been their short-sightedness. Pantani was put under the first of a series of investigations. Bergonzi, who stood in the scrum of stunned media as Pantani was escorted away by the carabinieri at Madonna di Campiglio, stops short of calling his vilification unjust.

‘I don’t think it was an injustice,’ he says, ‘but I think that, at that time, in the year after Festina [the scandal that rocked cycling when, at the 1998 Tour, drugs were found in a team car], the UCI wanted to show they were tough against doping.’ But Bergonzi describes the haematocrit test, the control that looked tough on doping but in fact didn’t prove anything, as a ‘big hypocrisy’.

‘It was impossible to detect EPO,’ he says, ‘and the UCI control was not accurate. Anyway, the year after that the UCI changed the rules and with the new rules Pantani would not have been disqualified.’

Bergonzi says he remains ‘convinced’ that Pantani was the best climber of his generation. ‘I’m pretty sure he could win any mountain stage,’ Bergonzi says, before qualifying with, ‘I’m not so sure he could win a Tour de France...’ Armstrong himself has no doubts about Pantani’s athletic abilities.

‘Marco competed on a completely level playing field and he was one of the best, most explosive climbers we’ve ever seen,’ he says. ‘Without doping and assuming the rest of the field was clean…? The results would have been the same.’

None of that would have arrested Pantani’s decline. By the time Greg LeMond met him in Paris at the 2003 Tour de France route presentation, he was finished as a professional athlete.
‘I looked into his eyes and they were the eyes of a 16-year-old kid,’ LeMond recalled, ‘with this mixture of sadness and innocence.’

The bottom line

Was Marco Pantani the victim of a witch hunt, fuelled by the anti-doping evangelism of the late 1990s? When he fell from grace, he was, as had become cycling’s habit, quickly shunned and very little was done to help him.

After a hiatus he returned to racing, bitterly tearing into Armstrong in the 2000 Tour and becoming indignant with rage at the American’s suggestion that he had somehow ‘allowed’ Pantani to win on the Ventoux.

In return Armstrong mocked him, calling him ‘Elefantino’, a reference to Pantani’s prominent ears, as the Texan cruised to his second win in Paris. This time the pure climber’s revenge had been an empty gesture.

After that year’s Tour, Pantani slipped off the radar again. Whispers of his excesses grew louder, fuelled by bizarre incidents such as a four-car pile-up in Cesena when he drove the wrong way down a one-way street. Public humiliation was piled on humiliation, and at times the moral outrage from the Italian institutions pursuing him seemed as excessive as Pantani’s own behaviour.

‘There were so many rumours in Italy, but I never knew, until he died, that he was so compromised with cocaine,’ Bergonzi says. ‘That only became clear after his death.’

Some fans will always believe that his downfall was part of some great conspiracy, executed by rivals, betting cartels, governments and heartless institutions.

They will continue to argue that Pantani, like Tom Simpson, in some warped way, died ‘for his sport’. The bitter truth is that at a time when the sport was so morally bankrupt, the great Pantani became just an under-performing, ineffective liability.

But even as a cocaine addict, Pantani held on to his contract. His myth still sold bikes, ensured media coverage and attracted sponsors.

Armstrong says that, towards the end, it was common knowledge in the peloton that Pantani was using both performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drugs. But he’s not surprised that nobody tried harder to get Pantani off the road and into rehab.

That sense of collective responsibility, of ‘duty of care’, Armstrong says a little bitterly, would only happen in ‘an ideal world’. He says, ‘Cycling is a long way from achieving that. It’s an incredibly splintered group of athletes, organisers, teams, sponsors. All they care about are themselves. Trust me, I know.’

But Bergonzi rejects the notion that Pantani was deserted by his old associates. ‘Every one of them tried to help him,’ he insists. ‘But it was impossible. After the 2003 Giro d’Italia he was so addicted to cocaine that he didn’t listen to anyone. When he died in Rimini no one knew where he’d been for the whole of the previous week. Nobody, not even his parents…’

For all the romance, all the trappings of artistry, everything tells us that Pantani was as calculating and familiar with doping as any one of those riding alongside him.

In that sense, his carefully nurtured image was just as much of a myth as Armstrong’s. That ignores a key point though: Pantani was adored, loved even, by millions of fans.

Still it’s hard to believe he was not as steeped in doping as his GenEPO peers. His most loyal champions still defend him against accusations that he was a cheat, but it requires a remarkable leap of faith to still hold with the notion of him being wholly clean.

‘We don’t have any definitive confirmation of him doping,’ says Bergonzi, ‘but I think the EPO era helped him in time-trials. I’m convinced that he could still win in the mountains, without doping, but he wouldn’t have been able to sustain some of his big performances in time-trials.’

In the end, there was no duty of care shown by the UCI, the peloton or his sponsors, and he was discarded – another casualty of cycling’s war on doping.

When the next ‘star’ falls from grace, remember Pantani’s grisly fate. One moment he was being propelled towards substance addiction, the next he was cast aside by those who had profited from him in the first place. Before he died Pantani battled to explain his disillusion.

‘I don’t associate cycling with winning,’ he said. ‘I associate it with terrible, terrible things that have happened to me and people close to me.’

The Big Hypocrisy, indeed.

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