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It is 10 years since Pantani, beloved by millions, was found dead, alone, in a hotel

I always thought he was more of an artist than an athlete - an extravagant figure, a Salvador Dali.

Marco Pantani was the best climber in cycling before it all came crashing down. Picture: Getty
Marco Pantani was the best climber in cycling before it all came crashing down. Picture: Getty

That's why people were so fond of him.

Lance Armstrong

Many tragic stories have emanated from the world of sport; perhaps one of the saddest is that of the great Italian cyclist Marco Pantani, who died 10 years ago today. Pantani was the greatest climber of his generation, a legend in his homeland yet. simultaneously, fatally flawed. He was a doper and a cheat, a depressive and a drug-addict. He paid the ultimate price for his sins when he died from acute cocaine poisoning at the age of 34, alone in a hotel room in Rimini on Valentine's Day 2004.

Pantani was nicknamed "Il Pirata" (The Pirate), so-called for his distinctive look consisting of skull-and-crossbones emblazoned bandana, earring and nose-stud. He was a unique character and remains an icon in Italy, due partially to his Giro d'Italia/ Tour de France double in 1998 and also as a result of his compelling racing style. Pantani was articulate and charismatic, with former world champion Laurent Jalabert describing him as "a genius" on a bike.

It does, though, remain something of a mystery as to exactly why the diminutive Italian remains such a celebrated figure when you consider the facts which have emerged in the past decade. Perhaps it was his premature death, just like a rock star, which has added to the nostalgia.

Pantani claimed 36 pro victories, including eight stage wins in both the Giro and the Tour but it was his Giro/Tour double in '98 which cemented his place in history. He was the first Italian to achieve this since the great Fausto Coppi in 1952. It is a feat few current riders would attempt, never mind succeed at.

Pantani's most revered performances were staged in the mountains. Unlike the linear, automaton-like performances which dominate modern-day racing, Pantani would lose valuable minutes in the time-trials before attacking in the mountains in pursuit of his general classification rivals.

His solo ride to the top of Alpe d'Huez during the 1995 Tour remains one of sports' most remarkable feats, as does his attack on the Galibier in '98. His one-on-one duel with Lance Armstrong, as the pair made for the summit of Mont Ventoux in 2000, is still incredible to watch.

We now know, however, that each and every one of these performances were fuelled by drugs. Pantani took enough EPO to turn him from a gifted amateur rider into a double Grand Tour winner. A report by the French Senate released last year confirmed the widely held suspicions that the Italian used EPO during the '98 Tour, although rumours suggested that he had been doping since he was a junior rider.

Pantani may never have tested positive during his career but was expelled from the 1999 Tour de France while leading the race due to his haematocrit level being measured at 52%, 2% above the level which was permitted by the UCI. As a result, his whole team withdrew and Pantani was suspended from racing for two weeks, but he would not race again that season. This expulsion marked the beginning of Pantani's tragic demise.

He faced sporting fraud charges in '99, but was never found guilty. A year later the Italian received a suspended prison sentence for high haematocrit levels but this was overturned on appeal. In 2002, Pantani served a six-month UCI ban after a syringe containing traces of insulin was found in his hotel room in a search during the 2000 Giro.

By now, however, the rider was a shadow of his former self. At his comeback Giro d'Italia in 2003 he finished a respectable 14th but was crushed by his omission from the Centenary Tour de France. He then plunged into a deep depression and checked into a psychiatric clinic, feeling victimised and publicly humiliated by the authorities.

Friends described him as having become paranoid and delusional and it emerged that he had begun taking cocaine in 1999. In February 2004, Pantani checked into a hotel in Rimini, surfacing infrequently. Five days later, he was found dead.

The story has not come to an end, however. Last year, Pantani's mother called for a new inquest into her son's death, alleging that he had been murdered. At the time of his death, conspiracy theories abounded that he was injected in his sleep by a business rival, that the Olympic Committee had framed him and that he was killed to prevent him exposing the extent of doping in the peloton.

It is improbable that an inquiry would give these theories much weight. Sadly, it seems Marco Pantani killed Marco Pantani. In a sport where real characters are all too few, Pantani will be remembered forever.

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