Marco Pantani: Rise and Fall

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At home with his parents, Colin O’Brien explores modern cycling’s great tragedy – Marco Pantani

Photographs: Olycom SPA/Rex Features



The great Italian journalist Gianni Mura once wrote that Marco Pantani was as fragile as a glass vase and as hard as granite.

He even coined a word for him, the frankly fantastic “Pantastique”. Not everyone has been so poetic.

“If I could get hold of them, I’d twist their necks,” grunts Pantani’s mother, Tonina, as the conversation turns towards the many journalists who’ve made a career out of attacking her son or used him to make a quick buck.

Whether or not Tonina’s son doped during his career is a debate for another time. Plenty have already tackled it with no shortage of investigative skill, and plenty more still have formed their own opinions based on gut feelings and personal allegiances.

But for the sake of clarity, the records show that on that famous climb to Madonna di Campiglio in the Giro d’Italia of 1999, Pantani’s haematocrit level was 52 per cent – two points above the level the UCI had agreed with the riders and three points below the level that most sports doctors said could possibly occur naturally.

Leading the race by more than five and a half minutes, he was suspended for two weeks as punishment for the infringement. As a result he lost the Maglia Rosa – and spent the rest of his short life coming to terms with what he maintained was a betrayal.

“Especially after Madonna di Campiglio,” says Tonina, “I think a lot of people were secretly pleased. He was too popular. There was envy.”

“That day all the journalists carried Marco to the top, saying ‘Marco’s a champion, Marco’s an example for all’. And the next morning, they dropped him. Why?”

Photo: Olycom SPA / Rex Features

I don’t know if Marco Pantani doped. I wasn’t there.

If he didn’t, how did he beat that Great Yellow Lie on the slopes of Ventoux? How could a clean rider humiliate a peloton of science projects? If he was clean, how was he capable of repeated, merciless acts of savagery whenever the gradient got too gruelling for the rest? How, in a sport that’s taught everyone to suspect the superlative, could he be that good?

Perhaps, having to ask those questions is just more evidence of the great injustice cycling’s endured.

It’s pathetic to think that everything and everyone must forever come under suspicion for being “too good”. And it just seems cruel to let the man die twice. To dismiss his legend as a narcotic construction, a hallucination that you saw but don’t have to believe.

It’s true what they say after all; what the good men do is too often buried with them. Only the bad lives on.

I don’t know if he doped. But I do know that there’s no chat show host waiting for Pantani. No truth and reconciliation process to absolve him of sin and no forum for him to prove his innocence. He’s not still sitting on over 100 million dollars and he doesn’t get to live out his days in a mansion with his family and friends, none too much the worse for all that happened.

pantani (marco)

A tragedy, wrote Aristotle, revolves around an action with serious implications. It must be driven by dramatic performance and not by an overlaid narrative.

The hero shouldn’t be a paragon of virtue or entirely wicked, either. His undoing might come from a fatal flaw or an act of the gods, but his tale should resemble the world it’s set in, and the plot should develop in one direction before reversing to another. And it must end in pathos; the destructive, painful act that leaves the audience filled with pity and fear.

Pantani, then, is modern cycling’s great tragedy. Except that in fiction, what follows for the audience is catharsis: a restoration that comes from the climactic emotional breakdown.

But fictions end on the page, or when the curtain falls and the actors all come back from the dead to receive – they hope – the audience’s praise. Fictions don’t die lonely in hotel rooms. Only reality is cruel enough to end that way.

This is an edited extract from the Marco Pantani feature which appeared in issue 38 of Rouleur. It was published in 2013.