About 20 years ago, Marco Pantani, the Italian cyclist, was the most captivating sports star on the planet, a force of nature who would seize the moment and, with a passion that crossed frictionlessly to his huge fanbase, deliver superhuman feats. I was a fan – a big fan. In July 1998, at my parents’ house, with my one year old son toddling and playing with bright plastic things in front of me, I watched all six hours of Eurosport’s coverage of his evisceration of Jan Ullrich in stormy weather en route to Les Deux Alpes. I was there in Paris a week or so later, to see him in yellow on the Champs Elysees too.
But that Tour is not remembered for that most epic of all epic stages, nor for Pantani’s GC victory just three years after a head-on collision (in which he was blameless) threatened his life, never mind his career. It will be remembered for The Festina Affair – the moment cycling (and its fans) had to acknowledge its endemic, systemic doping problem, the endgame (of sorts) coming nearly 15 years later with Lance Armstrong’s 2013 TV confession.
Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist (available on Netflix) tells the tale of the man through highlights, interviews and reconstructions. There’s Marco as the bike-bonkers boy, washing his machine in the bath and furtively tinkering with the derailleur in the middle of the night (echoed later in scenes showing cyclists training in hotel rooms at 3.00am to thin blood thickened to heart attack danger levels by EPO). There’s the amateur successes – Marco with hair – and a fierce will to win emerging from the short, slight, shy kid. Then, after metal pins held his leg together in hospital and the learning to walk again, there’s his re-invention as Il Pirata, and with it the adulation, the girls and the girlfriend and the Giro and the Tour.
But Marco’s eyes never really change. There’s a melancholy there, a window on to a soul that was most at home pounding out the training miles, flying uphill past, and not with, team mates, a man who both longed to be alone yet could barely cope when left to his own devices. He could endure physical pain – that’s pretty much the first line of the pro cyclist’s job description – but he couldn’t deal with the mental pain of defeat, but also, perhaps, the burden of the pervasive doping deceit. Cycling, with its curious combination of an emphasis on individual endeavour within a strong team framework, its weeks on the road in grim cheap hotels with the aircon blocked for fear of catching a cold and its routine monastic lifestyle punctuated by wild celebratory blowouts, does not lend itself to preparing its heroes for retirement. Like cricketers (who have to cope with many of the challenges listed above) too many cyclists find the adjustment to the outside world too disorienting after they hang up their cleats.
He’s been gone 12 years, but would only be 46 now and, in that way that those who look 40 when 20, would almost certain look exactly the same if he were around today. Cycling, sport in general, hell even I, miss him, because the likes of Il Pirata don’t come round very often and they leave huge gaps when they go.
And yet, cycling, sport and I have plenty of culpability in his demise at his own hand in a dingy hotel room on a cold dull day in February 2004. Cycling didn’t (and maybe hasn’t) grasped the nettle of doping and rooted it out from top to bottom – or at least as far as it can. Sport demands more and more of its heroes, especially those who transcend mere winning and losing and become icons, their every move photographed, filmed, dissected. And I, and millions of fans like me, bought the magazines (I subscribed to Cycle Sport and Procycling so as not to miss anything Marco) and looked on amazed, but knowing that what looks too good to be true probably is too good to be true. But we still thought of the Marcos and the Frankies and the Jose Marias as winners (in the game of cycling) and not losers (in the game of life). The film’s title may nod in the direction of Dario Fo’s play, but there was nothing accidental about this death.
That said, Marco bears some responsibility for his fate, but there’s plenty of faceless men with money and a vicious amorality who constructed a culture in professional cycling that destroyed many of its brightest stars and countless others down the ladder of success. The film Pantani shows much of the beauty of this most beautiful of sports – and plenty of the ugliness of this most ugly of sports too.