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Re-Cycle: The tragic tale of Marco Pantani

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Pantani Re-Cycle

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ByFelix Lowe
21/05/2020 at 07:25 | Updated 21/05/2020 at 08:25

Marco Pantani's swashbuckling victory at Madonna di Campiglio in the 1999 Giro d'Italia should have been his crowning moment. Instead, the Italian was kicked out of the race while wearing the Maglia Rosa, ending the defence of his title and sending his career into freefall. Felix Lowe looks back at Il Pirata’s tragic turning point.

Rarely is a rider's apogee the point at which their career nosedived into despair. Floyd Landis' stunning comeback win on Stage 17 of the 2006 Tour de France springs to mind. Days later, and a Yellow Jersey in Paris seemingly secured, the American's win in Morzine turned out to be unbelievable with good reason, and Landis never recovered from his subsequent doping ban.

There's also the protagonist of a recent episode of Re-Cycle: Belgian bad boy Frank Vandenbroucke and his sizzling Liège-Bastogne-Liège victory in 1999, after which the wheels started to fall off the flamboyant tyro's wagon.

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And in 1999, just months after Vandenbroucke's Doyenne destruction, the soaring Marco Pantani was the architect of his own downfall – like Icarus, flying too high and way too close to the sun.

Five million Italians tuned in on a Friday afternoon to watch the final 40 minutes of Stage 20 of the 1999 Giro d'Italia to witness the latest devastating triumph of the bald, slight man in pink.

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Already victorious in three of the previous four summit finishes of the race, Pantani couldn't help himself. On the twisting road to Madonna di Campiglio, he crushed everyone. With two stages remaining, his lead at the top of the standings was more than five-and-a-half minutes; his second successive Giro title all but decided.

"There was something unyielding, mechanical – inhuman, even – about Marco's tyranny," Matt Rendell writes in his biography of the Italian.

But so imperious was Pantani that he even felt he could beat the drug testers. And on the era-defining morning of the penultimate stage, the race leader was ejected from the Giro after a blood test revealed he had a haematocrit level above the 50 per cent threshold.

"He was removed from competition for safety reasons. It wasn't a ban. It wasn't even an indictment. But to Marco, it was a death blow," writes Colin O'Brien in his book, Giro d'Italia. "A career that should have delivered so much more joy disintegrated into sorrow and squalor and, eventually, death."

Here's the story of how one man's zenith was also his downfall.

Il Pirata in profile

Standing 5ft 6ins tall and weighing just 57 kilos, Marco Pantani turned pro in 1992 when he still had a full head of frizzy brown hair. His first major wins came two years later when he took two stages in his maiden Giro before winning the White Jersey at the Tour de France as a promising 24-year-old.

A winner on Alpe d'Huez one year later (where he would set a climbing record in 1997 that still stands more than two decades later), Pantani missed the entire 1996 season after colliding head-on with a car during Milano-Torino in a crash that almost ended his blossoming career.

But Pantani bounced back miraculously, adding a second mountain stage to his Alpe d'Huez scalp on his way to finishing third in the 1997 Tour behind Richard Virenque and Jan Ullrich. And, a year later, the man they called The Pirate – on account of his now polished head, trademark bandana, goatee beard and hooped earrings – was unbeatable. Pantani did the Giro-Tour double and Italian cycling, after years in the doldrums, had a true star on their hands.

The advances in technology and equipment, plus the rise of time trialling specialists in the mould of the five-time Tour champion Miguel Induràin, had been the fruits of the modernisation of cycling. But in mountain magician Pantani, with his penchant for the theatrical, his mesmerising virtuosity and explosive flare, Italy had a throwback star who possessed flashes of the great Fausto Coppi in his legs.

Gone were the days of "un uomo soloè al comando" – "There's a man alone ahead" – as uttered by the radio broadcaster Mario Ferretti during Coppi's legendary Cuneo to Pinerolo breakaway win in 1949. But in the likes of the maverick Claudio Chiappucci and his mercurial former Carrera teammate Pantani, Italian cycling had two unpredictable uphill livewires who were turning back the clock.

"To watch Pantani climb was like seeing someone fly uphill," John Foot says in his seminal study of the Giro, Pedalare! Pedalare!

"He was so light, so fragile, so obviously damaged, and yet so powerful when the mountains came around. Pantanimania took over Italy from the mid-1990s onwards, as the private and public life of this unique sportsman became intertwined in a sort of soap opera. At his peak, Pantani stopped Italy in its tracks, as Coppi and Bartali had in the 1940s and 1950s. He achieved record audiences for hours of live sport, which also made him into a very marketable commodity indeed."

Matt Rendell describes Pantani as "one of those George Best figures – a non-conformist and highly visible, one of those rare sportsmen with a flair in everything he did. Everything he did was stamped with his personality".

Rendell was not present that day on Saturday June 5, 1999 when Pantani's world was turned on its head; his first live Giro as a journalist came one year later. But he had tuned in the day before to witness The Pirate's fourth stage win:

I was watching. Everybody was. Who wouldn't be? There was nothing more exciting in the whole of cycling – nothing comparable to Pantani in his pomp. You wouldn't have missed a second of it.

Rendell felt that both Pantani and his fans were "intoxicated by his dominance" that year. "There was a sort of ecstatic state – an almost infantile state – that you entered into while watching it and waiting for the moment of attack. It was a Superman movie – a superhero movie before the genre had been revived. It was like watching someone with superhuman powers."

Although the Festina doping scandal had rocked the sport just one year earlier, for Anglo-Saxon fans the Giro was far removed from the juggernaut that was the Tour. The world was less suspicious and a rider of Pantani's stature, Rendell says, was able to pull the wool over the eyes of besotted fans.

"It was a legal, natural high – except, of course, it was not, for that high was induced by watching a doping-assisted performance, so the fan was himself doped, but one removed. You were in a state of euphoria and the thought that there was something strange going on didn't come to you."

Setting the scene: Pantanimania

Five days after the Grande Partenze in the Sicilian town of Agrigento, Frenchman Laurent Jalabert was the first of the big favourites to don the Pink Jersey after he won a hilly slog through the hills of Calabria. But his hold on the race didn't last long. On Stage 8, the first summit finish atop the Gran Sasso d'Italia in the Abruzzo, the highest mountain in the Apennines, Pantani lay down a marker with a slick solo win.

But The Pirate enjoyed only a single day in pink this time round, with Jalabert seizing back the Maglia Rosa one day later after winning the 32km individual time trial in Ancona. But that wasn’t the story. Quite how spindly mountain goat Pantani could generate enough wattage to finish third place just 55 seconds down and ahead of many of the heavier chrono specialists was anyone's guess.

Coming less than a year after the infamous Festina Scandal – which the Italian had bypassed, ending up winning that 1998 Tour while being painted, quite outrageously as it turned out, as the saviour of cycling – this performance, as much as his uphill triumphs, did not so much raise eyebrows as give collective foreheads the world over a massive injection of Botox.

After five days back in his regular Mercatone Uno team jersey, Pantani returned to pink after finishing behind youngster Paolo Savoldelli in the first of three mountainous stages in the Apennines and Alps. A day later, Pantani secured his most famous and evocative win from that year's race, his extraordinary comeback solo blast through the field on the climb to the Oropa Sanctuary.

It was Stage 15 and Jalabert had gone on the offensive in search of the Pink Jersey. With 8km remaining, Pantani jammed his chain and was forced to stop and repair it himself. Aided at first by five teammates, he proceeded to tear through the field. By the time he had Jalabert in his sights inside the final 3km, he'd already overtaken 48 riders.

The incredulous Frenchman tried in vain to hold his wheel, but a possessed Pantani powered past, winning the stage by 21 seconds. "If I hadn't got out of the way, he'd have ridden right over me," Jalabert allegedly said. Pantani later explained his lack of celebration as he crossed the line on the fact that he wasn't sure if he'd won.

"Nobody else was getting a look-in. It was a triumph," Foot writes. "For La Repubblica, Pantani had 'literally dominated this edition of the pink race'. The papers dubbed him a 'vampire', but the blood analogy would end up being a disturbing one."

There was something captivating about watching Pantani – even if it required a suspension of rational doubt. "I suppose it was like watching a brilliant con man," Rendell says. "You know what he's about to do, and yet he does it, and it's dazzling."

For Rendell, it became a hypnotic experience watching The Pirate go extraordinary lengths to achieve what he was achieving – even if, especially if, his performances were drug-induced. "It was almost admirable," he says. "It was fascinating to see someone pursue his art, his aims, with such extreme, reckless abandon."

Jalabert won the next day's stage, a flat affair to Lumezzane, and then took 57 seconds back from his rival in the 45km time trial in Treviso. But then Pantani won again, on Stage 19 at Alpe di Pampeago, to cement his grip on the Pink Jersey – as well as the Points and Mountains Classification. Insatiable, The Pirate was hungry for more.

Stage 20: Madonna di Campiglio

Two days away from the Giro’s finish in Milan, and the race had yet to witness a breakaway go the distance. But Switzerland's Pascal Richard and Colombia's Hernan Buenahora were doing their best to change this.

On the forgiving 7 per cent slopes of the 16km climb to Madonna di Campiglio amid the jagged peaks of the Dolomiti di Brenta mountains, the two remaining riders of the early break in the 175km stage from Predazzo were hoping to draw a curtain on that suffocating stat. Their hope was that Pantani would finally take a back seat and let others take some of the limelight.

Wishful thinking. Buenahora had just dropped Richard, the reigning Olympic champion, on the final climb when Pantani attacked from the group of main favourites. Gilberto Simoni tried to go with him but couldn't keep up with his countryman's pace. Pantani rode the final 4km out of the saddle and, when the time came, simply catapulted past Buenahora.

"I asked Buenahora about it one day and he said it was unbelievable," Rendell says. "He got onto his wheel, but he couldn't sustain Pantani's speed for any more than 100m."

For anyone but Pantani, it was all about damage limitation. The Pirate was on another planet. He took another 67 seconds off his rivals as he came home for a fourth stage win. His advantage at the top of the General Classification was now 5'38", with two stages remaining.

Richard, who ended up 20th on the day, chastised Pantani at the finish for not feeding anyone else any scraps. To which Pantani simply replied: "If I hadn't beaten him, someone else would have."

But even the Italian media was leaning towards Richard's way of thinking and the notion that the race leader was winning too much. A proud Pantani nevertheless remained defiant. "I'm not a rider who should be on Jalabert's wheel in the mountains, so I left," he told reporters. “And when I was on my own, I felt even better. I was in a state of grace.”

He claimed "it seemed right to take up the challenge" when the Frenchman attacked with Simoni, adding: "It's just a shame the climb wasn't steeper".

All around there was a sense that not only could Pantani not help himself, he was starting to take the mickey. "Yeah, it was a kind of addiction," agrees Rendell.

"He wasn't supposed to win. The ecosystem of cycling and sport as a means of marketing goods requires everyone to get a portion of limelight, but Marco pursued other rules. He was compulsive, he was obsessive, and he was a diva. He felt like every song should have been his aria and there wasn't space for subplots when Marco was around."

For Italians or fans of Pantani, the 1999 race was a sensation, The Pirate's performances up there with the finest exploits ever seen in cycling. But for many others – especially those riders trying to salvage something from the Giro – this one-way parade was becoming a bit tedious.

That evening, La Gazzetta dello Sport prepared its front page. The headline read: "Inebriati da Pantani"Intoxicated by Pantani. The paper was only just making its way up to Madonna di Campiglio the next afternoon as Pantani was leaving his hotel in disgrace – not towards the start of the Gavia and Mortirolo peaks that featured in Stage 21, but driving home to Cesenatico, where he would watch someone else take his Maglia Rosa.

The failed test and fallout

For the best analysis of what happened after Pantani's Stage 20 victory, Matt Rendell's biography, The Death of Marco Pantani, is essential reading. John Foot's Pedalare! Pedalare! is also very good.

On the night of his win, Pantani and his Mercatone Uno team checked into the Hotel Touring at Madonna di Campiglio. Widely criticised for a win many felt he should not have achieved, Pantani arrived looking downcast. Even one of his entourage allegedly asked: "What have you gone and done?"

The Giro's drug testers were staying at the nearby Hotel Majestic. There had been 15 random tests the morning of Stage 20 – all of which turned up negative – and word got out of another raft of ‘surprise’ tests the following morning.

Rendell reports that Pantani, still up after midnight eating 400g of rice in the hotel restaurant, was asked by a friend if he was prepared for the test. To which he replied:

Of course we're ready: do you think I'm stupid? I've already won the Giro. In fact, to make sure we're in the right, let's check.

He then used his own blood cell counter; the result had his haematocrit at 48.6 per cent. Still dangerously high, but on the right side of the guidelines. "You see? All within the rules."

Pantani was referring to his use of EPO, the blood-boosting engineered protein usually found in the kidneys, which artificially increases endurance and stamina by increasing the oxygen-carrying ability of the blood. More red blood cells would make a rider a more efficient oxygen-carrying machine.

In the absence of an actual test for EPO, an elevated haematocrit level was taken as evidence of it being used. An arbitrary dividing line of 50 per cent (of red blood cells) was employed in the late 1990s to indicate the presence of EPO in the blood. The rule was ostensibly devised to protect riders from heart attacks and strokes – but it was also a warning to all those who were cheating.

The next morning, Pantani and nine other riders were woken with a knock at 7.15am. He was tested at 7.46am. After a heavy night out at a local disco, the team doctor was not even present. The test – which Pantani later described as "more like an ambush than a health check" – came back at 52 per cent. He was informed of the result at 9.40am. An announcement was made at 10.12am – 38 minutes before Stage 21 was due to start.

Under UCI rules, which Pantani had himself backed, he was disqualified from the race and banned from cycling for 15 days. Distraught, his entire Mercatone Uno team also withdrew. Claiming he was the victim of some kind of plot, Pantani lashed out, punching through his hotel window. He left the hotel at 1.02pm.

Escorted through the mass of reporters and cameras by policemen, a dazed, unshaven Pantani, his bloody hand bandaged, told journalists there was "something strange" going on, claiming he had hit rock bottom and "this time I will not get up again" – a reference to his past comebacks from serious injuries.

He was driven away by his directeur sportif, Giuseppe Martinelli, to Imola. Here they claim they went to a hospital for an independent haematocrit test, which came back between 47 and 48 per cent. Mercatone Uno issued a press release questioning the competence of the Giro testers. But Giorgio Squinzi, the owner of the Mapei team, was having none of it, claiming there had finally been "divine and human justice":

"This phenomenon had to explode sooner or later,” he said.

I warned the UCI four years ago. We can't go on with this deceit and hypocrisy. The haematocrit of my riders is on average five points lower than when they left Agrigento. Don't let them talk crap: if they have around 50 per cent two days from the end, it means they've been taking top-ups.

If independent tests carried out on the samples showed that there had indeed been no mistake, that didn't end the talk of a plot to deny Italy's most famous sportsman his second Giro title. After all, it emerged that not only did the team know that Pantani would be tested in the morning, many of his teammates had heard rumours the night before that he would be disqualified.

If Mercatone Uno were aware of the test, why was the team doctor out on the town until the early hours – especially before such a key stage? Like most riders at the time, Pantani was up to speed with the myriad tricks employed to bring haematocrit levels down before tests – such as injecting a bag of saline solution, which took around 20 minutes. He had form for doing this – hence, presumably, why he'd arrived late for an on-the-spot test the previous year.

"Timing was everything," Rendell says. "And the doctor wasn't there to inject him with serum. So he presumably drank and drank all he could. Then, while he waited for the testers to arrive, the water was expelled from his blood to his bladder and his haematocrit started to rise."

Just what happened that morning will forever remain a mystery. There are so many conflicting accounts, and the only person who could categorically put things straight is no longer with us. But there was clearly a growing sense of frustration from a number of wealthy team sponsors regarding Pantani's dominance that year. There was even talk of involvement with bookmakers and the mafia. Indeed, years later, a mafia informant claimed that the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples had rigged the whole thing as part of a betting scandal.

One thing is irrefutable: Pantani was never the same cyclist – or man – again.

What happened next?

Tailor-made for a continuation of Pantani's tyranny, the Queen Stage of the race – which featured the climbs of Tonale, Gavia, Mortirolo and Valico di Santa Cristina ahead of the hilltop finish at Aprica – took place in his glaring absence and under a cloud. Italians all over the country expressed disbelief that their nation's most adored sports personality would have taken performance enhancing drugs.

Pantani's fellow riders offered their support. Paolo Savoldelli, the new de facto race leader, refused to don the Pink Jersey during Stage 21 – mirroring Felice Gimondi's actions when Eddy Merckx was infamously booted off the Giro at Savona 30 years earlier. "For me, Pantani is clean," said Savoldelli, whose own haematocrit levels had been crazily high during the race.

And so, in the words of Gianni Mina, the eminent Italian journalist, the "race went on like a headless chicken… at a funereal pace".

Spaniard Roberto Heras won the final mountain stage in Aprica in a trio ahead of Italians Simoni and Ivan Gotti, who had forced the decisive move on the Mortirolo. Going over the top, a banner was on display among the tifosi waiting to witness a fifth win for their idol Pantani: "Pirata – farci sognare" – Pirate, make us dream.

With Savoldelli in fourth place but four minutes in arrears, it was Gotti, who had ridden consistently but hardly spectacularly over the past three weeks, who took over the race lead.

Gotti rode into Milan the next day in the Maglia Rosa to beat Savoldelli by 3'35", two years after he edged Pavel Tonkov to the 1997 title. That year, Pantani withdrew in the opening week following an early collision with a black cat. Simoni was third, a single second back, with Jalabert and Heras completing the top five.

Gotti's incidental victory was never embraced by the Italian public and, as he donned the Pink Jersey in Aprica, whistles of depreciation drowned out any cheers. Somehow, the baby-faced 31-year-old had managed to end up top of the pile in what seemed like a race for second place.

But Gotti in pink was not the story that the papers ran. How could it be? The headline on the front page of the next day's Le Stampa gives an idea of the seismic shift that had reverberated through Italy following Pantani's positive: "It is the end of cycling as we know it."

Many viewed the final top 10 that year – all of whom were at some point caught up in doping scandals – as something of a slap in the face to Pantani and his supporters. As Colin O'Brien writes: "If he was dirty, he couldn't have been any more grimy than those around him."

A few days later, four riders were booted off the Tour de Suisse with high haematocrits. It appeared that nothing had been learned.

Pantani's descent into hell

On 9 June, two days after Gotti was crowned champion of the 1999 Giro, Pantani held a surreal press conference in which no one actually asked him the 64-million lira question: Had he taken EPO?

Around the same time, Rendell reports how Pantani gave a stilted and rambling TV interview with Gianni Mina that would have done nothing to silence his detractors.

Anger, frustration, shame are… are… are some of the sensations that, er… I have inside. The fact that… that I'd won a Giro d'Italia, er… I believe, in an impeccable manner, after so much work… To find yourself before a verdict of this type is certainly a cold shower and… Anyone finds themselves before a wall that's falling in on you, something that strikes you in your… in your… morale … in your soul. Certainly not an easy moment that… It isn't the incident, the incident… It's comparable to an accident, but… Morale… I believe that this time I'm starting from much lower down.

In a more coherent interview afterwards, Pantani categorically denied he had anything to do with doping: "You can rule it out completely. I'm clean. My morale is rock bottom. I need time to think. I don't understand how this happened. And before I get back on my bike, I need to know. To win, it's not drugs I need – it's mountains."

Such preventative bans were not rare in cycling. Claudio Chiappucci had missed the Giro in 1997 for the same reason, while Pantani's own teammate Riccardo Forconi had missed his leader's victory in 1998 because of a ban. But neither of these incidents made the kind of headlines on a global scale as Pantani's disqualification did.

The regulations would have allowed Pantani to get back on his bike after a fortnight. He could well have returned to defend his Yellow Jersey at the Tour de France – just as Merckx had done in 1969 after his Savona bust. But the omens didn't look good for The Pirate, who had a severe inferiority complex, fragile ego and manic-depressive tendencies even at the best of times.

"If I know Marco, he will never recover from this disgrace," his directeur sportif said. And Martinelli was right. Pantani laid low, locked himself away, and took refuge in what his girlfriend later described as "industrial quantities" of cocaine and self-pity. A comeback victory in the Tour was never an option.

"He was in peak condition – perhaps the fittest man on earth, certainly unbeatable by any cyclist on earth – but suddenly he was deprived of anywhere to expend that extraordinary charge of energy, and confined, by shame, to his house," says Rendell.

What followed was a protracted and painful soap opera. Pantani was dragged through the courts for sporting fraud and was besieged by the media, cycling authorities and investigating magistrates. There were half-hearted comebacks and even stage wins – at Mont Ventoux and Courchevel in the 2000 Tour. But there were also fresh allegations of doping, ongoing forensic investigations and a long suspension. That Tour brace in 2000 was the last time The Pirate stood atop a podium. And he failed to finish four of his final six Grand Tours.

Within a year of what proved to be his final Giro performance in 2003, Pantani was dead.

The death of Marco Pantani

In the end, depression and addiction got the better of Pantani. He never returned to the heights of his victories at Oropa or Madonna di Campiglio that year – even his victory on Ventoux was an apparent ‘gift’ from the sport's super villain, Lance Armstrong. The Texan often mocked the Italian by referring to him as "Elefantino", or ‘Baby Elephant’, in reference to the ears that Pantani later felt compelled to have surgically pinned.

Pantani no longer looked to be riding in pursuit of greatness, but instead was driven by anger. He felt he had been singled out and made an example of in a way that Armstrong would feel many years later. In February 2004, on Valentine's Day, he was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini after a cocaine-fuelled binge. He was just 34.

The obituary by the recently deceased don of the cycling press corps, Gianna Mura, explained how Pantani's fall could be traced back to his fourth and final emphatic victory in the 1999 Giro:

"Marco Pantani began to die that morning of '99, on Madonna di Campiglio. He did not accept the positive, he did not accept anything of what happened to him. Many other riders, caught up in doping affairs, stopped and restarted. Not him. He, the King of the Climbs, also specialised in the descents. Down into Hell, into the artificial paradises, into hiding from public opinion, journalists, judges.

He became more and more isolated, his solo attacks became rarer. And every so often, in this or that newspaper, on this or that TV show, they'd cry out: Marco come back. They were right to appeal, because cycling without Pantani was, and is, a soup with absolutely no flavour. It's a stage without a leading man, full of actors willing but unable to give a jolt to the heart of the public. Pantani was able to do that very well, it was his great speciality.

"Pantani on the climbs was the equivalent of an acrobat without a net. A ritual, with almost mystical rhythms. He was like a samurai. Leaving the others destroyed."

Mura concluded his piece on the night of his countryman's death with these moving words: "He'll probably become a myth, like they always do when they die young, or when we don't understand why they've gone… I would rather have watched him grow old, and gone for a glass of Sangiovese with him, somewhere up there in the hills."

Pantani took his last breath on 14 February 2004 in Rimini, but the long and fatal final exhalation began on 5 June 1999 at Madonna di Campiglio. His victory there was the tragic turning point in his life. Having subjugated the peloton to a quasi-tyranny over the roads of Italy and France that summer and the last, Pantani soon cast himself as the victim of a plot to topple his empire.

His fate proved that one man could be both oppressor and martyr at the same time, could be both a hero and a criminal, one of the sport's greatest entertainers and biggest cheats – a force so dominant and yet a figure of such fragility and self-doubt.

Perhaps that is why Pantani is still revered by so many, his memory and exploits cherished. While those of, say, Lance Armstrong have been permanently scratched from the history books.

-- Written by Felix Lowe. You also can subscribe to the Re-Cycle Podcast by Eurosport for audio episodes of the most compelling stories from cycling history.

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