Pantani – Rouleur 2010
There are some deaths that make an indelible emotional impact on us. By and large, we can remember where we were when we heard. In Marco Pantani’s case, on Valentine’s night 2004 I was in Paris, out drinking. It wasn’t a romantic date, but a journalists’ night out during the Six Nations. The phone call came, from a radio station: then I turned my phone off. I knew there would be more calls, but I wasn’t going to discuss this one. It cut deep.
There was no sense of surprise. The little climber’s path to self-destruction had been easy to trace. Only three months earlier, another brilliant, mercurial, cocaine-addicted climber, Jose-Maria Jimenez of Spain, had also died, in similar circumstances. Pantani’s trajectory was so obvious that it followed a kind of horrible logic that he should be found dead and alone in a dodgy hotel room. But it mattered, very very much, for all kinds of reasons. Hence the shock. Hence the grief and feeling of waste. Pantani was a drug-taker, a cheat, yet it should not have led to his death.
Pantani was unique, in the heights he attained and the depths he plumbed. He was one of the few performers on a bike whom I have found truly mesmeric to watch. His ability to accelerate on a mountain climb was a throwback to the greats: Lucien Van Impe, Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes. I am now certain it was EPO-fuelled, but following the pattern of the 1990s, initially there was no suspicion, after which the process of revelation was gradual. This was not the 21st century cycling world in which every outstanding peformance excites suspicion. We had not yet fallen that low.
Pantani was a drug-taker, but dismissing him for that is simplistic. Hate the crime, keep an eye on the human being. In the spring of 1996 I visited Pantani as he recovered from a horrendous crash which had left him with a broken lower leg. The calcified area where the bones had knitted was nauseating to look it, with the holes where the pins had been taken out still weeping. He could ride his bike, but not in a gear bigger than 42×19. To come back from this to make the podium of the 1997 Tour de France and win the 1998 race called for more than just a syringe.
Pantani was one of the last cycling stars who didn’t have a press officer. Until he won the Tour you could phone him up as he lay on the beach and fix your interview. He was one of the few cyclists of the last 20 years to rise above the humdrum. Mark Cavendish is one of the few to match his charisma, his ability to say something interesting about almost anything.
That was cool, but the episode when he won my heart was not a racing one, not even a press one. It happened when I went to interview him for the first issue of procycling, along with the photographer Leo Mason.
Leo took a Polaroid of Pantani as he posed for a cunningly devised up from under picture for the cover of the magazine: he gave it to the cyclist, who took it away for a few minutes, went over to the mechanics’ truck, picked up a screwdriver and gently etched around his profile the Polaroid print to make a unique little work of art, which he handed back to Leo. We were flabbergasted.
There was, inevitably, a search for the guilty parties after Pantani’s death. It wasn’t that simple. Later that Valentine’s evening, I met one of France’s leading anti-doping writers, and said simply: “we killed him, all of us.” I don’t think he understood. What I meant was that the sport of cycling held collective responsibility for the death of Pantani, for all that he had made his own choices and appeared to be beyond help as his cocaine addiction worsened before his death.
There were other casualties, most notably Jimenez: David Millar could have been another had he not been fortunate enough to have a support network which was not there for El Chaba or the Pirate. All made their own choices but were victims as well. Professional sport is not always pretty, not always happy, and Pantani’s death was a object lesson in what can lie under the glittering exterior. For that reason as much as what he achieved on his bike, he should be remembered.
This column first appeared in Rouleur magazine. For further information visit www.rouleur.cc