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Marco Pantani: Worshipped, abused, and rejected

On the 10th anniversary of the Italian's overdose, we look back at our 2004 cover story on the rocky journey from Tour de France champion to drug-addled death

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Editor’s note: This cover story originally appeared in the April 4, 2004 issue of VeloNews magazine.

He lived the frenetic life of a celebrated sports icon. He died the solitary death of a drug-dependent depressive. Marco Pantani’s ending echoed the star-crossed life and times of this cycling messiah. The quirky, pugnacious Italian climber was frequently alone at the end of punishing mountain stages in cycling’s greatest races, minutes ahead of the opposition. And he was alone again, tragically, when he died in the fifth-story room of an Italian hotel called Le Rose during the afternoon of a somber St. Valentine’s Day in February. Outside his window, life bustled in the streets of Rimini while waves continued to crash onto the beach of this Adriatic resort. Pantani was 34.

Some 20,000 people came to Pantani’s hometown of Cesenatico, 20km north of Rimini, on February 18. They watched and applauded his final 2km journey: from his funeral at the church of San Giacomo, where he was baptized, then alongside a Leonardo da Vinci-designed canal to his burial at the small coastal town’s cemetery. His grave will become a shrine, like that of Italy’s other tragic cycling champion who died before his time, Fausto Coppi.

Like Coppi, Pantani was revered for the transcendent manner in which he raced his celeste-green Bianchi to victories at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. But unlike Coppi, whose exploits straddling World War II were followed by pockets of fans huddled around crackly radios, Pantani was an electrifying presence to millions on live television.

As a consequence, fame was thrust on Pantani at a rate and in a manner that he had a hard time handling. Outwardly, he promulgated his notoriety by shaving his head, growing a goatee, piercing his left ear for a silver hoop, and wearing a knotted bandanna that bore the skull-and-crossbones emblem of Il Pirata: The Pirate.

But inwardly, Pantani was confused. At press conferences, he talked of himself in the third person, as if that public Pantani were someone else. But when the swashbuckling image of “the little guy who could” was shattered by his blood hematocrit testing above cycling’s legal limit on the eve of a second Giro triumph in 1999, Pantani was crushed. Ridiculed by those quick to jump to conclusions, humiliated in the press by accusations of doping, and subsequently hounded by no less than seven judicial inquiries into alleged crimes of “sporting fraud,” Pantani became more and more depressed.

The bicycle was his only true antidote to the personal onslaught. He rode it joyfully through the hills of Romagna to the southwest of his home. He later raced it to a pair of mountaintop stage wins ahead of Lance Armstrong at the 2000 Tour. And he came back again last summer to show vestiges of his fiery climbing style in a 14th-place finish at the Giro. But for most of the last four-and-a-half years of his life, Pantani was chained to a nighttime world of discos, disillusion and drugs. He still had the trappings of success, but the troubled champion had crashed his fast cars, abandoned his gated mansion and, a year ago, split with his longtime Danish girlfriend, Kristine. After last-minute plans failed in June to get him a Tour de France ride on Jan Ullrich’s Bianchi team, Pantani was shattered.

He checked himself into the Parco dei Tigli, a high-class mental health clinic specializing in the treatment of nervous disorders. His personal manager Manuela Ronchi said at the time: “I don’t know anything, I can only say that he must be suffering with something very private and that he doesn’t want to talk about it to anyone.”

His condition — which may have been incorrectly diagnosed — was treated with antidepressants. On leaving the clinic, he didn’t return to the bike. He became bloated: as much as 50 pounds over the sleek 134-pound climbing machine that took 36 race wins (half of them at the Giro and Tour) in 12 years of professional cycling. He was interviewed for the last time in September 2003, by a writer with the Voce di Romagna, Mario Pugliese, a boyhood friend. He told Pugliese: “The champion I was exists no more, he is far from the man that I have become.”

Pantani was also dismissive of his fans: “If they still cheer me, it’s not through affection but because they have need of a personality.” And he was tired of being that personality, Pugliese said. Four months after that interview, a 34th birthday party was thrown for Pantani by a friend, a disco owner. A dozen people came to dinner. Recalling that evening, Pugliese told French journalist Philippe Brunel: “In the middle of the meal, Marco stood up, took from his pocket a packet of cocaine in front of everyone. He went to
the toilets, followed by a friend who wanted to stop him. The two argued. The evening degenerated. On leaving, all his friends said to themselves, ‘This is the last time that we’ll see him.’ Marco had arrived at the ultimate stage of dependence.”

Pantani still had hopes of kicking his drug habit. He visited Cuba, where a friend, the ex-Argentinean soccer star Diego Maradona, has been treated for cocaine addiction. On February 27, Pantani was due to fly to Bolivia with a priest who runs a secluded detoxification center for young people. But 13 days before his departure, and five days after checking into Le Rose in Rimini, Pantani’s heart failed. An autopsy pointed to fluid on the brain and in the lungs as contributors to his death. Like rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison before him, it seemed that Pantani’s bright star had burned out on drugs.

In nine pages of notes found in his passport next to the bed at the Rimini hotel, Pantani wrote: “I’m left all alone. No one managed to understand me. Even the cycling world and even my own family.” Also included were some loving words for his estranged girlfriend — who must have been on his mind that Valentine’s Day. He then wrote about the drugs. “I want to go to Bolivia to to break this addiction,” he wrote. “I want to finish with that world, and I want to get back on the bike.”

Tragically, this was one uphill battle that not even Marco Pantani could conquer.

Marco’s moments: Memories of Pantani’s career

1994 Giro d’Italia, his favorite victory: When asked many years later which of his victories he remembered the best, Marco Pantani had no doubts in choosing the two mountain stage wins he scored at the 1994 Giro d’Italia.

Going into the 235km stage 14 between Lienz in Austria and Merano in the Italian Dolomites, over five mountain passes, Pantani was lying 10th overall more than six minutes behind race leader Evgeni Berzin. Not much attention was paid to the small, balding rider on the Carrera team when he took off from the main group in search of a break that had been up the road most of the long day. Pantani overtook all but one of the breakaways on the last climb, the Monte Giovo, then on the wet, slick descent caught and passed solo leader Pascal Richard. Pantani won the stage by 40 seconds and moved to sixth overall.

The next day, there was another seven hours in the saddle on a wet, cold stage 15 to Aprica. It first crossed the Giro’s highest peak, the 9048-foot Stelvio, before reaching its toughest climb, the Passo del Mortirolo. At 12km and averaging almost 10 percent, the Mortirolo saw Pantani split the race wide open, which allowed race favorite Miguel induráin to drop leader Berzin.

Induráin caught Pantani and his break companion Nelson Rodriguez on the descent; but the multi-Tour de France champion was helpless when Pantani attacked on the 15-percent slopes of the day’s last climb, Santa Cristina. Pantani won the stage by almost three minutes over teammate Claudio Chiappucci and 3:30 on the blown Induráin. Berzin came in sixth, 4:06 back, to just retain the overall lead over the new runner-up, Pantani.

The Tifosi was thrilled by the emergence of a new Italian climbing phenom. “On the summits, I could feel the breath of the fans, I could feel my hair stand on end,” Pantani remembered. A legend had been born.

2000 Giro d’Italia, anger in his heart: Other than a false start in February, Pantani’s appearance at the 2000 Giro d’italia was his first race since being thrown out of the event when leading the 1999 edition. Dedicated Pantani fans hoped their hero would carry on where he left off, but by the time the Giro reached its closing days, Il Pirata hadn’t been a factor in the mountains and he was more than an hour down on GC.

“This Giro d’italia is quite different,” said Pantani’s teammate and that Giro’s eventual winner, Stefano Garzelli. “We are all used to seeing Pantani attack and attack and attack. Only Pantani has made his mark on this race like that.”

And while Pantani’s chance of leaving a mark on the 2000 Giro had passed, the pirate still had something burning inside as the peloton embarked on the 19th stage, a tough 176km haul from Saluzzo to Briançon in France. The stage quickly climbed to the Giro’s highest point atop the Colle dell Agnello at 9015 feet, followed by a rapid descent and a climb over the fearsome Col d’Izoard before the finish.

With the overall contest a tight one between Garzelli and then race leader Francesco Casagrande, the day started off as expected, with the favorites responding to an attack on the Agnello by Colombia’s Chepe Gonzalez. As had been the case throughout the Giro, Pantani missed the cut … or so it seemed.

The close contest between Garzelli and Casagrande was the day’s main story, but for Italian fans lining the road to the top of the Agnello there was suddenly something more important. It wasn’t the drama at the front, but the small man riding in wild pursuit up the 12- and 13-percent grades of the Agnello. Pantani was finally making a show of it, flashing that same style, that same old panache. Pantani eventually caught and passed most of the leaders.

All of the problems of the previous year, all of the frustration, all of the embarrassment — all of it was gone for that one bright moment as the Giro d’Italia climbed into France. For the Tifosi, the pirate was back.

After nearly three weeks of bringing up the rear, Pantani suddenly showed it was his passion that drove him up cycling’s toughest peaks. “I did not ride this way today because of the strength in my legs,” he said after finishing second ahead of all the race favorites. “I rode like this because of the anger in my heart. I wanted to make a statement.” On that day, he did just that. — CHARLES PELKEY

2000 Tour de France, always the animator: Spectators lining the windswept slopes of Mont Ventoux were stunned when Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani pedaled side-by-side up the mountain’s final kilometer in stage 12 of the 2000 Tour de France.

Just three days earlier Armstrong had put a definitive end to an attack Pantani instigated at the base of the Hautacam climb, beating him by more than five minutes and taking the yellow jersey. Until that day in the Pyrénées, Pantani — who did not compete at the 1999 Tour — was viewed as the greatest climber of the modern era. But Armstrong’s performance at Hautacam demoralized not only Pantani but also the entire peloton, erasing forever the idea that Armstrong could not climb with the best.

So when Pantani and Armstrong rode to the Ventoux finish together — with Pantani taking the stage victory after he’d drifted off the pace multiple times earlier in the climb — questions were raised. The headline in the following day’s French newspaper l’Équipe read, “The Generous King,” glorifying Armstrong’s gesture. Armstrong would later reveal he gifted Pantani the stage win because he liked Pantani and felt that he’d had a tough year since his Giro d’Italia expulsion in 1999.

But the proud Italian took a swing at Armstrong in the press, claiming, “When Armstrong said, ‘Faster, faster’ to get me to accelerate, he was trying to provoke me.”

At the start of stage 15, from Briançon to Courchevel, Armstrong was asked about his decision to grant the Italian the stage win. “It wasn’t a hard decision, but perhaps I regret that,” Armstrong said. “In hindsight, the Ventoux is too special. The strongest person should win there, and I felt like that day I was the strongest person. No more gifts.”
But after Pantani won the stage into Courchevel outright, the barbed remarks continued, with the Italian stating, “Pantani does not need Armstrong to give him a victory.”

The following day Pantani initiated a fantastic but suicidal attack on the stage from Courchevel to Morzine, opening a minute’s gap and forcing postal to spend the day chasing. Distracted by the pressure, Armstrong skipped his feeds and later bonked on the final ascent of the Col de Joux-Plane, losing almost two minutes to rival Jan Ullrich and claiming it was the worst day he’d ever had on a bike.

While Armstrong was able to contain his losses — “I thought I’d lost the Tour that day,” he would later admit — Pantani faded after being caught and lost at most 14 minutes by the finish. He did not start the next stage, claiming intestinal problems. It was the last of Pantani’s Tour appearances and a sad exit for one of the event’s greatest animators. — NEAL ROGERS

2003 Giro d’Italia, the last hurrah: At the 2003 Giro d’Italia, Pantani had regained some form, and his fans were going crazy. Every day at the start he emerged for the sign-in looking resplendent — the king ready to receive his followers. He stood with a bemused smirk on his face as he was mobbed by fans, always more than double the number of those seeking autographs from race leader Gilberto Simoni.

The daily adulation was the high point of the race for Pantani. The low point was descending the Colle di Sampeyre, in driving hail and rain. He and Stefano Garzelli crashed together while trying to bring back Simoni, Dario Frigo and Yaroslav Popovych. Pantani was badly hurt and sat for a seeming eternity on the wet grass of the steep hillside, in tears.

Eventually, after much encouragement from the people gathered around him, he got up and continued. It was the moment that Pantani became a mere human for many, rather than a bigger-than-life star. He demonstrated courage to continue with the physical pain but also the emotional pain of knowing that his last best chance to once again rise above the other riders of the Giro was gone. He would now have to endure the adulation without a hope of being able to give his fans what they wanted — a victorious Pantani — ever again. — LENNARD ZINN

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.