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By VeloNews Interactive, Copyright AFP2004
Marco Pantani was laid to rest before thousands of mourners in Cesenatico, Italy, Wednesday as prosecutors began their search for a drug dealer who supplied the former Tour de France winner with the cocaine that apparently killed him.
Drugs and anti-depressants overshadowed Pantani’s last days in much the same way doping allegations clouded a career in which he achieved a rare double of winning the classic French race and the Giro d’Italia in 1998, the last man to do so.
At Pantani’s funeral, tearful fans filed past his coffin in the church of San Giacomo Apostoli hours before his funeral. Parish officials said more than 4000 people had signed books of condolence at the church in this town, which became the cyclist’s adopted home.
Around 200 people filled the tiny church on the canal, while thousands packed the area outside to bid Pantani farewell, many of them wearing yellow armbands – the color of the Mercatone Uno team jersey.
“He was our pride, we loved him a lot,” said Vanda, a 78-year-old grandmother. “We knew he had problems, but he became rich and he should have changed his life and become involved in the things which interested him.”
“We are very sad and worried. We will always remember him as a champion,” said a retired fisherman along the town’s canal that leads to the Adriatic.
Pantani’s body was found in a hotel room in the nearby Adriatic coastal resort of Rimini on Saturday.
Police said about 10 bottles of tranquilizers of four different brands were discovered in the 34-year-old’s room, some of them empty and some open. Pantani was reportedly hooked on cocaine, which, when mixed with the anti-depressants, could have caused the swelling of the brain and lungs, which triggered a heart attack that was revealed in Monday’s autopsy.
Close friends of Pantani told the newspaper La Stampa that shortly before his death they had collected money to offer to the dealers to try and persuade them to stay away from the troubled cyclist.
“We organized a fund to offer to the people who sold him the stuff to stay away because we knew he was at risk,” the friends said.
Newspapers said Pantani withdrew 20,000 euros from his bank account days before his death and that very little of the cash was found in his hotel room in which he died.
Monday’s autopsy revealed the cyclist suffered a heart attack following severe swelling of the heart and brain.
The pathologist’s report, which did not draw any firm conclusions, also said the Italian had lung damage.
Pantani had been plagued by doping allegations in recent seasons and had suffered from depression.
A note in which Pantani slammed cycling and judicial authorities was read out loud at the funeral by his friend and former manager Manuela Ronchi.
“My story is an example to others in sport. Yes there should be rules but everyone should be treated equally,” wrote Pantani. “There is not a job that exists where one is required to give blood and be subjected to these daily tests.”
Pantani’s career went off the rails a year after his double triumph when he was ejected from the Giro D’Italia for failing a red-blood-cell test.
He was at the center of another doping scandal during the 2001 Giro D’Italia when a syringe containing insulin was found by police in his hotel room.
Pantani insisted the syringe had been planted in his room but despite his pleas was banned for six months by the cycling authorities.
The pressure did little for his ego and his mental state, a point Pantani made in the notes that were found in his passport close to his body.
“I was humiliated in the courts for four years and I lost the desire to be like other athletes,” he said.
“The world understands all my colleagues have been humiliated in hotel rooms with these hidden cameras,” he said, referring to the often-invasive investigations by authorities, which have marked the sport in recent years. “I’m not a cheat. I feel hurt and all the boys that believe me should speak out. Ciao, Marco.”
He spent the last days of his life mostly isolated from his friends and family and was found after hotel employees opened his room.
Local prosecutor Paolo Gengarelli said Pantani had effectively secluded himself in the room for five days and left it only for breakfast.
Last year, Pantani checked into a clinic that specialized in depression and drug addiction. Organizers of the Giro d’Italia have announced that a mountain stage in each future edition of the race will be held in Pantani’s name.
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