By Staff and wire reports
Former Tour de France winner Marco Pantani was found dead Saturday in the Italian seaside resort of Rimini, according to reports from the Italian newspaper Gazzetta dello Sport and the ANSA news agency.
Pantani’s body was found on the floor near to his bed in “The Roses” hotel on the Adriatic coast, ANSA reported. The news agency reported it was not a violent death; medication was found in the fifth-floor room, but it was not immediately known if it had played any role in Pantani’s death. An investigating magistrate and a doctor were in attendance at the hotel just after midnight local time as police stood guard at all the doors to the building.
Staff at the hotel said Pantani checked in alone several days ago, and had appeared “strange and not quite there.” The hotel porter raised the alarm at around 9.30 p.m. local time on Saturday after the 34-year-old Italian failed to appear. Hotel staff knocked on his door, which was locked. When they finally entered the room, Pantani was found dead, lying on his back, ANSA reported.
The flamboyant Pantani, who made an emotional comeback to cycling last year after years of wrangling with the authorities over alleged drug-taking, had not competed regularly on the professional circuit for the past two years.
He did, however, compete in last year’s Giro d’Italia, finishing in 14th place overall, more than 26 minutes behind winner Gilberto Simoni.
Nicknamed “The Pirate” in Italy for his wearing of earrings and colorful headbands, Pantani won the Giro and the Tour de France in 1998 with the Mercatone Uno team, which he joined in 1997. He was the last rider to achieve the prestigious double in the same year, and the first Italian to win the Tour de France since Felice Gimondi in 1965.
“He paid a very high price,” said Gimondi, who was Pantani’s manager for two years. “For four years he was at the center of a storm.”
After a successful career throughout much of the 1990’s as one of the best climbers in the peloton, his career hit the skids in the wake of the tough anti-doping laws introduced in Italy after the 1999 Giro, when he was targeted in a police raid on riders’ hotels.
Tests showed his blood hematocrit levels to be abnormally high – an indicator but not proof that a rider may be using endurance-enhancing drugs – and he was disqualified from the race only 36 hours from winning the event for a second time.
A year later, Pantani returned to compete in the Tour de France, where he scored his last major victory on the stage to Courchevel.
He was then banned for eight months in June 2002 by the Italian Cycling Federation after a syringe containing insulin was found in his hotel room during the 2001 Giro.
A month later, to the annoyance of the UCI, he won a successful appeal due to an absence of proof. The international governing body appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport to reinstate the eight-month ban, which if upheld would have ruled Pantani out of the 2003 Giro. However, in March of last year, CAS ruled he should only serve a six-month ban, effectively paving the way for a comeback.
Instead, severe depression caused Pantani to spend the second half of June in a drugs and depression clinic near Venice.
He was recently reported to be living with friends in the village of Predappio, but rarely rode his bike and was said to be overweight. Pantani was not registered with a professional team this year, and his father had said there was little chance of him ever racing again.
Still, his death at such a young age has shocked the whole of Italy.
Italian cycling star Mario Cipollini said Pantani’s death was a great tragedy.
“I am devastated,” he said. “It’s a tragedy of enormous proportions for everyone involved in cycling. I’m lost for words.”
Franco Ballerini, coach of the Italian national cycling team, was quoted as saying: “It’s something that is so huge, it doesn’t seem true.”
And compatriot and colleague Stefano Garzelli compared Pantani to the legendary Fausto Coppi, who in 1949 became the first rider to win the Tour and the Giro in the same year – a feat Pantani repeated 49 years later.
“Forty years on they remember Coppi, in 40 years’ time they will still be talking about Marco,” said Garzelli. “Certainly he came under a great deal of pressure, not just from cycling. He was very strong but also very sensitive and took refuge in things he shouldn’t have. The pressure he was exposed to would have been difficult for anyone to cope with.
“I remember our past together. Of the present, I know he was quite isolated and nobody knew much about him.”
Marco Pantani factbox:
Born January 13 in Cesena, Italy.
Made professional cycling debut.
Made name for himself by daring to attack the great Miguel Indurain of Spain in the mountains of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France.
Took bronze at world championships after recovering from fall.
Shattered left tibula and fibia in crash after being hit by jeep. Other injuries include fractured collarbone, wrist, arms, foot and ribs, concussion, dislocated shoulder, impacted disc. Blood samples taken at hospital after the crash showed hematocrit levels above 60 percent. These were later used to build a sporting fraud case that resulted in a conviction in 2000. (That conviction was later overturned, when authorities determined that the law did not apply to violations that occurred prior to its 1999 passage.)
Nicknamed “Elefantino” (Little Elephant) owing to bald head and oversized ears. Later dubbed “Il Pirata” (The Pirate) after sporting bandana and earrings.
Made comeback in February but three months later was back in hospital after a crash caused by a cat running across his path during the Giro, leaving him badly bruised.
Fought back to make the 1997 Tour and win two stages in the Alps.
Won Giro d’Italia and became first Italian to win Tour de France in 33 years.
Disqualified while leading the Giro after failing hematocrit test.
Won two stages of Tour de France.
Found guilty of ‘sporting fraud’ after tests showed use of illegal performance-enhancing products. Fined and banned for competing for six months.
During Giro in June, 200 Italian drugs police raided riders’ hotel rooms, confiscating illegal substances. Pantani under investigation after police found a syringe containing insulin at hotel where he stayed.
May: Anti-doping arm of Italy’s Olympic Committee (CONI) asks for Pantani to be suspended for four years.
Pantani’s team, Mercatone Uno, not invited to compete in Tour de France.
Allowed to compete in Giro despite investigation but retires during 16th stage in June, when placed 75th overall, suffering from bronchitis.
June 17: Banned for eight months for using insulin during 2001 Giro.
July 13: Wins appeal against ban when Federal Appeal Commission of the Italian Cycling Federation overturns the sentence.
August 20: The International Cycling Union (UCI) asks the Court of Arbitration for sport to annul the acquittal.
January 25: CAS holds hearing
Undergoes cosmetic surgery to pin back his ears.
March 13: CAS imposes reduced six-month ban and 3,000 Swiss francs ($2450) fine, allowing Pantani to return to track on March 17.
May 19: Omitted from centenary Tour de France by organizers along with compatriot and world champion Mario Cipollini as both riders fail to secure one of the four wildcards available.
June:: Checks into clinic near Padua that specializes in the treatment of depression and issues an open letter asking for privacy as he battles the condition.
July 12: Gets back on his bike for the first time since his treatment, riding for 1-1/2 hours near his home in Cesenatico.
October 2: Acquitted of sporting fraud when the doping case brought against him is dismissed by an Italian court.
February 14: Found dead in a hotel room in Rimini at the age of 34, according to media reports in Italy. Cause of death unknown, although police reports said no violence was involved.
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