Marco Pantani: Rise and Fall

At home with his parents, Colin O’Brien explores modern cycling’s great tragedy – Marco Pantani

In summer, Cesenatico is vibrantly coloured and bursting with energy. Tourists flood in from all over Italy and the seas are calm and full of swimmers. The brightly painted beachside bars are crowded, all ‘80s kitsch and exposed skin. There are sun-loungers for rent and palm trees and pedalos with slides on the back.

In January, the streets are empty. Harsh winds drive rain in from the Adriatic and as it lashes the sea-front buildings, the summer’s garish paint jobs crack and peel. Boats are overturned to save them from the weather and children’sslides and swings have been wrapped in plastic.

The outdoor showers, so useful to the holidaying bathers, get a wash of their own in what is fast becoming a deluge of hard, cold rain.

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Only a madman would swim in this weather, and out to sea there’s nothing more than a freighter and some fishing boats to be seen – barely – on the horizon. The downpour makes little noise on the sand and the wind seems to carry off the sound of the waves just as it creates them. An occasional horn breaks what is otherwise an eerie silence.

All of it is probably lovely, when the sun shines. But right now it ain’t, so it isn’t. Very little’s open, and the city seems full of parked cars and empty houses. The only restaurant we find has sent the chef home – months ago, maybe – and the dining room is empty but for an old man and his dogs, watching an enormous TV.

His wife shuffles him off to parts unknown and promises to do her best with what she has. A little lasagne, veal scallops – and the remote control. There’s football on, after all.

Outside some of the hotels have boarded-up their windows and nothing’s open apart from a depressing slot room and an unmistakably Italian-Irish pub.

Along the beachfront ploughs have driven up huge sand banks as far as the eye can see, a communal effort to stop the winter gales flooding the beach and sweeping away the still-too-distant promise of summer.

To the south, the luminescent haze that seeps out to sea and into the night sky is Rimini. Nine years ago, a man I never met died in a hotel room there. Under siege from a different kind of storm. Behind barriers of his own making. Alone.

The next morning and the weather’s improved little. Cesenatico’s streets are still empty and the Adriatic still lashes the coastline. You can’t see the water in the town’s main canal for the fleet of fishing boats moored there, and the skyline – if you could call it that – is all rigging and antennae from the boats, except for the gargantuan, 35-storey Condominio Marinella II that looms in the background. That concrete block of seaside apartments was once one of Europe’s tallest buildings, and is still surely one of its ugliest.

We’re on the edge of town, inland. The Fondazione Marco Pantani sits right next to the local train station, just off the main thoroughfare that leads out of the town and past Cesenatico’s cemetery, where the Pantani family’s tomb is reportedly visited by up to 50,000 people a year. They leave flowers, notes and pictures of loved ones, and when we visited there was a touching photograph of a young boy who’d been killed on his bike, framed and placed beside the large bust of Marco.

On the wall of the museum dedicated to his memory, a peculiar, wooden likeness of Pantani, complete with moving parts, peddles away through the torrent and the freezing winds, still in the saddle, full of class and artificial power. You’d like to think the artist responsible missed the significance of that particular feature.

On the steps of the museum Giuseppe “Pino” Roncucci, one of Marco’s first coaches and a major influence on the future champion, greets us. He’s come to Cesenatico for the day to talk to us, and to keep Marco’s mother, Tonina, company.

“When he raced he didn’t have much time to spend here,” says Tonina, full of fondness for the early memories of her son. “But he loved it. He just wanted to be here in Cesenatico. Whenever he was away, he’d phone to see who was here, what was going on. And he liked the sea.”

“Ah! The sea,” sighs Pino. “Any time I suggested a training retreat, he wanted to come back here. And I’d be saying, ‘to Cesenatico? For what? A swim?’ But he’d just say, ‘let’s head back’.”

“Down in the square where the monument of Marco is,” adds his mother, “there used to be a swimming pool, too. We lived nearby and Marco was there all the time as a kid, in the pool. And in the winter, when it froze, he was there on ice skates.

“Then when he was still small he started to cycle. He’d been playing football for a while, but he was too thin and the coaches kept leaving him on the bench. He got sick of that pretty quickly! Marco always had too much energy to be just sitting around.

“He was shy, always. When he was young, he almost seemed ashamed of finishing first, do you understand? He was always there, at the front, but he never went for it. Then, one day I remember his father wrote him a note before a race, saying: ‘If you can win, you must do it’, and he finished alone. It was beautiful to see him emerge on his own. After that, he always seemed to finish solo.”

“The thing is,” adds Pino, “he wasn’t afraid of being alone. He had the courage and the ability to attack in a race and stay out for 50km… All of his life’s journeys were like that. On the front, alone.”

It’s funny that “alone” should be a word so often used about one of Italy’s great sporting and cultural icons. The country’s not exactly known for its shrinking violets.

“He wasn’t fond of certain company,” says Tonina, correcting the suggestion that he preferred to be by himself.

“He loved his own group. For him, they were like a family. Friendship for Marco was a sacred thing. And in the end, when even his ‘true’ friends turned away from him, I think it was something even worse than death.

“Yes, he was shy. But among family and friends he was different. And even with his fans, he was never short of something to say, either with a kid or an adult.”

They were never short of things to say, either. Books, films, articles like this one, heart-felt letters left on his grave. 

The great Italian journalist Gianni Mura once wrote that Marco was as fragile as a glass vase and as hard as granite. He even coined a word for him, the frankly fantastic “Pantastique”. Not everyone has been so poetic.

“If I could get hold of them, I’d twist their necks,” grunts Tonina Pantani with sincerity, as the conversation turns towards the many journalists who’ve made a career out of attacking her son or used him to make a quick buck.

Whether or not Tonina Pantani’s son doped during his career is a debate for another time. Plenty have already tackled it with no shortage of investigative skill, and plenty more still have formed their own opinions based on gut feelings and personal allegiances.

But for the sake of clarity, the records show that on that famous climb to Madonna di Campiglio in the Giro d’Italia of 1999, Pantani’s haematocrit level was 52 per cent – two points above the level the UCI had agreed with the riders and three points below the level that most sports doctors said could possibly occur naturally. Leading the race by more than five and a half minutes, he was suspended for two weeks as punishment for the infringement. As a result he lost the Maglia Rosa – and spent the rest of his short life coming to terms with what he maintained was a betrayal.

At the time, the UCI president was Hein Verbruggen. In a statement, he said: “Those are the rules and they must be followed.” The less said about that one, the better.

“Especially after Madonna di Campiglio,” Tonina interjects as Pino says something to my colleague on the camera, out of earshot. “I think a lot of people were secretly pleased. He was too popular. There was envy.”

The biased beliefs of a loving mother these might be, but they’re beliefs strongly held, and at the mention of doping the petite, originally soft-spoken woman becomes animated. And vociferous.

“PANTANI DOPED! MARCO DID THIS, PANTANI DID THAT. For years it was like that. Marco spent a fortune fighting, trying to understand what happened on Madonna di Campiglio.

“After his death, I continued, but it doesn’t get you anywhere… it’s all filthy! It’s a shitty situation because you entrust yourself to professionals, lawyers, try to understand what has happened, and what comes of it?” A shake of the head. “The last lawyer was the worst. He really drove me crazy, that one.

“He worked on my feelings as a mother. He told me so many lies – and in the end, didn’t do anything! I’m sure he robbed me of €100,000, but even that much money would be nothing to finally know for sure. But he sold me a dream… saw my weakness as a mother… told me a bunch of bullshit. He even tried to turn me against my husband. And then, nothing!

“And as for the journalists?” Not humble Rouleur reporters, I’m hoping, but I wince in expectation anyway. “I’ll tell you what I think. I think they’re not normal. They’ve got problems with their heads. Almost all of them said Armstrong was clean. That they’d seen the tests. That they believed him.

“Then they come to my home, to talk about my son, and then I see the articles and it’s all bad against Marco! How can you write such things, about someone you never knew?

“Doubts, doubts… always and forever since the Madonna di Campiglio. That day all the journalists carried Marco to the top, saying ‘Marco’s a champion, Marco’s an example for all’. And the next morning, they dropped him. Why? If I was a journalist and I’d thought of Marco like that, I’d want to know what really happened.

“After that day, I think…”

“I think he died that day on the Madonna di Campiglio,” Pino butts in, as Tonina sighs: “I think after that he fell into some horrible things. It’s tragic, but he fell.”

'Il Pirata'

A tragedy, wrote Aristotle, revolves around an action with serious implications. It must be driven by dramatic performance and not by an overlaid narrative.

The hero shouldn’t be a paragon of virtue or entirely wicked, either. His undoing might come from a fatal flaw or an act of the gods, but his tale should resemble the world it’s set in, and the plot should develop in one direction before reversing to another. And it must end in pathos; the destructive, painful act that leaves the audience filled with pity and fear.

Pantani, then, is modern cycling’s great tragedy. Except that in fiction, what follows for the audience is catharsis: a restoration that comes from the climactic emotional breakdown. But fictions end on the page, or when the curtain falls and the actors all come back from the dead to receive – they hope – the audience’s praise. Fictions don’t die lonely in hotel rooms. Only reality is cruel enough to end that way.

“Cocaine…” The word lingers in the air, spoken with the kind of resigned horror you’ll only find in the voice of a mother who’s lost a son like that.

“Cocaine … I’m not saying he never used drugs. I don’t know. But I do know that he worked with children here in Cesenatico to campaign against addiction. I’ve seen drug addicts, and he was never like the worst of them. Never out of his mind like the papers said he was. It’s easier for the journalists to speak badly of someone, I know that. But to have everyone on top of one, saying these things… that’s not right.”

Opinions have always been divided on Pantani. What was Pantastique to some was plain-as-day cheating to others. Fitting, perhaps, since in Italian, a pantano is a marsh. Marco of the Marshes, flooded by the swells of success and the high waters of fame. Marco, who spent what should have been the best years of his life, bogged down and swamped in waters muddied by the sport he loved and by his own actions.

“For me,” offers Pino, “Marco was born a champion. But he was also born unlucky. He was a champion because he was born with exceptional potential, unique characteristics. But he was always so unlucky.

“With all the talent he had when he won, more of it was taken from him before. All the accidents, when he broke his leg, when he was stood still for a year and a half. They were his best years. Without all his bad luck, he’d have won two Tours and three or four Giri. Without a doubt.

“Marco was born to win and also born to lose. But he was a champion. That’s something inside of you. That’s why it makes me laugh the way people talk about doping. You can’t just invent a champion.”

With the amount of time and money spent during the last two decades on doping programmes in cycling, there are obviously plenty of people out there who disagree with Pino. Or at least think that if they could only find half a winner, then a few added ingredients might give them a full one.

I don’t know if Marco Pantani doped. I wasn’t there.

If he didn’t, how did he beat that Great Yellow Lie on the slopes of Ventoux? How could a clean rider humiliate a peloton of science projects? If he was clean, how was he capable of repeated, merciless acts of savagery whenever the gradient got too gruelling for the rest? How, in a sport that’s taught everyone to suspect the superlative, could he be that good?

Perhaps, having to ask those questions is just more evidence of the great injustice cycling’s endured.

It’s pathetic to think that everything and everyone must forever come under suspicion for being “too good”. And it just seems cruel to let the man die twice. To dismiss his legend as a narcotic construction, a hallucination that you saw but don’t have to believe. It’s true what they say after all; what the good men do is too often buried with them. Only the bad lives on.

The museum in Cesenatico is full of the good. The walls are plastered with winning jerseys, photos of Marco and of fans smiling. There’s a collection of his odd little paintings, his football kits, and in the corner an enormous customised motorcycle that must have dwarfed the diminutive Pantani. It’d be hard to picture his feet even touching the ground on the thing, if there wasn’t a handy, life-size portrait beside it showing the man doing just that.

And on the table where we’ve been sitting, there’s a giant scrapbook, filled with what must be thousands of newspaper clippings. It’s turned towards the back, and there’s a Gazzetta dello Sport article from 2003. Marco’s last Giro d’Italia. A decade ago this summer.

It was to be his last attempt at glory, the swan song of a tragic hero who was blessed and damned in equal measure. It wasn’t, of course, to be. He finished 14th overall, but not for mediocrity the memory of Marco. Because even then, past his best and at war with his demons, he lit the race up like only he could.

His attack on the 19th stage to Cascata del Toce was to be his last, and it was unsuccessful, but as the Italian broadcaster’s commentators put it, it was what millions of fans had been waiting for since the start of the Giro. It doesn’t matter that the Pirata’s last shot missed, only that he took it in the first place.

I don’t know if he doped. But I do know that there’s no chat show host waiting for Pantani. No truth and reconciliation process to absolve him of sin and no forum for him to prove his innocence. He’s not still sitting on over 100 million dollars and he doesn’t get to live out his days in a mansion with his family and friends, none too much the worse for all that happened.

He’s dead, though his friends and family remain. He’s gone, though the rumours and accusations continue to cling. Of course it’d be naïve to blame cycling for Marco Pantani’s death. He made his own decisions. But it would be equally churlish to suggest that the era he found himself competing in didn’t play some part. And it’s a death we’re talking about, after all. Not a suspension, or the loss of some titles. 

In that context, the broken rules, the fans’ broken trust and even the broken silence that’s finally laid bare the dirty mess that pro cycling became – none of it really matters. Because above all that, there were hearts broken in this darkness.

“I will tell you one more thing,” says an understandably tired Tonina, just as we’re about to wrap up. “I wish, nine years after Marco’s death, I wish just one person would come forward, put their hand on their heart and tell me what really happened. Because I’m still here, going on, and it hurts. But I owe it to Marco. I just want him to be at peace.”

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