Marco Pantani, perhaps the most flamboyant and popular road race cyclist of his era, won both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 1998, a double that few cyclists have achieved and none since. Within six years, the legendary Pantani was found dead in a cheap Italian hotel room. A decade after his death, a new film tells the story in an informed, intimate, and compelling way.
With the Tour de France starting in Yorkshire next month, we’ll get to see some of the magic and drama of the world’s best known road race at close quarter. To help ready your brain for Le Tour, I’d like to recommend Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist which attempts to explain why athletes may pursue such a Sisyphean activity, with a focus on the sensational career of the svelte Italian.
The film is based on The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography by Matt Rendell (a well-informed account which features prominently in the movie) and dynamically situates you in the dramatic imagery of the Italian Dolomites and French Alps. The newsreel coverage of key moments in races when Pantani takes on leading cyclists like Miguel Indurain, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong is cleverly interwoven with narration via interviews with his mother Tonina Pantani, close friends, other cyclists including Sir Bradley Wiggins, Greg LeMond, Evgeni Berzin and the journalists Richard Williams and Rendell.
It is worth noting here the importance of the audio soundscape by Grammy Award-winning Lorne Balfe. It is delicate and poignant in capturing the tension and physical isolation experienced when driving ahead with the sheer grit and determination needed to annihilate the opposition on relentless hill climbs.
Reflecting on the physiological make-up of a world class hill climber, we’re introduced to the poor kid who borrows his mum’s bike to ride with his friends in an amateur cycling club. He takes on his mates in the climb at the end of that ride with what became his trademark move and, with his grandfather’s help, gets his own bicycle. In 1992, aged just 22, he won the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia, the Girobio, and turned professional with Carrera, going on to finish third in the 1995 Tour de France.
Pantani’s own comments are cunningly used to set out the film’s story by defining his formative experiences of cycling and, ultimately, the disappointment he felt towards his industry. “It started as a game, the joy of testing myself against other boys my age…in time it became a job. I’ve been pressured. I’ve been humiliated. Today I don’t associate cycling with winning. I associate it with terrible, terrible things that have happened to me and people close to me.”
In October 1995, during the final descent of the Italian Milano–Torino race when police communication radios failed and the road wasn’t closed down properly, Pantani collided head-on with a car. He sustained multiple fractures to the left tibia and fibula, leaving his left leg shorter than his right, and the bones were held in place with a metal splint. Most people thought his career as a cyclist was over, even if he managed to walk again, and the film does a great job of drawing the audience in to urge him back into the saddle.
It must have taken enormous courage and determination to recover from that accident. Thanks to Pantani’s special character, not only did he come back, he came back stronger than ever by doing what was necessary in swimming pools and on massage tables. He returned with a whole new image as The Pirate, helping to identify himself with a fan base wanting heroes to believe in. The super-human and heroic winning qualities are dealt with powerfully in the film, emphasising the emotional commitment top athletes invest to achieve their success.
Throughout the film much is made of Pantani’s 5 foot 8 inches and slender build (modest for a cyclist), as well as his highly-personalised style and inclination to act on instinct rather than employ the more scientific approach of other riders at the time. This certainly helped to personalise Pantani, but begs the question as to why he could perform so consistently well – was it EPO drugs?
And this is exactly the territory the film then goes into, starting with the beginning of the 1998 Tour de France when the Festina team was withdrawn after some of their management and medical team admitted to widespread use of performance enhancing drugs. The issue of drug use and intrusive testing rises rapidly up the agenda through this incident and the treatment of cyclists changes profoundly. Pantani becomes a spokesperson for the cyclists during the Tour de France, including a sit-down protest to reject their treatment as criminals.
In 1999 a new test (a health test really as EPO use can’t be identified directly) was introduced which rather arbitrarily used a 50 per cent concentration of red blood cells as indicative rather than definitive. Pantani was advised by his own team manager to hold back and allow other teams to win some of the stages in the 1999 Giro d’Italia but he couldn’t accept that. In lead position and in unusual circumstances, a shock blood test result meant that Pantani was suspended from the race.
Formally a sports interest film, the film also lays on a heavy dose of conspiracy theory – the argument going that people were out to bring down Pantani, or at least clip his wings and stop him from winning the Tour. Possible candidates are listed as sponsors of other teams who weren’t getting a look in and the introduction of huge value gambling interests. This hit Pantani very badly. For him, it was something beyond his control and in that sense worse than any accident in its impact on his morale.
The film’s weakness is its reliance on a conspiratorial view of what prompted the specific drugs test resulting in Pantani’s suspension, and the subsequent hounding of the athlete. There may or may not be grounds for these suggestions but what is clear is the wider cultural context of high-profile public health campaigns against doping in sport in the late 1990s. The wider health campaign initiatives tend to promote suspicion of achieving excellence and can inadvertently drag down ambitions to excellence.
I would have preferred more on the politics of doping campaigns and less on the conspiracy theories. Pantani’s spirit is portrayed as having being broken and his sporting achievements are attributed, in part, to the use of banned drugs. I was uneasy about this narrative and sensed an agenda of pointing the finger at a clique of individuals who closed ranks to squeeze out this Italian hero, heralding in the Lance Armstrong era.
Although Pantani did train for a return and did enter the 2000 Giro d’Italia, helping his teammate Stefano Garzelli to win, he pulled out of the 2000 Tour de France due to poor health, although only after decisively beating Lance Armstrong on one stage. He raced only sporadically afterwards and in 2003 admitted himself to a clinic specialising in nervous disorders, drug addiction and alcoholism. On Valentine’s Day in 2004, Marco Pantani was found to have died alone from a cerebral edema and heart failure. A coroner’s inquest subsequently revealed acute cocaine poisoning.
The title of the film and the switch in tone and focus made me think it was meant to be a twist on the Accidental Death of an Anarchist story whereby the medical, gambling and corporate sponsors closed ranks around a man whose death they inadvertently caused. Unfortunately, the ending grated with the first half of a film that celebrated Pantani’s purposeful and determined control over his own life. In the end, it left me with the feeling that this wasn’t a fitting way to sign off Pantani’s phenomenal achievements. Having said all that, the knowledge that cyclists who heap huge pressure on themselves may bring about their own downfall won’t deter me from cheering on the peloton as it hurtles through Hebden Bridge next month.
By Simon Belt