Thursday, August 20, 2015

Marco Pantani's Accidental Death

Never underestimate the power of denial.

I kept thinking that as I watched the documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. The film was released last year, but recently became available on Netflix and YouTube. Marco Pantani had a meteoric rise to the top of bicycle racing, then almost as quickly lost everything -- eventually ending up alone in a hotel room, dead of a cocaine overdose at the age of 34.

Directed by James Erskine, and based on a biography by Matt Rendell, the film explores the life of Pantani through archive race footage, old photos, and interviews with family, friends, and people who knew, worked with, or raced with the Italian climber. The film begins as Pantani burst onto the scene at the '94 Giro d'Italia, attacking the formidable Miguel Indurain in the mountains, beating him on the climbs and taking 3rd overall. Rendell says of Pantani, "He seemed to catch the imagination in a way that no other cyclist had ever done. . . He restored a sense of magic that had been forgotten. It was like going back 50 years," comparing the climber to past greats like Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi. The film then goes back to look at Pantani's early years before returning to his peak and downfall.

Certainly, it is impossible to deny that Pantani had tremendous gifts as a racer - and he did absolutely become something like a national hero in Italy, as well as to some racing fans all over the world. Unfortunately, he was apparently unable to deal with the pressures of professional racing. Knowing what we would come to learn about doping and drugs like EPO, it's difficult to separate the talent from the artificial enhancement.

Pantani leading a sit-down strike at the '98 Tour de France -
 the Festina Affair.
If there is anything that really weakens this film, it is that fact that it becomes awfully vague in regards to Pantani's doping - and just like his legions of fans, who chose to look the other way, the film seems to look for any way to deny the racer's culpability in his own downfall. For instance, in one early scene, the film has Pantani's mother telling us that her son wanted to quit racing because, as he told her, professional racing was a "mafia." Later, the film seems to attempt to deflect criticism of doping because it's part of a long-standing culture in bicycle racing, implicating past greats like Coppi and Anquetil as drug users (Anquetil famously quipped that you can't win the Tour de France on mineral water). And yes, it's true that various kinds of drug use have a long history in bike racing - pain killers, stimulants, etc, go way back -- but in terms of actual performance-enhancement, those early doping methods don't hold a candle to the way that EPO altered racing performance.

Winning on the Galibier in the '98 Tour de France -
a huge come-from-behind stage win that helped Pantani
win a Giro/Tour double.
Later, when the film looks at Pantani's ejection from the '99 Giro d'Italia for doping, several people suggest conspiracies that were designed to bring the popular racer down - some of which don't really even make sense from a logical standpoint, and none of which is substantiated in any way. One says, "He had become too famous. They wanted to get rid of him. He had become a nuisance." It is suggested that he was winning too much, "upsetting the balance" of the professional race structure, and denying other teams' sponsors the camera time they needed. "It was bad for the financial structures that keep the sport healthy," says one. Another suggests that gambling interests wanted him taken out of the race - betting on bicycle racing having recently become legal in Italy. But I'm sorry - as far as I'm concerned, the conspiracy theories are completely unsupported by anything resembling factual evidence, and I'd say they are not worth mentioning in a serious biography. They just seem come across as more denial and more excuses.

Several interview subjects in the film talk about how Pantani didn't fail any drug test - and that's technically true. At the time, there was no test to detect EPO. Instead, if a racer's red blood cell count - his hematocrit - went above 50%, he was suspended from racing for two weeks for "health reasons." Understand that in the early days after the introduction of EPO, racers were dying in their sleep because their hematocrit was so high that it made their blood too thick to be pumped. I read somewhere that prior to the "health screening" tests, Pantani was pushing as high as 60% for most of his professional career. In any case, Lance Armstrong supposedly never failed a drug test either, but only a fool would still argue that he raced clean.

The film also looks at the 2000 Tour de France and Pantani's showdown with Lance Armstrong. It was well publicized at the time that Armstrong taunted Pantani - belittling him and offering no respect for the little climber's talent. It was the kind of trash-talking mind game that a lot of American athletes are known for. Eventually, Pantani withdrew from that tour, citing stomach troubles - but the film seems to imply that Armstrong's lack of respect sent the Italian hero on a path to depression and self-destruction.

Not long after that tour, Pantani was implicated in another doping investigation, this one involving Dr. Francesco Conconi, a doctor who was actually connected with the Italian national cycling authorities. He withdrew from racing amid clouds of suspicion.

After his fall from grace, Pantani apparently started slipping deeper into depression - the pressures of racing, and the negative publicity taking a terrible toll on him and his psyche. That is something I can see as terribly sad. Unlike someone like Armstrong, who seemed to have the kind of alpha-dog personality (some might say "psychopathic") to systematically dope without moral reservations, Pantani probably struggled quite a bit with his inner demons, eventually turning to cocaine, which led to his death. But ultimately he made poor decisions, though it seems to me like the film wants to fuzz that up. Bradley Wiggins is interviewed in the film saying, "If you were to survive and wanted to win as a professional and make a living, you had to do what you were told." In other words, Pantani had no choice. They made him do it.

Even Greg Lemond is interviewed for the film, though his comments are almost totally full of respect and praise for Pantani, with only the vaguest mention of the doping. At the end of the film, Lemond speaks of meeting Pantani in 2002. "There was this image of him being this criminal. Pantani the pirate. I looked into his eyes, and it was the eyes of a 16-year old kid. There was a sadness to him, but an innocence, too. . . if he was cheating, the pain was almost unbearable to live with." If he was cheating? Please. Knowing Lemond's stance on drugs in the peloton, I really have to question what else he may have said that the director left out.

One little thing that bothered me about the film's interview subjects is that the film is very inconsistent about identifying the speakers. Lemond and Wiggins are identified, but many others are never named. Of course, it wasn't difficult to figure out which one of the speakers was Pantani's mother, but others, whether they be former racers, managers, friends, or relations, one could only guess who they were.

In the end, the film seems to want to leave us with the impression that Pantani's death was the tragic result of a horribly corrupt system. One of the speakers says, "The doctors, the director sportifs, the general managers of the teams, the sponsors, the beneficiaries of doped sport, they carry on earning good money, they carry on with their prestige, and the athletes are the instruments of the system. Pantani was an instrument of the sporting system. It brought him fantastic success, but ultimately led to his complete destruction."

I agree that Pantani's death, alone in that hotel room, is terribly sad -- and the organization and system of professional racing was (probably still is) horribly corrupt. Pantani's story is a complicated one, and there may be plenty of blame to spread around. But that's just the thing - the film seems to make a lot of implications, but ultimately glosses over the most difficult aspects of the story.

In the end, I just have a hard time with a film that seems almost to deify any racer who helped to define the "EPO era," which made bicycle racing so hard to watch and take seriously today.

I have a link to Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist on YouTube. However, be aware that other posts of the film on that site have been removed for copyright violations. This once could go the same way.


  1. Thanks for posting the link with the blog post. I'd not heard this tale.

  2. What makes a person's fall tragic is a weakness in his or her character, or a mistake he or she made. In that sense, Pantani is a tragic "hero", if you will.

    While, as you say, the governing structure of bicycle racing is terribly corrupt (though, to be fair, so is that of FIFA or any number of other sports' governing bodies), it's not what led to Pantani's downfall. He, like almost anyone else who has ever competed, wanted to win. He--like Lance and any number of other racers--simply decided that they were willing to go along with the corruptness of the system in order to get what they wanted.

    The notion that the cycling "mafia" brought Pantani down because he was "winning too much" is ludicrous. If that were the case, why couldn't the UCI or any other authority stop Lance, say, before he won the Tour for the fifth time? For that matter, why didn't anyone stop Eddy (and I say this as one of his great fans), whom French cycling fans reviled for winning "their" Tour and simply annihilating the opposition? Or Hinault, who won more than any other cyclist in history besides Mercx?

    Please understand that I enjoyed seeing Pantani (and he was a favorite of French cycling fans) because he won with an elan and pizzaz that Miguel Indurain, great as he was, thoroughly lacked. And, in seeming contrast with his bad-boy image, he had a work ethic that Jan Ullrich (who won the Tour the year before Pantani) didn't have. Yes, he had his demons and made bad choices, but he was also a sympathetic character in ways that Lance, Ullrich and others weren't. I think that's what LeMond meant when by he said Pantani had "the eyes of a 16-year-old". That is what makes him a tragic "hero", as it were, and the circumstances of his death all the more terrible.