Thursday, 11 December 2008

The Death Of Marco Pantani, Matt Rendell (2006)

Phoenix 978 0 7538 2203 6 324pp £7.99

A biography of the meteoric star of 1990s cycling that is readable and thought-provoking; if ultimately depressing.

At the prologue of the 1998 Tour de France I had an unexpected encounter with Marco Pantani. After the last rider started the stage, everyone – myself among them - who had crowded around the start ramp started to walk in the direction of the end of the course. Momentarily separated from my friends, I realised that I was walking beside Pantani, who was wheeling his bike back towards his team bus.

Although he had won the Giro a month earlier, and was famed for his impulsive, thrilling riding in the mountains, he moved through the Dublin crowd without an entourage or commotion. Pushed together more by the surrounding mêlée than anything else, we must have walked side-by-side for 100 meters. I nodded and smiled at him, he appeared to reciprocate.

Sixteen days later Pantani rode audaciously to win the stage that ended 1650 meters above sea level at Les Deux Alpes. Doing so he sealed victory in the Tour and completed one of the most amazing seasons enjoyed by any professional cyclist. It made him one of Europe’s biggest sporting celebrities of the late 1990s.

At the time, the juxtaposition of my accidental brush with Pantani, and his subsequent stellar performance seemed to encapsulate the appeal of cycle racing. Intimate, albeit fleeting, access to the action and its stars is easy and uncomplicated in a way far removed from, say, professional football. And the televised action provides sporting narratives of almost unparalleled drama.

Sadly Matt Rendell’s meticulous researched and brilliantly written book systematically strips away any illusions one might have maintained about top-level cycle racing. He has pieced together the details of the mountain climber’s life, from his childhood on the Italian Riviera to his crazed death after a cocaine binge.

Pantani was involved in a great deal of legal cases because of his doping. As a result, the level of information on which Rendell has been able to draw is spectacular. Half a dozen measures of the state of his blood at nearly every stage of his career paint a picture of an athlete who used doping products throughout, and possibly even before, his professional career. Such data might make for a dull read, but the story fairly trips along to its tragic conclusion – even if the constant focus on blood gave me a few queasy moments.

Rendell concludes that Pantani was ‘cycling’s greatest cheat’. But he casts illumination on more than simply a single, flawed, individual. Pantani was a gift to his sponsors and to Italian broadcasters and the millions who enjoyed his reckless, erratic style of riding. All of us bare some responsibility for what has happened to cycle sport. Nearly five years after Pantani’s demise it seems far from certain that we will find ways to row the sport back from the abyss into which the little man from Romagna disappeared.

PS December 2008

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