The Death Of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell

How a champion cyclist lost his way on the rocky road through life
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The Independent Culture

There is something inescapably seedy about solitary deaths in cheap hotel rooms, and Marco Pantani's was as undignified as they come. Tests revealed that there wasn't a horizontal surface free from cocaine in the room where his body was discovered; the cyclist had spent €20,000 on the drug in the month prior to his death, and his body contained six times the lethal level.

This was a man who six years earlier, in 1998, had won the exceedingly rare double of the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, cycling's two biggest races, thanks to a God-given ability to ascend mountains at punishing speeds. Following a drugs test a year later, it became apparent that pharmacists had been assisting the work of the Almighty. Tests after early crashes gave bizarre results that signified he was either a physiological freak or on drugs that increase the blood's oxygen-carrying capacity.

After 1999, the decline was unremitting. His career spluttered and died, and he withdrew into a solitary world of coke-fuelled paranoia. But before that he had, for Italians, entered the ranks of sporting divinity. At the height of his fame, the prime minister, Romano Prodi, hitched a ride on the bandwagon. A close friend of Prodi's was Francesco Conconi - a medical researcher who had become Pantani's pharmaceutical Mephistopheles.

The cyclist began taking cocaine for "emotional comfort", Rendell hypothesises, and progressed in short order to crack. The drug-taking accentuated the bipolar disorder from which he had probably suffered all his life. He had numerous car crashes - in one he drove the wrong way up a one-way street, destroying eight vehicles. There were strippers, more crashes, more drugs, fewer races, then none at all.

But he had the soul of a poet. When left out of the 2001 Tour de France, he gave an extraordinary, lyrical response: "There's chaos in everyday life, and my riding is instinctive. I respond to the moment. But not everyone sees it that way."

As cycling's narcotic underbelly continued to be exposed, the man obsessed with privacy became subject to scrutiny on, literally, the molecular level. That's what Rendell's sad, exhaustively detailed and beautiful book feels like. He was clearly a little in love with Pantani, describing his last meeting with the "lost and derelict" cyclist with sorrow. This book, unflinching though it is, serves as a fitting, ambivalent tribute - to the man, and to the dark heart of the sport he loved.

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