Marco Pantani

Record-breaking cyclist dogged by doping stories
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The Independent Online

Marco Pantani, cyclist: born Cesena, Italy 13 January 1970; died Rimini, Italy 14 February 2004.

Marco Pantani, winner of the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d'Italia, was an erratic cycling genius who spent the last years of his life dogged by stories of doping and fighting a losing battle against depression.

The last sight most cycling fans had of Pantani summed up his predicament: he was launching a desperate attack in the mountains on the second last stage of the 2003 Giro d'Italia in the umpteenth attempt to revitalize his career, but was overtaken by the next generation of climbers before he could reach the finishing line.

His best ever season as a rider had come in 1998, when Pantani, nicknamed "the Pirate" because of his habit of wearing a bandanna with images of a skull and crossbones, became the first Italian cyclist to win the Tour de France since Felice Gimondi 23 years before. To say his victory was spectacular would be an understatement: the defining moment of the race came when Pantani seized the yellow jersey by shaking off the German contender and 1997 Tour-winner Jan Ullrich on the slopes of the Galiber, a 25km Alpine climb. By the finish he had gained an advantage of over six minutes on his arch-rival.

The 1998 Tour was the crowning point of a career characterised throughout by daredevil attacks whenever the roads began to steepen. A thoroughbred climber, weighing just 57kg and of a fragile, waif-like appearance, Pantani had first burst onto the scene in 1994, aged 24, with back-to-back stage wins in the Giro d'Italia of Italy, both of them taken thanks to devastating lone charges on mountain climbs. Such performances had long been missing from the sport and, in a decade where races had been made monotonous by the icy perfectionism of time-trialling giants such as the five-times Tour winner Miguel Indurain, they were more than welcome. Pantani was virtually the only rider capable of upsetting their carefully laid plans and his style gained him countless supporters both in and outside Italy.

But there were setbacks, too. In the 1995 Tour, having shaken off the opposition on Alpe d'Huez, cycling's most mythical climb, Pantani hit a Land Rover head-on on a descent during the Milan-Turin race in October, shattering the bones in one leg. His career was thought to be over but after a year-long period of recuperation, Pantani returned more aggressive and determined than ever before.

His first major success came in the Alps in the 1997 Tour, where he returned victorious to the summit of Alpe d'Huez after assaulting its legendary 21 hairpin bends in a record-breaking time of 37 minutes 35 seconds which still stands today. In 1998 he followed that up with unmatched performances in the Giro and Tour, becoming the first Italian to "do the double" and take both stage races in the same year since Fausto Coppi, another superb climber, in 1952.

But the context in which Pantani won the Tour was to have ominous significance in his own future. That year the race all but ground to a halt when the Festina squad were thrown off the event after police discovered organised doping within the team, unleashing one of the greatest drugs scandals in the history of sport and casting doubt over cycling's credibility. Pantani's ability to bound up the Alpine slopes effectively saved the Tour from self-destruction, although the Italian also acted as a ringleader in the riders strikes and go-slows as the peloton protested over what they regarded as police persecution.

The following year was to prove that Pantani had feet of clay. Having dominated that year's Giro, on the second to last day he was ejected from the race after blood tests showed he had excessively high hematocrit in his body - taken as a possible, but not definitive, indication of doping. Whilst outraged tifosi (fans) stoned the following cars on the race and the Italian Paolo Savoldelli refused to wear the leader's pink jersey he had inherited from Pantani in such an undignified fashion, the rider himself disappeared into a murky cycle of comebacks and doping stories.

In 2000 there were shades of the old Pantani in the Tour, where he rode wheel to wheel alongside the overall winner Lance Armstrong on the slopes of the Mont Ventoux before the Texan gifted him the stage. The Italian then took off alone on the Alpine ski station of Courchevel four days later for his last ever major win. But Pantani abandoned the Tour the following day with a mysterious stomach infection. Then, in 2001, a syringe containing insulin was found in his hotel room in San Remo during massive police raids, earning him a six-month ban.

Slowly but surely Pantani became the scapegoat of a sport buckling under the pressure of high-level police investigations and a chain of doping scandals. The Italian found himself in the dock in a series of court appearances for sporting fraud. He was cleared of the charges after four years of investigations, but the damage - both to his reputation and his own fragile character - had been done.

Every January, Pantani would state with an increasing lack of conviction and credibility that he could still win the Tour de France. But the seasons passed with Pantani regularly finishing long after the main peloton of riders had ended the day's racing, an increasingly isolated and obscure figure for all but the ever-loyal Italian tifosi, who regularly mobbed him at races.

The ultimate insult to his pride came in 2003, when Pantani was denied admittance to the Tour, ostensibly because his team, Mercatone Uno, was second division and therefore in too low a category to take part, but it was a convenient means for the organisers of avoiding any potential scandal. The irony that he had been publicly thanked by them for saving the event in 1998 was not lost on anyone, least of all Pantani.

Outside the sport, things hardly went better. Pantani wrote off a series of cars, began an unsavoury night-life and split up from his long-standing Danish girlfriend. He took 14th place overall in the 2003 Giro last May but it was becoming increasingly clear that his career was all but over.

Last summer Pantani booked himself into a clinic for depresson, 15kg overweight. His last public statements were made five months ago, when - in typically vivid language - he told tifosi that "I have to return [to racing] to write one last chapter of my book, my own story, which I have left abandoned for so long."

Alasdair Fotheringham