Cycling: Pantani's final attack from beyond grave

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The Independent Online

Under an appropriately leaden grey sky, the body of the fallen cycling hero Marco Pantani was finally laid to rest yesterday in the cemetery of his home town of Cesenatico, Italy.

Vocal to the last, the 1998 Tour de France winner made one last attack from beyond the grave at those he believed formed part of a four-year conspiracy to eject him from the sport.

Speaking during the funeral with a voice half-breaking with emotion, his former personal manager Manuela Ronchi, read out a recent letter written by Pantani, in which he pleaded innocent to charges of doping and insisted that he had been "humiliated for nothing".

"If I have been hounded in such a way, how can I not hurt myself?" Pantani said in his letter. "If I've made any mistakes then let them be proven," the letter added, a reference to the fact that he never actually failed a test for doping.

"From the moment my sporting life, and above all my private life, were violated, I was lost."

His last words struck home hard, given that Pantani is suspected of dying from consuming a lethal cocktail of sleeping sedatives and cocaine. In a further apparent attempt to keep the world at bay, the Italian had used furniture to half-barricade himself into the hotel room in Rimini where he spent the last five days of his life.

Partly as an attempt to keep the media away, just 250 relatives and friends were allowed inside the church of San Giacamo for the funeral, the same building where Pantani had been baptised 34 years earlier.

Bishop Antonio Lanfranchi paid tribute to Pantani in his sermon. "Marco invites us to make a serious examination of our consciences, of everything that is sport and everything that is broken in sport," he said. "The man is greater than his victories and defeats, the man is worth more than the cyclist."

Outside the church, loudspeakers and giant television screens broadcasted the service to the 15,000 fans gathered in the streets. Traffic was paralysed, shops were closed and a day of official mourning had been declared.

Nearly 5,000 people had signed three condolence books at the church on Monday and Tuesday, before waiting - some through the night - for a brief opportunity to touch Pantani's coffin.

His body was not exposed to public view, but in accordance with family wishes Pantani was wearing a bandanna as he had done in his glory days as Il Pirata - the Pirate.

But while the bandannas of old were colourful affairs, the one Pantani wore to his grave was simple, sombre black.

Not everybody was welcome either: on Monday camera crews were ejected from the church by Pantani's mother, who accused them of having pursued her son to his death. Rumours also circulated that the wreath placed there by one leading Italian sports daily had been flung into the city's canal.

While the results from the autopsy on Pantani's body are not expected for a month, the process of idolisation of the rider has already begun.

On Monday the organisers of the Giro d'Italia announced that they would award an annual prize in memory of Pantani to the fastest-climbing rider on the toughest ascent of the race - this year, the Mortirolo. Appropriately it is the same climb where Pantani launched his first attack in the Giro in 1994.

But fans yesterday also remembered that Pantani did not tackle the Mortirolo in 1999, because just hours beforehand he had been thrown off the race: the moment widely believed to have triggered the long spiral of decline which ended so tragically last Saturday.

Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling Weekly