Born: January 13, 1970, Cesena, Romagna, Italia
Died: February 14, 2004, Rimini, Italy.
Cause of death: Cerebral edema and heart failure following cocaine poisoning.
Notable because: Won the Giro Italia and the Tour de France in the same year.
Marco Pantani was an Italian road racing cyclist widely regarded as being one of the best climbers of all time in professional road bicycle racing. The zenith of his career was winning both the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1998. The bandana he often wore and his attacking style of riding led to him being dubbed 'Il Pirata' (the pirate) by the adoring fans. However, his career was beset by drug abuse allegations, following his failure of a blood test in the 1999 Giro d'Italia. He died of a cocaine overdose complications in 2004.
Pantani was born in Cesena, Romagna. At 1.72 m and just 57 kg (5 ft 7.5 in, 126 lb/9 st), Marco Pantani was a classically built mountain climber. As an amateur, he won the 1992 Baby Giro, a prestigious road race, by his climbing prowess. In 1994, during his second participation to the Giro d'Italia, he became known after winning two mountain stages and finishing 2nd overall after Eugeni Berzin and before Miguel Indurain, who had won the last two editions of the Giro. He would probably have won that Giro if his team had not asked him to help their leader, Claudio Chiappucci, during the first mountain stages, where he lost a lot of time to Berzin. Pantani made his Tour de France debut in 1994 finishing 3rd overall, but he did not win a single stage even though he attacked - and left behind, Indurain (the Tour's eventual winner), during several stages. In 1995 he could not participate in the Giro after being hit by a car while training, but he was back in the Tour and he won two stages, at Alpe d'Huez and Guzet Neige. He also finished third in 1995's World Cycling Championship in Colombia. Shortly after returning to Italy Pantani was in a horrific head on collision with a car during the Italian Milano-Torino race. He broke his leg in two places and faced the prospect of ending his career.
During the early years of Pantani's career he created a sensation with his unique style of climbing. Even though he often lost a lot of time during individual time trials, no one could compete with him in the high mountains. He impressed the other cyclists so much that during the ascent of l'Alpe d' Huez in the 1994 Tour de France, Ronan Pensec could only clap his hands in salute as he was overtaken by the flying Pantani. His determination to win, which made him take big risks downhill and often arrive at the top of a mountain pass close to anoxia, can be explained by the way he answered a journalist who asked why he was so fast during a climb: "to make my suffering end sooner."
Pantani's climbing style consisted of staying on the drops the entire way, often while pedaling out of the saddle. He preferred this position so much that Bianchi built him a special bike with a longer steerer tube to achieve a higher handlebar position.
Pantani returned to action in the Giro in 1997, but was felled by a black cat which ran out in front of him during one of the first stages, ending his race. Remarkably, he returned to action the same year in the Tour and mounted a strong challenge for the yellow jersey. Because of his slight build and unique ability, Pantani was virtually unmatchable in the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrénées and won two stages, establishing the record time for the climb of Alpe d'Huez, but the bulkier and more powerful Jan Ullrich showed his own determination and limited the amount of time he lost to Pantani during some titanic battles. Ullrich was then able to recover these losses and more in the individual time trials to which he was far more suited; thus, he ultimately claimed the yellow jersey, with Pantani finishing third overall, behind Richard Virenque.
Fans on the roadside of the climb to Les Deux Alpes, awaiting the arrival of the 1998 Tour de France.
The following year, 1998, was the year of glory for Pantani. For the first time he won the Giro d'Italia, beating Pavel Tonkov and Alex Zülle. And he was also triumphant in the Tour de France: here he was finally able to crack the previous year winner Jan Ullrich, who, though wearing the yellow jersey in his first year as team leader, had also shown his lack of experience by becoming isolated from his team-mates several times in the mountain stages. In the Pyrénées, Pantani pulled back early time losses to Ullrich from the first week and then delivered a sensational coup by defeating him by almost nine minutes in one epic Alpine mountain stage, from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes, via the Col de la Croix de Fer and Col du Galibier, under horrible weather conditions. Although Ullrich showed his character by going on the offensive on the Col du Madeleine during the next stage to Albertville, Pantani followed him easily and went on to become the first Italian since Felice Gimondi (1965) to win the Tour. His achievement was all the more remarkable because for many years previously the Tour had been dominated by powerful time trial specialists, such as Miguel Indurain and Jan Ullrich, who possessed enough climbing ability to limit their losses in the mountains.
Unfortunately, because of the big doping scandal during 1998's Tour, the Tour that should have been remembered as Pantani's Tour passed partially to history as the Tour of the Festina Affair (from the name of the French Team Festina led at the time by Richard Virenque). That year, the Festina team was excluded from the Tour after Willy Voet, one of its medical staff members, was caught at the France-Belgium border with many illicit doping products hidden in his car. The scandal touched not only the Festina team, but all the cyclists: during the Tour there were investigations of numerous teams and many of them left the Tour voluntarily. There were two cyclists' strikes protesting the police atmosphere to which the Tour had fallen. Under those conditions, Pantani, who was not touched by the doping scandal, looked like a saviour for that Tour and for cycling in general.
Things turned bad for Pantani towards the end of the 1999 Giro. He was well on the way to winning, having already won four stages, with all his challengers far away in the GC, and only one mountain stage left: however, he was disqualified from the race (eventually won by Ivan Gotti) for a suspiciously high red blood cell count which suggested (although could not prove) use of the banned substance EPO. Later, it was also revealed that he had a hematocrit level of 60% after his crash in 1995, far above the later adopted 50% limit. After his banishment from the Giro, his pride wounded, Pantani stayed away from the rest of the year's races.
Despite the drug allegations, Pantani remained popular with many fans as something of a throwback to the great pure climbers of the past, attacking in the mountains and making the race exciting, rather than grinding his rivals down. In 2000 he was back on the Giro, without having really prepared for it; in fact he only decided to show up the day before the race started. He subsequently lost a lot of time and could not place any attack until the last mountain stage arriving in Briançon, in which he helped his teammate Stefano Garzelli to win the Giro and placed an attack without anyone being able to follow him, but he finished only second on the stage because he could not catch a persistent attacker. Pantani also participated in the 2000 Tour de France. Although well off the pace for much of the race, he showed a glimpse of his talent and determination when he matched the seemingly invincible Lance Armstrong pedal for pedal up the harsh Mont Ventoux, leaving the rest of the field way behind. On the final metres, Armstrong eased-up and appeared to allow Pantani to pull away, giving him the stage victory; Pantani, however, resented the gesture, causing bad blood between the two riders, which was to be exacerbated when Armstrong referred to his rival as Elefantino (Italian for 'little elephant'), a nickname Pantani hated because it referred to his very prominent ears. In that same Tour, he won another stage, up to Courchevel, attacking and leaving everyone behind him, Armstrong included. On the next stage, a tough ride over the hors categorie Col de Joux-Plane, Pantani broke away early and set a savage pace in an effort to crush Armstrong. Instead, he suffered stomach problems and dropped out of the race. He would never race the Tour de France again.
This was the last race won by Pantani. After that he raced only sporadically in 2001 and 2002, still morally defeated from doping suspicions. He seemed to be back during the Giro of 2003, where he did not win any stage but proved to still be able to compete with the best racers, finishing well-placed in the mountain stages.Pantani admitted himself into a clinic in northern Italy in June 2003, suffering from clinical depression. At that point the chances of him once again being a contender in major races looked slim.
During the early evening of 14 February 2004 Pantani was found dead at a hotel in Rimini, Italy. An autopsy revealed he died of a cerebral edema and heart failure, and a later coroner's inquest revealed that this was brought on by acute cocaine poisoning. Reacting to his death, fellow Italian cyclist Mario Cipollini said
"I am devastated. It's a tragedy of enormous proportions for everyone involved in cycling. I'm lost for words."
Pantani was buried in his hometown, Cesenatico. Twenty thousand mourners gathered at his funeral, during which his manager and close friend Manuela Ronchi read these final notes from his diary:
"For four years I've been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice. All my colleagues have been humiliated, with TV cameras hidden in their hotel rooms to try and ruin families. How could you not hurt yourself after that? "
Miguel Indurain, five-times Tour de France winner, paid tribute by saying: "He got people hooked on the sport. There may be riders who have achieved more than him, but they never succeeded in drawing in the fans like he did."
Giro d'Italia's organizers decided to dedicate a mountain pass to Pantani's memory every year. In the 2004 edition, the first Cima Pantani was Mortirolo Pass, a terrible mountain pass that played a key role in Pantani's history. When it was included in the Giro for the third time in 1994 Pantani attacked on the mountain, leaving everyone behind, to finally earn one of his best victories at Aprica; in 1999 the Mortirolo waited for Pantani in vain since he was excluded from that Giro before the beginning of the stage. In the 2005 edition the Cima Pantani was Colle Fauniera, where Pantani showed the last glimpse of his talent in the 2003 Giro d'Italia.
The 16th stage of 2004 Tour de France was dedicated by the organization to Pantani's memory. This stage was an individual time trial up to Alpe d'Huez, where Marco Pantani won in 1995 and 1997. Matt Rendell's biography of Pantani makes a strong case for the cyclist having used the banned blood doping substance recombinant erythropoietin (rEPO) throughout his professional career. It alleges that seasonal levels of hematocrit derived from several sources showed variations which far exceeded those possible naturally, and that all of Pantani's great victories were probably made with levels of up to 60%—in excess of the 50% maximum allowed by the UCI. However, this all took place when blood doping could be detected only by inference from hematocrit levels, since no direct test for rEPO was available, and in an era when many elite cyclists used illegal performance-enhancing drugs.