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The Death Of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell

The Death of Marco Pantani

Title: The Death of Marco Pantani - A Biography
Author: Matt Rendell
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson / Phoenix
Pages: 324
Year: 2006
Order: Orion Books
What it is: A story of the tragic life and even more tragic death of Marco Pantani.
Strengths: Rendell is a man looking for answers, not just to what happened to Pantani, but to how we can still care about this sport knowing what we know about it.
Weaknesses: Rendell's central thesis may be unpalatable to some.

It was one of those days when you look out the window and just want to go back to bed. The sort of cold, grey, drizzly day when you hate the weather for not having the courage to either piss down or piss off. It was certainly not the sort of day when you'd want to be crossing the roof of the Tour de France. But on this last Monday of July, that was just what the remaining riders in the 1998 Tour had facing them. A hundred and eighty-nine kilometres that more or less climbed from the off to the two thousand metre summit of the Col de la Croix de Fer and then threw the double climb of the Cols du Télégraphe and Galibier at the riders. After the descent off the Galibier - at two thousand six hundred and forty-five metres, the high point of the Tour - all that lay ahead of the survivors was the nine kilometre climb to the ski-station at Les Deux Alpes. Me, I'd have just called a duvet day and gone back to sleep.

For Marco Pantani though, this was a day he'd publicly targeted for a stage win. After his victory in the Pyrénées at Plateau de Beille, il Pirata told the media: "My main goal on entering the Tour was to win this stage because it was the most beautiful climb in the race. Now I hope to win the other stage finishing at altitude, next week in Les Deux Alpes." This was a day when Pantani would have to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk. Four kilometres before the summit of the Galibier, Pantani let his legs do the talking. And, for the next thirty kilometres, those of us watching that day listened as they told a tale to compare with the best in the history books.

Four kilometres before the summit of the Galibier, Jan Ullrich, the defending champion and the wearer of the maillot jaune, had dropped the last of his Telekom team-mates, Udo Bölts and Bjarne Riis. Around him were his key rivals in the race: Bobby Julich and Pantani, along with  Fernando Escartin, Luc Leblanc and Michael Boogerd. Six men, representing six teams.

The cold, grey day had already taken its toll on other rivals: Laurent Jalabert had cracked on the Télégraphe, blaming the weather ("The cold was killing me. I knew the stage would be tough, but I didn't realise how tough. I couldn't recover and my muscles wouldn't respond. My teeth were chattering on the descents and I felt like my circulation had stopped."). Jaja wasn't just making excuses, it really was a foul day to be riding a bike. Two riders, Fabrizio Guidi and José Luis Arrieta, had already abandoned the stage, suffering from hypothermia.

As they climbed the Galibier, Leblanc and Escartin and Boogerd launched probing accelerations. Each time Ullrich chased them down. Pantani watched and waited as the German wore himself out. Then, four kilometres from the summit, he simply rode off the front of the group and disappeared into the fog and the drizzle and the crowds lining the climb. In those four kilometres Pantani put almost three minutes into Ullrich.

On the roof of the Tour Pantani paused to don a rain cape before facing into the fifteen kilometre descent to the foot of Les Deux Alpes, surrendering a good thirty seconds of the lead he'd just carved out for himself. Having started the day with a three minute deficit on Ullrich, Pantani may well have been riding himself into the maillot jaune, but with the penultimate day's fifty-two kilometre time trial to come, even if he did take the jersey he would only be keeping it warm.

Least ways, that's what all the stattos said. Ullrich, they told us, could comfortably put four minutes into Pantani in that final race of truth. At best then, Pantani was riding for a stage win and the glory of a few days in yellow. He certainly wasn't going to put another four minutes plus into the German on the descent off the Galibier and the relatively short climb up to Les Deux Alpes.

When Pantani rode into the ski-station at Les Deux Alpes - arms spread, head raised, eyes closed - Ullrich was still four kilometres down the climb. By the time he crossed the line the German had ceded almost nine minutes to the Italian. Pantani was leading the Tour by four seconds short of six minutes. He surrendered two and a half of them in the final time trial and won the Tour by nearly three and a half minutes.

That's how you want to remember Marco Pantani, isn't it? An epic ride and all the potential it promised us. Today we remember Hugo Koblet for his Brive-Agen escapade, not for wrapping his car around a tree. Tomorrow, who knows, maybe we will be able to remember Pantani for that ride, not the manner of his death. But right now - and with the seventh anniversary of that death on Valentine's Day 2004 just around the corner - it is perhaps too soon for that.

The tragedy of Pantani's death - the tragedy of his life - and the tragedy of the 1998 Tour still haunts this sport. That, for me, is reason enough for why you should consider Rendell's The Death of Marco Pantani a must read. But there's more to it than just that. More than Paul Kimmage's A Rough Ride, more than Willy Voet's Breaking The Chain, more than David Walsh's From Lance to Landis, Rendell's book is the book to read if you want to understand the dark heart of this sport and the real cost it has tolled on those who take part in it. The picture of Pantani painted by Rendell is of a promising junior who was doped more or less from the moment he signed his first professional contract. Everything Pantani achieved was achieved with the aid of pharmaceutical enhancement.

I'm not going to go through The Death of Marco Pantini and summarise for you its key points. Here, I don't think that's necessary. If you already know it, you don't need me retelling it. If you don't already know it, Rendell tells it better than I can. He tells the story of Pantani's life from cradle to grave, from the early promise to the many falls, from the height of the Giro/Tour double to the fall at Madonna di Campiglio and Pantani's final descent. He gives it from a variety of sources: family, friends and - most damning - the files which revealed to the world exactly what Francesco Conconi and his cronies had been getting up to at the University of Ferrara as part of a state-sponsored doping programme.

The Death of Marco Pantani does not make for easy reading. That's no criticism of Rendell's writing: I'd probably be happy to chop off my right arm to write as well as Rendell does (and I'm not left-handed). Across five books now - his Colombian trilogy (Kings of the Mountains; A Significant Other and Olympic Gangster, each of which I'll be getting round to in the coming months), his Tour history (Blazing Saddles) and this - Rendell has shown himself to be one of the best English-language authors writing about this sport in book form today.

I shudder to accuse him of philosophy - the French term, penseur, seems more appropriate - but Rendell isn't just muck-racking, he's asking hard questions, not just of the sport, but also of us as fans of this sport. One example for you, from the book's conclusion:

"[There] is an alternative to abject disengagement, which may also have a redemptive quality. Watching contemporary sport means acknowledging surface reality as an interim state, prone to re-evaluation, even far in the future. It requires another way of seeing, a double vision or off-centre gaze, like Inuit looking into snow, in which surface appearances are taken not as reality but as gateways to potentially unpredictable truths. We mustn't abandon ourselves to the ecstasy of closure, but must cultivate the more restrained delights in unknowing. There is self-denial in this way of seeing, but only in the conditions it places on the euphoria sport can inspire. The cost of seeing the world through this filter of scepticism may be that we can no longer abandon ourselves to the emotions of the crowd. The past certainties against which the present seems so illusory only seem solid as long as we don't look too closely. Nothing is any longer as it seems. Never write about your heroes, they say. Maybe. But maybe, too, by believing in them a little less, we may credit them with a little more humanity. We may also find we believe in ourselves a little more."

I don't know if I agree with Rendell there. This is a side of the sport I've been struggling to understand for most of the last decade, how I can know about its dark heart, abut the deaths doping has caused and the lives it has destroyed, and yet still actually care about this sport. But even if I don't agree with Rendell, I appreciate him asking the questions, thinking about it, formulating his own answers and expressing them. I'm not sure there is a clean, simple answer to this question. I suspect it's one of those questions we all have to struggle to find our own answer to. Seeing how others have answered it does help though.

* * * * *

Rendell has a central thesis underlying the whole book: "that Marco suffered from undiagnosed mental illness for much of his life, which the configurations of modern sport camouflaged." Some of you may be appalled by this. It seems trite. The troubled genius syndrome. But think about it. Look at Fausto Coppi and how fragile - mentally - he was. Look at Freddy Maertens. Read Allan Peiper's book - I'm not accusing Peiper of mental illness, but again what you will get is a self-portrait of a fragile man in a harsh sport. Read Graeme Obree's book. Look at the backgrounds of so many people competing in this sport, how cycling seems to fill a hole in their lives, and leave an even bigger hole when its gone.

At times it does feel like Rendell is over egging the pudding somewhat, descending into armchair psychoanalysis, such as when he analyses Pantani's signature and concludes that his "autograph suggests that Marco, so uncomfortable in his skin, was uneasy with his own name." Or when he suggests of Panatani's climbing that it was a form of self-harm. But beyond that, it is a thesis supported by others, including one psychiatrist who treated Pantani and diagnosed him as suffering from a "non-specific personality disorder with narcissistic, antisocial and obsessive elements" and given to "frequent use of denial and manipulation." Which makes him sound like most of the rest of the peloton.

Pantani's death does make him stand out from most of the rest of the peloton. He cracked in a way they haven't. But his end was not unique. Cycling has a long list of suicides. I'm not going to offer any thesis that cycling has more suicides than any other sport (I think that claim has been made about cricket, odd as it may seem) but what I would like to ask is whether cycling itself had any responsibility to Pantani in his final years. It's a question which I think is as relevant today - if not more so - as it was before Pantani's death.

The anniversary of Pantani's death was one of my excuses for choosing this book to look at now. There is another reason: the Kimmage / Landis interview. One of the most challenging aspects of that is how Landis has had to come to terms with both what he did and what happened to him. There's a point in that interview, when Kimmage asks him about hitting rock bottom, that had me thinking of Pantani. It's just before Landis talks about turning to drink, when he says: "I was lucky I had never in my life been exposed to recreational drugs, or other things, or I probably would have had real problems but it never crossed my mind. I just don't do that."

Kimmage's Landis interview - like Rendell's book - throws up a question we perhaps don't ask often enough: what obligations do we owe to those this sport spits out? But maybe there's an even bigger question lurking here: can this sport help others if it itself is still in denial?