Title: Pantani Was a God
Author: Marco Pastonesi (translated by Colin O’Brien)
Publisher: Rapha Editions, in association with Bluetrain Publishing
Year: 2018 (originally published in Italian in 2014)
What it is: A book about Marco Pantani, but also about Italian cycling and some of the great and tragic heroes of the mountains
Strengths: Pastonesi is an elegant writer and comes at his subject from interesting angles
Weaknesses: No critical distance, very little criticism
Pantani Was a God. There’s a title that’ll divide opinion. On the one side, the fans, nodding along, yes, yes, yes, on the other, the critics, shaking their fillings loose, no, no, no. From the outset, there’s a bit of defensiveness about it, from both the author and the translator. Here’s Colin O’Brien, in his translator’s introduction: “Whatever the title might suggest at first glance, it isn’t some silly psalm to an immaculate martyr who never really existed (if those are your things, there are plenty in Italian bookshops). But it isn’t misleading either. Pantani was a god, at least to some people.” In his introduction to the book, the author Marco Pastonesi writes that “the title may seem absolutory, if not provocative or even profane. But to me, it gives the idea of someone flying too high. Prometheus was a god, too. Or he was believed to be a god. Or perhaps they only made him think he was one.”
The idea of Pantani as Prometheus...let’s go there. The often overlooked Roland Barthes, in an essay on the Tour de France, made reference to events on the Ventoux in 1955, a day when riders - hopped up on amphetamines and affected by the baking heat - fell like flies. Barthes likened the use of doping to the theft by Prometheus of the gift of fire from the Gods of Olympus. He likened what happened to the riders on that mountain on that day to the punishment meted out by the Olympians to their wayward son: Prometheus was bound in chains to a rock, with an eagle pecking out his liver. Each night Prometheus’s body repaired itself and each day the bird buried its beak in him anew, his punishment unending.
That, though, was in an era when riders were seen as angels with wingèd ankles. Today, we live in a world of angels with dirty faces. We no longer live in a world of riders stealing from the gods for a greater good, we live in a world in which the myth of Prometheus has been recast by Mary Shelley, the world of the Modern Prometheus, Victor Frankenstein, who sought to steal the fire of life from the heavens and in return created an uncontrollable monster, a soulless beast who hurt those he came into contact with. We live in a world that sees monsters, not gods.
The gulf between those two versions of Prometheus – and, by extension, Pantani – is vast. But whichever version of Prometheus springs first to your mind – the Prometheus of Barthes or Shelley – Pantani Was a God quickly moves beyond its polemical title and offers something for everybody, fans and critics alike. I won’t go so far as to say it’ll have both sides reaching out to touch the hand of the other, but it does offer more they should find themselves agreeing on than it does that further divides.
More like Herbie Sykes’s recent The Giro 100 or his older Coppi than either Matt Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani or Manuela Ronchi’s Man on the Run (the two extremes of the four English-language books about Pantani) Pantani Was a God tells its story obliquely, mixing Pastonesi’s own thoughts with testimony from forty-something people who knew Pantani in one way or another. These testimonies – mostly from riders but also from fans, journalists, and others who just knew the man – typically run to about a page each and often tell you as much, if not more, about the person speaking as they do about Pantani. Here’s a short sampling from some of them:
Marco Artunghi (who rode with Pantani from 1992 to 2000): I turned pro with Marco at Carrera in August ‘92. We were together at Mercatone Uno too, until the end of 2000. I was destined to be a gregario, he to be a captain.
Davide Boifava (Pantani’s direttore sportivo from 1992 to 1996): That’s where it all began. From there, we went to paradise, and then to hell. And in between, adventures and misadventures.
Alessandro Gianelli (who rode with Pantani between 1992 and 1994): My girlfriend asked him, joking, if he would be our chauffeur on our wedding day, telling him that his car would be perfect. Three days before the wedding, he showed up, stayed at our house, became a part of all the preparations, and then the morning of the wedding he held the car door for the bride and drove her to the church.
Marcello Siboni (who rode with Pantani between 1995 and 2002): People would stop me on the street, asking how Pantani was. No one ever asked about me. But I knew it was my role, my job, my privilege.
Davide Dall’Ollio (who rode with Pantani in 1997 and 1998): I was just a gregario, a support rider. I took the wind. I didn’t last long. I gave little, but I wish I could have done more for him. First, on the road. And then, in life.
Riccardo Forconi (who rode with Pantani from 1998 to 2002): I dedicated five years to him, body and soul, because that was the rule. And I stopped racing when he did, because without him it was no longer worth it. I never thought of myself before I thought of him. And he knew it.
Fabrizio Settembrini (who rode with Pantani in 1997): I quit racing but I stayed in the racing world as a masseur, and it was thanks to that we were reunited, for 2001 and 2002. He wasn’t Pantani any longer then, he was simply Marco. He already had his own masseur, of course, so I only got to massage him once. And it was an event that I tried to treat with all the honour, gratitude and respect it deserved.
Roberto Conti (who rode with Pantani from 1997 to 1999, and in 2003): I promised him: ‘In thirty years we’ll meet again in a restaurant and we’ll recount all that we’ve done.’ He liked that idea. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘we’ll get fat and talk about when we were thirty kilos lighter.’ In the end, there was nothing. He was nowhere to be seen, he never responded. You couldn’t find him, and you couldn’t help him.
Pastonesi himself, his contribution runs from the sublime to the banal and back again. One moment he’s eloquently placing Pantani in the pantheon alongside not just the the likes of Federico Bahamontes and Charly Gaul, but also a host of Italian riders from the Romagna region that was home to Pantani. The next he’s half-interestedly serving up a stale telling of the history of doping and how EPO works.
A veteran of Italian cycling journalism, Pastonesi fits into Gian Paolo Ormezzano’s classification of cycling journalists as coming from the first age, the cantors, writers who “venerated cycling, and for them it was almost liturgical.” (Ormezzano himself comes from the second age, the eroticists (“We cared about it deeply but we wanted to understand it as a phenomenon.”). In the third category are the pornographers, for whom there’s “very little that’s erotic about the way they present the sport, but they are explicit to the point of obscenity.”). He’s not a writer monoglot cycling fans have had much exposure to, so far. He’s appeared in Rouleur, naturally. And he wrote an introduction for the recent Fabian Cancellara chamoir that was more purple that a convocation of bishops, and absolutely beautiful for it.
Both John Foot and Herbie Sykes hold Pastonesi in high regard, and that, on top of loving what he did in the Cancellara book, is recommendation enough for me. For the most part, he’s a man who prefers the underdog to the superstar (which is odd given that his major outings in English so far have concerned Pantani, Cancellara, and Mario Cipollini). He even has an unofficial club of sorts where membership is limited to riders who have never won. That love for the underdog shines through in Pantani Was a God, most especially when Pastonesi is talking about Pantani by talking about others. Here is is talking about riders from Romagna:
“Another Romagnolo, Aldo Ronconi, was born in 1918 in Santa Lucia delle Spianate, near to Brisighella. A carpenter, he used to cycle to work. Then at twenty-one, he rode the Milano-München, one of the most important races for amateurs at the time, from Milan to Munich in three stages, and won it. Upon returning home, he was summoned to Rome by Mussolini, who commended his efforts. He rode the 1940 Giro d’Italia with Legnano, where the sports director Eberardo Pavesi gave each rider a different colour hat so that he could distinguish them during the race. Ronconi was given a black one, and his friend Luciano Succi jokingly called him il parroco, and from that moment on, everyone called him the Priest. In 1945, after the armistice, he was taken captive by the Germans, spending ten terrible days on a train in inhumane conditions before being imprisoned in Linz, which perhaps wasn’t that bad when one considers that just twenty-five kilometres down the road lay the Mauthausen concentration camp. In Linz, he was saved by a German engineer, a cycling fan, who found him a place working on a farm, where at least he could eat bread and drink milk every day. When he finally made it home, he found neither a house nor a bicycle.”
These tales work on multiple levels. They’re interesting stories in their own right, the sort of tales you turn to Herbie Sykes looking to find. But they also create an alternative context in which to see Pantani, one that removes him from the excesses of Gen-EPO and humanises him. This, the man behind the myth, is something we who were Puritans during the EPO years lost sight of, we were more interested in the sin than the sinners. Some of us still don’t want to see it. It’s also a side of Pantani that those who think him a god don’t see, either.
That contextualising mostly takes up the first half of the book. It’s followed by a short section on doping in which Pastonesi has nothing new to say and struggles to find an interesting way of repeating thread-worn tales of Choppy Warburton killing Arthur Linton and how EPO turns your blood to strawberry jam. Mostly, his point is that yes, Pantani doped, there’s no denying that, but that’s cycling for you. A nicely neutral position that’s quietly pro-Pantani.
After that, we’re travelling through familiar territory: Madonna di Campiglio, Alpe d’Huez, Montecampione, Mont Ventoux. It’s a bit Classic Hits FM and how you feel about it is probably linked to whether you love the hits or prefer album tracks. But even if you think you don’t like Classic Hits FM, Pastonesi can arrest your attention with a bit of a banger. Here he is describing an attack from Pantani: “twenty-seven pedal strokes standing on the pedals, eight on the saddle. Another fifteen standing. Like two bursts from a machine gun.”
While Pastonesi succeeds in humanising Pantani – yes, in a book that claims he was a god, the man has a sense of humour, and that also comes through in his writing – a question you have to ask is does he create an accurate, or even fair, picture of Pantani the man? A clue to answering that comes from the pictures used to illustrate Pantani Was a God.
All the images come from the usual sources, the archives of Getty, Presse Sports, CorVos etc, photographers like Tim de Waele and Beth Schneider and others. But all the images have been given a lo-fi aesthetic, noise added, leaving them looking like stills from a worn out VHS tape, or Polaroids snapped from a TV screen (been there, reviewed that). On one level, they pull you into the story, you look at them and think you remember having seen that moment, live, back then, or maybe on YouTube. That VHS vibe is certainly part of the intention of Taz Darling, Bluetrain’s picture editor: “It’s in video TV footage that Pantani exists for us all now and we wanted to tie all the imagery together to celebrate that. We wanted the images to evoke atmosphere, along with the words.”
There is another level on which those images work, one that’s pushing you away, even as they pull you in. They remind you that this is a life seen through a lens, something obvious but which we can – usually but not always – overlook when looking at ‘normally’ presented photographs. It reminds us that each image is a moment taken out of time. And that’s true of the words, as well as the images. The tales told by and to Pastonesi have been carefully curated. Step back from them and you’ll see that virtually none offer critical comment, they’ve all been selected to paint a particular portrait: that of a god, but not a saint.
So is Pantani Was a God just another hagiography? If it is, it’s a high-class hagiography, with a heart of gold. One that I think is well worth having on your bookshelf.