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Flashbacks from the peloton
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Marco Pantani (January 13, 1970 – February 14, 2004)
It’s a decade since Marco Pantani, one of cycling’s most flamboyant characters was found dead in a Rimini hotel room. Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner Marco Pantani was found dead on Saturday evening, February 14, 2004 on the floor of his Le Rose hotel room on Italy’s Adriatic coast, surrounded by half-empty jars of antidepressants. I can’t believe it’s been already ten years since that day.
Valentine’s day to remember
On 14 February each year, most celebrate St Valentine’s day with a gift of flowers as a display of love to someone important in their lives. For the tenth year in a row, it will be a day of grief and remembrance for Tonina and Paolo Pantani as they visit their son’s grave in the Cesenatico cemetary. His untimely death was from a heart attack, cerebral edema and lung damage, the causes of which are still unknown. The autopsy officials say it may be up to 60 days before they know the exact reasons, but they’re not ruling out suicide. 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. Known as Il Pirata for his bandanna-covered baldhead and a fierce climbing style, Pantani will always be remembered as one of the sport’s greats.
In 1998 he joined the small group of riders who’ve won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year. 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.
The following season (1999), just before claiming a second Giro victory, Il Pirata was suspended for having an above-regulation hematocrit level–which pretty much means he was caught doping. Although he never tested positive on any of the follow-up, confirmation drug tests, his career was destroyed. In a few short weeks Pantani went from being the pride of a nation to a worldwide scapegoat. From then on, his life was a series of allegations, near comebacks and deep depression.
He made a comeback to the sport in 2000, but each time he posted decent results, the media and the Italian cycling federation hounded and accused him; dark depression always followed.
Pantani’s death highlights the sport’s major underlying problem: doping. Performance-enhancing drugs have taken many riders’ lives and ruined many careers. Often the blame is solely placed on the racer and not shared with team managers, doctors and sponsors–the ones pressuring for results. Many people are accusing the anti-doping investigators and the media for Pantani’s downward spiral.
“They murdered him,” Il Pirata’s mother, Tonina Pantani, was quoted saying in Italian newspaper La Gazzetta Dello Sport. We may never know what happened last Saturday, but regardless of whether or not it was suicide, Pantani died alone and depressed. For years he took the brunt of the sport’s biggest doping scandal like a true champion, by coming back and fighting.
But in the end, there’s only so much one man can take.
In memory of Marco Pantani
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