Book Review: The Death of Marco Pantani

Just over fifteen years ago, Marco Pantani committed suicide via a cocaine overdose.  Every year, there’s a news item about someone, usually from his family, calling for an investigation into his death.  His death was a tragedy, but the myths surrounding “The Pirate” are a farce.  It’s a source of never-ending frustration that people repeatedly harken to the rider’s greatness.  If it weren’t for his prodigious doping, few, other than his family and friends would have known who he was, and if it weren’t for his doping, he might well be alive today.

This review was published in 2009, when, I believe, the book was first available in the United States.  The book had been published in England in 2006.  At least one new edition has come out since.

We’re running this one as new because the topic of Pantani never seems to die.  I also posted more old book reviews in the effort to keep knowledge or “knowledge” available online.  A few more will appear soon.


We were initially interested in reading Matt Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani by because Pantani seemed to present a counterpoint to  A Ride With George Hincapie. They are almost antithetic figures. The quiet family guy who eschews drama and has had a steady career at the top of his sport vs. a mercurial drama king mama’s boy who burst onto the sport, achieved dizzying heights fast, flamed out several times, and died a pitiable death after burning out of the sport a final time.

Just after we picked it up, Frank Vandenbroucke died. VDB’s career arc was possibly more dramatic than Pantani’s. He burst onto the scene at a younger age, rode brilliantly in one-day races, and provided plenty of drama. Unlike Pantani, VDB never completely recovered from his first fall, a doping scandal, and his returns to the sport got shorter and shorter and crazier. Maybe the book could provide insight into VDB’s death as well.

While the biography opens with Marco’s death, it quickly digs into the past, starting with the town of Cesena, its satellite Cesenatico, the Emilia-Romagna region, and the Pantani family before Marco was a gleam in Paolo Pantani’s eye. Rendell did some great digging to give us a sense of the world of Cesenatico, Marco’s hometown. He brought out some interesting stuff, like how the Italian Communist Party was involved in local bike racing, when and how the Romagnolo dialect lost out to Italian, and how life was lived between the picture postcard scenes and the tourist-based reality.

Despite this wealth of information, what we learn of Marco wasn’t satisfying. Rendell clearly interviewed parents, friends, acquaintances, mentors, etc., but only a gauzy picture of the man emerges. He didn’t seem to find anyone to give anything less than a flattering picture of Marco. Quiet, yes, but very smart. Serious, yes, but had a playful side. Shy, but outgoing. The first time he went hunting with an acquaintance, Marco spun to shoot a pheasant, and nearly aimed his rifle at his hunting partner. Not to worry the acquaintance tells us, even though he occasionally hunted, was a better hunter than most people who hunted every day. There are no references to the same events by another person who saw Marco as naïve, stupid, lazy, reckless, deeply insecure. Maybe we’re supposed to infer these things.

The praise on the cover of the book captures the style of much of the early racing scenes. “The writing here is breathless, awe-struck, more evocative and incisive than TV pictures or newspaper reports could ever be.” The reportage is breathless. It is over the top. It tells us way more than Rendell could possibly show, and maybe beyond what he could credibly know (“Super slo-mo was just one of the technologies that helped make an icon of Marco”). Much of the race writing comes across as hagiography; a few times we’re told that Pantani had won by minutes. Minutes? There’s a big difference between two minutes and four minutes in professional racing; knowing the difference, which should have been as easy as reading a results sheet, would have been more helpful. We’ve had our fill of athletic mythmaking already.

We grumbled when Pantani’s terrible 1995 crash was recounted and the report that his hematocrit was 60.1 was not mentioned. But we guessed Rendell was saving that info for later, and we felt a bit more comfortable with the star gazing.

The bio takes a big turn on June 4, 1999, the day before Pantani is booted from the Giro for the results of a blood test that showed a hematocrit of 53. The story comes to life. It could be that the event lends drama, or that all the parties interviewed felt more pressure, or Marco himself was under more scrutiny, or the author found the subsequent information more interesting.

The author is as damning in his investigation of Marco’s professional and recreational doping as he was in praising Pantani’s cycling prowess. This is the rare cycling book that has both praise for the athletic exploits and criticism for the doper; this might make Rendell a better messenger than Paul Kimmage or David Walsh. Still, Rendell’s writing is more careful in his criticism; don’t know if he was more inspired or more fearful of lawsuits.

The recreational doping is stunning and says much more about the state of Pantani’s mind than the professional doping. Equally stunning was how those close to him were afraid to get him the kind of help he needed. His friends and family should have taken him away from cycling, something he certainly didn’t need as his relatively brief tenure at the top of the sport left him plenty wealthy.

That a rich person ruins his life is easy to dismiss. Someone who has every material need taken care of and is destroyed by his own folly is pathetic, not tragic. Not something we need to read about. The tragedy of the story has to do with the professional doping.

Doping in sport exists. Cheating always has. We’ve read plenty about the corrosive effects of doping on sport, how it’s unfair to those who follow the rules, but rarely do we discuss what it does to the doper. Kimmage addressed it in A Rough Ride, but many skipped his specific critiques to blame the man rather than his message.

Rendell lays out that most of Marco’s success in cycling, possibly dating as far back as 1993, was tainted by EPO. Pantani’s “natural” hematocrit was probably around 43, yet he raced the Giro, the Tour, and worlds with it between 48 and 58. The only blood values he could find of Pantani’s that were near the theorized normal were either in the off-season or around the times he either dropped out or performed anonymously at races. And his victory at the amateur Giro d’Italia in 1992 could be partially attributed to anabolic steroid use. Much of this information is thanks to the records of Dr. Francesco Conconi from the Centre for Biomedical Studies at the University of Ferrara. Besides developing his eponymous test, Conconi was tracking and treating elite cyclists, and advising the UCI on how to handle use of EPO. Conconi claims credit for the 50% hematocrit number the UCI adopted as the safety limit until a test for EPO was devised, though he thought 54% was a better number. Conconi was involved in doping many of the cyclists he treated, including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Maurizio Fondriest, Stephen Roche, and Rolf Sorenson. All, interestingly, had their highest hematocrit values recorded before or during major races that they were focused on. Pantani seems to have been treated with Dianabol shortly after the Carrera team expressed an interest in him in 1991 and before he won the baby Giro.

Rendell theorizes that Pantani lived in a world where drug use was a normal course of affairs. That he took drugs to ride, so it was no big deal, maybe “normal,” or necessary to take drugs for pleasure. He even has a quote from Pantani talking about procuring Viagra to engage in a post-race sex romp in 1998. Rendell doesn’t mention it, but Viagra came out in 1998; an early adopter or topical jokester. His success also allowed him to live as if his actions had no consequences. He seemed to have penchant for ignoring traffic signs, speed limits, and the physics of a moving vehicle. He’d wreck a car, and have another, crash, and get patched up. There was always more.

Not everyone who dopes as a professional athlete lives as if there are no consequences for their actions, fewer use cocaine, a subset becomes addicted to a drug, a tiny subset dies directly from that addiction. It’s not just the doping, but it does highlight a problem. Unfortunately, Rendell doesn’t find anyone or any information that gives a strong sense of Marco’s state of mind, what caused him to dope, how he felt about it, etc. Maybe nobody knew, but it’s possible, a possibility Rendell refers to a few times, that nobody was willing to talk about it. He scoffs at the cryptic response he received from Marco’s doctor, a person whose job was ostensibly to help protect Pantani’s health. He requested an interview with Dr. Giovanni Grazzi, whose only reply was, “The time is not yet ripe to explain what we were trying to do.”

The worth of a doped cyclist is not so much their skill as a cyclist but their willingness to dope. The skeptics will point out that if everyone dopes, the so-called playing field is leveled again. Not so, reports Rendell. In a world where everyone is on EPO, some cyclists’ bodies will respond to the drug better than others. These will have the advantage. Who these “lucky” few are and how much of an advantage they gain is nearly impossible to know. Robbing those who doped a feeling that the field is level or fair or that their successes are only due to their own abilities not the edge that the drugs gave them.

As spectators, we can be seen as some of the beneficiaries of the doping. The contests are more incredible than without, more fabulous, more worthy of speculation and superlatives. The incredible contests also benefit sponsors, those covering the events, and the sport itself. Rendell presents evidence that not only did those close to Pantani turn a blind eye, but those who benefitted from him certainly wanted more. Even the UCI drug-testers were bending the rules allowing Pantani plenty of time to take the necessary steps to get his hematocrit down in time for the tests.

There has to be something soul-robbing about doping for a job that is supposed to be a joy, a pleasure to perform. It definitely changes the stakes, making them much higher than just winning or losing, more than just having a job or not. Just looking at how cheats in other walks of life construct fictions, it is easy to see how Pantani always protested his innocence and was adamant that there were conspiracies designed to bring him down.

Rendell finds hints that for all Pantani’s talk about being an artisan, about expressing himself on the bike, about ethereal moments while racing hard, he quite possibly experienced less and less pleasure on the bike. Pantani wasn’t alive to interview and his friends were too protective of the Pantani myth to reveal much. He does show that Pantani courted the fame he claimed to hate, that he worked pretty hard on creating an image of himself and then hiding from it, that he became almost constitutionally unable to see the consequences of his actions, only living in the now ever more recklessly, and then believing the myths he created of himself, going so far as to speak of himself in the third person.

There is no happy ending, no upbeat coda at the end. We don’t know where one can be found, but a happy ending can be a strong temptation for any storyteller. To write that there’s a silver lining in death, a moral to be gained, a world chastened and improved, has appeal to anyone delivering bad news. Rendell, thankfully, doesn’t even try. He expresses frustration, a frustration he clearly thinks we should share.

While The Death of Marco Pantani is ultimately much darker than A Ride With George Hincapie is positive, we’re comfortable with that. It’s not just taking the bitter with the sweet. It’s that if we’re going to be engaged in something, we owe it to ourselves to know as much as we can about it, not just the good, not just the highlight show and Phil and Paul falling all over themselves to come up with more and more incredible superlatives, but know the sleazy characters, the shadows, the backroom deals, the doping, and the cost that it all exacts.

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