On Monday, Variety announced that James Eskrine and New Black Films, who together created “One Night in Turin” and “From the Ashes,” are now producing a film about legendary cyclist Marco Pantani, the last rider to win the Giro and Tour in the same year. Victoria Gregory, who was a producer of “Senna” and the producer of “Man On a Wire,” will work with Erskine on this film that will undoubtedly charm we sinners.
Erskine said, “This is not just a film about cycling, but a psychological exploration of what drives athletes to compete; the masochistic pursuit of victory, to the point of self-destruction. It will look in detail at the nature of what it means to be a sporting champion and what great victories mean, in the controversial context of the doping allegations that continue to plague the sport.”
So pretty much, this documentary is going to kick ass. It’s said to be released at the start next year’s Tour, so we’ll all have to wait a while. But in the meantime, give Il Pirata’s obituary a read, it’s amazing.
The charismatic Italian Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, who has died aged 34, enthralled cycling fans worldwide in the mid-1990s. His draw was his unpredictably romantic racing style, devoid of tactical nuances – “quixotic” was the term frequently employed.
“Families turn on the television in the afternoon to watch the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia because they know Pantani will always do something, the question is what?” said a reporter for La Gazzetta dello Sport in 1995.
The featherweight Pantani was a throwback to the halcyon days of Italian cycling, the 1940s and 1950s, and to one man in particular, Fausto Coppi, who was the first to achieve the double of the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. Pantani emulated him in 1998. They rode the same make of bike, Bianchi, and, like Coppi, Pantani was famously unlucky, which merely added to the romance.
In 1994, he overcame a crash to finish third in the Tour de France. In 1995, he fought back from being hit by a car to take two mountain stage wins in the Tour and a bronze medal in the world championship
The worst crash, a broken leg sustained when a jeep drove into the pack in the Milan-Turin race that autumn, left him unable to walk, with a lump of calcified bone the size of a golfball on his shin, and holes where bolts had been put in to stop the leg shortening. These were oozing pus seven months after the crash, when he was still barely able to pedal his bike for fear of stressing the bones.
At a time when cycling was dominated by the machine-like, but utterly dull, Spanish figure of Miguel Indurain, Pantani was also loved for little touches of eccentricity. In 1996, when he returned to racing after the crash, he did so in disguise, wearing a blonde wig. He also wrote poetry, painted, and took to talking about himself in the third person.
The nicknames he acquired were legion: Elefantino, the Italian for Dumbo, because of his prominent ears; Nosferatu, because of his cadaverous appearance; Pac-man, for the way he gobbled up opponents on the mountain climbs.
The one that stuck was Pirata, for his buccaneering style and seaside roots. Pantani was the son of a family who earned a living running a kiosk in the small resort of Cesenatico, selling ice creams and pancakes. By 1999, he had turned the nickname into a trademark, sporting bandannas, earring and goatee beard, and sitting on a saddle with a skull and crossbones design, which was replicated on the t-shirts of his fans.
He was capable of spontaneous gestures almost unique in a world of manufactured sports stars. In 1999, interviewing him for a cycling magazine, the photographer and I gave him a polaroid photo of the cover picture. He promptly took it to the mechanic’s toolbox, took out a screwdriver and turned it into a perfect etching.
Pantani’s sporting zenith came in 1998, when he performed his Tour de France-Giro d’Italia double. That was the year of the great Tour de France drug scandal, and his victory was the only bright note amid police raids and revelations of systematic drug use. He became Italy’s most popular sportsman, so celebrated that his presence was required as guest of honour at the 1999 Ferrari launch, where it was apparently felt that Michael Schumacher’s image could only benefit by association.
But Pantani’s rise coincided with the institutionalising of drug-taking among professional cyclists, and, by June 1999, he had become a pariah after failing a blood test in the Giro d’Italia. Overnight, he went from a two-wheeled legend to cycling’s equivalent of Ben Johnson, mired in legal action and racing bans for the next four years. The court cases and scandals brought recreational drugs, depression and increasing bitterness.
“A lot of times, I’m convinced there is a car waiting round the next corner, and I will hit it,” Pantani told me. “I’m quite mad by nature, and it’s my craziness that has saved me from extinction.” It was clearly not enough, however, to keep him from the anti-depression drugs that appear to have ended his life, either by accidental overdose or suicide. Like Coppi, Pantani’s was an early, tragic death.
He is survived by his parents and sister.
· Marco Pantani, cyclist, born January 13 1970; died February 14 2004
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