The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

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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.

Il Pirata

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



Now type “Pantani” into the search bar and read everything ever said about him on DC.


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About Cupcake

I don’t have a beer gut, I’ve developed a liquid grain storage facility.

24 Replies to “The Accidental Death of a Cyclist”

  1. Follow the “Senna” link and watch the video clip from Monaco in the rain. Wow. We miss ye, Ayrton.

  2. I never got see him race live. I watched videos of him in the shop I worked at. I believe it was the 97 or 98 giro where he gets out of the saddle to attack with like 10k to go on a hill and never sits down. Just keeps going and going. I fell in love. Watching him pedal is always entertaining and makes everyone of todays era look boring. There are no more attacks like that. Blame it on doping or strategy or what not. There are few that were as entertaining as he.

  3. …pantani – one of a kind…

    …a man who’s love & passion for cycling ultimately killed him & ironically on valentines day…

  4. For those who haven’t seen it, “Senna” is an absolute masterpiece. It’s sending chills down my spine to think Pantani is goignt o get the “senna” treatment. This movie will be amnazing

  5. …1984, monaco grand prix, aryton senna’s first f1 race & in an unimpressive toleman hart, the gp rookie absolutely cemented his name at the pinnacle of the sport by a masterful drive from 30th position on the grid up to 2nd behind alain prost before the race was finally cancelled due to an exceedingly heavy rain that had drivers like mansell & piquet stacking it in the barriers…

    …he never once looked back & he certainly never backed down from a driving challenge & with his death 10 years later, the sport was robbed of arguably the best driver ever to contest the formula 1 series…

  6. Agree 100% on Senna comments. Senna had other-worldly almost mystical talent and passion for racing four wheels. If it starts raining you might as well cancel the race cause no one could stay within a lap of him. Reduced Prost to a sniveling little frog. As far as comparing Pantani to Senna that is an insult to Senna. Only Merxx himself is comparable to on two wheels to Senna on four.

  7. People need stop glorifying cheaters and dopers especially when they c are robbing from the guys who want to do it right. How many guys had as much or more talent than Pantani and who worked as hard or harder than him couldn’t compete cause they weren’t willing to do it the wrong way like him and the rest of the hacks in the 90’s that cleared the way for the era of Armstrong, etc. Yea, the was a reason that guys like Pantani and Armstrong could attack on a mountain with 10k to go and never sit down. If it seems to good to be true, well, it usually is. This quote by Wiggins sums it up pretty well (now watch Wiggins test positive).

    Michael Rogers, Sky’s captain on the road and “the man with the numbers,” according to Wiggins, knew that attacks weren’t sustainable.

    “Michael would just say, ‘Leave ’em, he can’t sustain that. It’s not possible to sustain that if we’re riding 450 [watts].’ Someone’s going to have to sustain 500 watts on a 20-minute climb to stay away, and that’s not possible anymore unless you have a few extra liters of blood, you know.”

  8. ‘Everyone longs for freedom to behave in the way they see fit. I’m a non-conformist, and some feel inspired by the way I express freedom of thought. I’ve never been meticulous or calculating, on or off the bike. I ride instinctively, responding to the moment. There’s chaos in everyday life, and I tune into that chaos.’ Marco Pantani

  9. Hack, you do realize that even Merckx was on a doping program? The tools weren’t as good back then, but everyone on the team got their “vitamin” shot. All we can do is improve the tests.

  10. “1984, monaco grand prix, aryton senna’s first f1 race & in an unimpressive toleman hart, the gp rookie absolutely cemented his name at the pinnacle of the sport by a masterful drive from 30th position on the grid up to 2nd…”
    While Ayrton Senna was no doubt a super bad-ass, there is a tendency among his fans to deify him just a little too much. Monaco 1984 was his 6th F-1 race and he qualified 13th out of 20 cars that made the field that day. Not trying to be disrepectful to bikesgonewild or anything, i’m just a weenie about accuracy in racing (auto, cycling, moto etc.) history is all.
    “How many guys had as much or more talent than Pantani and who worked as hard or harder than him couldn’t compete cause they weren’t willing to do it the wrong way like him and the rest of the hacks in the 90?s that cleared the way for the era of Armstrong, etc”
    The 90’s, really? You honestly believe this shit became prevalent in cycling in the 90’s? The 1890’s would be more like it. Totally trying to be disrespectful to Hack because that is just some ridiculous shit right there. The reason that Pantani could attack on a mountain with 10k to go and never sit down wasn’t because he was on drugs. It’s because he was PANTANI and on drugs.

  11. Hack,

    I see your point, but at that time everyone that was leading those races was doping. They have all been convicted, admitted, or involved in doping. So I’m basically saying that he was one the most entertaining of the dopers. He road like a beast because he was Pantani, in a time when we were starting to see the “tactics” of the tour specialists. Not racing to win but racing not to lose. He straight went to the front and hammered. Was he a doper, definitely. Was he entertaining, oh yeah. Same way the Sosa/McGwire battle was awesome, even though both have admitted to juicing.

    If I stopped liking every person in sports that has cheated in one way or another, I would have to stop watching sports all together.

  12. …warthog…you, sir, upon further revue, are absolutely correct…

    …i had simply google-tubed up a video as i could recall that senna had made a name for himself as a serious ‘rain driver’ in a toleman & i wasn’t even sure which race…

    …as it stands, it was senna’s 1st ‘street circuit’ race & monaco was, as you allude to, the 6th round of the ’84 gp season…(fuck – i should a’ known my info was amiss on that basis alone)…

    …also impressive in the wet that day was stefan bellof in another underpowered car, that years tyrrell but all of their team results for the season were negated due to weight issues & unfortunately bellof, another great talent, was dead 15 months later…

    …anyway, i distinctly remember the talk of the young brazilian from that drive & know that years later whilst teamed up with alain prost, senna had the little frenchman peeing in a few driving suits but then again, prost is still around, alive & well…

  13. Fair enough warthog and VFMR. I was a few beers deep and just stirring the pot a bit. I know that Merxx was doping and understand the “everyone was doping” argument. It’s just a shame. Pantani was obviously a helluva rider with huge balls, although I would still argue he wasn’t in Senna’s league in any way, shape or form.

    How bout a little VH to lighten things up a bit

  14. bikesgonewild,
    I remember distinctly watching the race in which Stefan Bellof was killed, the Spa 1000k in ’85. Jacky Ickx had just passed Bellof, and from the onboard camera in Ickx’s car you could tell when Bellof clipped the back of him as they entered Eau Rouge. Ickx spun, hit the outside wall and came to a rest pointing towards the wreckage of Bellof’s car. The video feed kept playing from the onboard as Ickx had to kick his way out of the cockpit. You could see Bellof’s Porsche a few dozen yards away, absolutely mangled up. I immediately thought to myself, “Oh god, he’s dead” even before his car caught fire. The same with Senna’s crash at San Marino in ’94, you just knew somehow. There was a documentary that came out in 1975 called “One by One” (re-released a few years later as “The Quick and the Dead” to include the crash that took the life of Tom Pryce in ’77) about F-1 and how dangerous it was back then. In case you’ve not seen it, it somehow manages to be gruesome without being gratuitous.

  15. Hack,
    no worries. My response was just due to being ill at home and bored. I do agree with you about it’s being a shame people seem to have to dope to be competitive in any sport where strength/fitness factors in more than skill. I think that’s why my favorite thing to watch lately is World Cup DH mountain biking. It definitely requires a great deal of fitness to be competitive, but not a superhuman level of fitness so no need to dope. The skill level required however is somewhere between “holy shit” and “no fuckin’ way”. Free live online coverage this sunday through various outlets (Red Bull TV, Vital MTB, Pinkbike etc.) in case you haven’t seen it lately. Plus, Rob Warner has got to be the best sports commentator ever.

  16. Eau Rouge is the most terrifying corner in motor racing. An F1 car goes through there flat, on the rev limiter in sixth (or seventh) gear, bottomed out on the suspension at about 190 MPH. What could possibly go wrong?

  17. …therein lies the dichotomy of eau rouge in a ‘ground effects’ car…

    …in theory, the faster one goes through, the safer one should be because more downforce is being generated…as you suggest, mikey – “…what could possibly go wrong ???”

    …warthog…got a chill reading your description of bellof’s death, which, as i recall, i later saw the video of & yes, i was up early in the morning watching senna live at san marino & you sensed it & then you knew it with the hushed tones & interminable delay…

    …if one feels disappointment in learning one’s favorite racing cyclist is a doper, it’s nothing like the hollow feeling one gets upon learning any motorsport driver has died in a crash, which can involve no more than a literal ‘…flick of the wrist…’ in the wrong circumstance…

    …it’s obvious the inherent danger is always there but (& a non racing fan may not understand this) there is a great beauty to a well executed drive…

  18. il Pirata wouldn’t have pulled that Cat 5 bullshit at Suzuka. He would have manned up and raced the damn race.

  19. The difference between a guy like Pantani doping and a guy like Armstrong doping is that when people have accused Armstrong he has done the character defaming/lawsuit filing/legal fee bankrupting/Bassons chasing down type douchebaggery that we have had to sit through over the years. Il Pirata would not have done that. He did his time, tried to come back, and kept riding. Until the cocaine binges that is. At least he had the panache to turn his self-hatred inwards instead of outwards like CancerJeebus.