The Enduring Appeal of Marco Pantani

There is nothing like dying young in tragic or unusual circumstances to cement your reputation. As a career move it can’t be beaten. Just think of who’s done it – Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Jimi Hendrix, Heath Ledger, Marc Bolan (who he?), Amy Winehouse, River Phoenix – all now regarded as flawed geniuses.

And Marco Pantani – a cocaine overdose in a cheap, sleazy hotel in a down at heel Italian seaside resort. Pantani ticks all the boxes to be an iconic figure:

  • Italian
  • Short
  • Working class
  • Pirate bandana
  • Little boy lost look
  • Bianchi rider
  • Cocaine addict
  • Mysterious death
  • Ear-ring
  • Goatee beard

That gaunt, sad face now peers out from mugs, T shirts (I have one myself), posters and is the go-to image on the wall of every cycling cafe from Sevenoaks to San Francisco.

And yet, and yet…he was a doper, a coke fiend, a tragic figure maybe but a cheat nonetheless. We excoriate Armstrong and his ilk now but Pantani remains revered. Why? And does it really excuse anything that ‘everyone did it?’ Because not everyone did cheat; some riders stayed clean and in staying clean they didn’t win big and so aren’t remembered.

If Lance Armstrong had died in a tragic accident after his, say, fifth win (that now wasn’t) would the world view him differently? Probably – but not quite so much as he lacked Pantani’s iconic (read weak) attributes.

Of course if helps with the rose tinted view that there is really only Pantani and Tom Simpson as the two tragic, dead cyclists. (Fausto Coppi perhaps but his career was over by the time that mosquito did for him). Poor Fabio Casartelli and Wouter Weylandts were journeymen domestiques who had the bad luck to die in common or garden cycling accidents rather than the career enhancing drug fuelled demise which did so much for Marco and Tom. (There is even a cycling magazine named after Simpson. What next? Millar? Oh, of course he’s still alive…)

Matt Rendells’ biography of Pantani does a fine job of describing Marco’s rise and spectacular fall but one can’t escape the feeling that he doesn’t actually come across as a very nice person – although to be fair, apart from Roger Federer, which top sportsman does?

Ultimately, though, that all pails into insignificance – watch the video of Pantani racing up Alpe d’Huez in 37 minutes, on the drops, nostrils flaring (of course) and bandana flying and, doped or not, it never fails to quicken the pulse.

So wear your bandana, buy your classic Bianchi, search Ebay for a pair of denim coloured Carrera shorts and raise a glass in memory of dear, departed, Il Pirata.


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