Pantani: the triumph and the tragedy

PantaniCycling is a sport with as many ups and downs as a demanding étape on the Tour de France. Capable of producing moments of peak human achievement, feats of endurance, courage, and pure speed, the sport has also lived long in the shadow of doping and scandal. From the miasma of half-truths, innuendo, and out-and-out revelations of cheating, individuals have risen who capture the spirit of the sport, the pursuit of brilliance in perhaps the most physically demanding arena that sport can provide. These individuals are not themselves without taint and some of them remain in our affections despite damning evidence of cheating. Marco Pantani, the subject of Matt Rendell’s thorough, probing, and beautiful biography , is one such sportsman.

Pantani, born near Cesena, Italy, achieved one of the grails of cycling in 1998, winning both the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia, joining a small, elite band of artists and supermen who have done the same. He died, bereft and alone, of a massive overdose of cocaine in a scruffy hotel room on the Riveria on Valentine’s Day, 2004, an event that is still subject to speculation. His tale is one of triumph and tragedy, and of an elite sportsman’s battle with the demons that made him such a complete athlete, demons both mental and physical.

Rendell explores the life and professional career of Pantani with a sublime mixture of forensic attention to detail and wonderfully compassionate, and at times stirring, writing. His growth into the life of a professional cyclist from an awkward, lonely childhood is evocatively described and some of Rendell’s descriptions of the actual nuts and bolts of racing is brilliant; his prose sings when recalling Pantani’s unusual style and impulsive approach to racing.

Rendell is at his best, though, when piecing together the complexities of Pantani’s mental state and how it was abused and manipulated by the people who surrounded him; he also shows, honestly and unflinchingly, how Pantani was himself complicit in this process and why.

Of course, any biography is an assessment of legacy as much as it is a story of how that legacy is arrived at. Pantani’s was fought over and subject to interested parties, his sponsors, agent, friends, fellow cyclists, and the various governing bodies of the sport trying to create their own narratives around him. Fragile and exploited, self-determining sporting god, campaigner for the rights of cyclists in the face of draconian testing regimes, exposed doper and cheat: it seems like a hundred stories circulate around the memory of Pantani, everyone grabbing for their pound of flesh in a way all too evocative of the swirl that surrounded the Italian during his life. Rendell plots a thoughtful, clear course through these narratives, unpacking each to build a more accurate, holistic picture, divorced from any agenda other than to tell the story truthfully.

This is no hagiography, but a brilliant effort at showing how such a fractured individual can be all of those things. The picture that emerges is of a tortured man, torn apart by addiction and other forms of mental illness, driven by a deep sense of inadequacy in his personal relationships, of a supremely gifted sportsman who none the less resorted to a comprehensive and orchestrated program of doping, of a lonely, troubled soul who, despite his frailties, brought enormous joy and pride to a nation of bike-lovers.

Perhaps it’s fitting to leave the last word to Marco Pantani himself: “I love the mountains, but in the moment of exertion, I’m filled with deep hatred. So I try to shorten the suffering.” Pantani was in flight from such suffering for his whole life, his escape paradoxically also his imprisonment. Rendell’s superb book describes this movingly and honestly and is a must for cycling fans and a lesson in what can go wrong within a sport and for its participants.

by Matt Rendell is published by Phoenix, an imprint of

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