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The first Italian since Fausto Coppi to win the Giro-Tour double, Marco Pantani was arguably the greatest climber the sport has ever seen. His flamboyant uphill attacks, riding in the drops, were matched with breakneck descents. Sporting a bandana, goatee and earring, Il Pirata, on his alloy Bianchi, said: “It takes courage and willpower to ride the way I ride.”
But in 1999, having taken four high mountain stages at that year’s Giro, Pantani was subjected to a random dope test. Doctors judged his haematocrit to read 52%, indicating use of the blood-booster EPO. His subsequent ban and failure to claim his second Giro proved a major blow.
After he returned in 2000 and famously battled with Lance Armstrong on Mont Ventoux, his career completely unraveled. On Valentine’s Day 2004, Marco Pantani was found dead in a hotel room in Rimini, just a short journey from his birthplace in Cesena. Tens of thousands turned up to his funeral.
Unfortunately, the tragic nature of Pantani’s career has come to represent the paradox of the sport in the 1990s. But people adored him because he truly expressed himself when he raced. In his autobiography, Pantani wrote: “My language is the bike.”
James Erskine’s The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is now available from pantanifilm.com.