King of Pain: Marco Pantani

By cycling standards, the crash that Lucho Herrera endured on his way to victory during Stage 14 of the 1985 Tour de France was relatively unremarkable. The same can’t be said for its aftermath, however. Herrera crossed the finish line at Saint-Étienne with blood streaming down his face. This gruesome image sent the Colombian press into a state of delirium. Herrera was portrayed as a martyr, a hero, and his stage victory was used to explain that pain was a necessary part of the sport. The press, rightfully, zeroed in on the fact that the image, and what it represented, was almost tailor-made for Colombia’s Catholic faithful. The country’s biggest newspaper described his win as his Via Crucis, the Latin term for the Stations of the Cross. He was compared to a bloodied, fallen Christ figure. And with that, Herrera was elevated to the status of religious icon. We, the Colombian fans, were quickly indoctrinated into the notion that pain was a necessary ingredient in the sport of cycling.

In that sense, Herrera and the way in which his victory was portrayed by the Colombian press, changed my understanding of pain within the context of cycling. It was necessary, and it was to be admired. And it was not limited to merely struggling against another rider, or against a mountain. It was an instinctively painful affair. This was an understanding that didn’t change significantly in my mind until years later, when Marco Pantani died alone in a hotel room in Rimini in Italy.

Looking back, Herrera being cast as a pseudo-religious figure seems a bit bizarre, though entirely understandable given the way Catholicism continues to dominate Colombian life. I think it strange, however, when people try to do the same with Marco Pantani. So I write not to fetishize or oversimplify the battles he faced but simply because Pantani’s death (and Matt Rendell’s subsequent investigation of it in his excellent Pantani biography) served  once again to change my understanding of pain in sport. If Herrera’s bloody face prompted a simple and visceral reaction in me as a kid, Pantani’s life and death showed me the complexities of the human condition, both inside and outside the confines of his sport.

Today, we know that Pantani’s mental illness was not only diagnosed but was  largely obscured by the world of competitive cycling in which he became such a star. If anything, it was exacerbated by that very success. According to a psychiatric evaluation from December of 2001, it was determined that, among other things, Pantani presented the following traits: a need for admiration; a disregard for his own safety; a lack of remorse; severe perfectionism; frequent denial; and a lack of empathy which he expressed in his enjoyment of inflicting pain upon others1. He enjoyed making others feel pain, even if it came at his own peril.

While these characteristics seem an obvious recipe for heartache and disaster, they are also the mental traits required to achieve greatness in a sport as unforgiving as road racing. In Pantani’s case, both interpretations are valid. That is a realisation that has changed the way I see cycling, cyclists, and the whole concept of ‘pain’ within sport.

In the end, Pantani was neither a saint, nor a demon. He was something altogether more ordinary; he was simply human, a reality capable of bringing an unbelievable amount of pain.

 1 The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography, by Matt Rendell, Weidenfeld & Nicholson.