Worshipped, Abused, Rejected He lived the frentic life of a celebrated sports icon. He died the solitary death of a drug-dependent depressive.
Marco Pantani’s ending faithfully reflected his star-crossed life and times. The quirky, pugnacious Italian climber was frequently alone at the end of punishing mountain stages in cycling’s greatest races, minutes ahead of the opposition. And he was alone again, tragically so, when he died in the fifth-story room of a hotel called Le Rose in the afternoon of a somber St.Valentine’s Day in February 2004. Outside his window, life still bustled in the streets of Rimini, while waves continued to foam onto the beach of this Adriatic resort. Pantani was 34.
On February 18, some 20,000 people came to Pantani’s hometown of Cesenatico, fewer than 20 kilometers north of Rimini. They watched and applauded his final 2-kilometer journey: from his funeral at the church of San Giacomo, where he was baptized, then alongside the Leonardo da Vinci–designed port canal, to his burial at the small coastal town’s cemetery.
His grave has become a shrine, like that of Italy’s other tragic cycling champion who died before his time, Fausto Coppi, who was just 40 and still an active racer when he was claimed by malaria that had been misdiagnosed as the flu.
Like Coppi, Pantani was revered for the transcendent manner in which he raced his celeste-green Bianchi bicycle to victories at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France. But unlike Coppi, whose exploits straddled World War II and were followed by pockets of fans huddled around crackly radios, Pantani was an electrifying presence to live television audiences of hundreds of millions of people.
As a consequence, fame was thrust on Pantani at a rate and in a manner that he had a hard time handling. Outwardly, he promulgated his notoriety by shaving his head, growing a goatee, piercing his ears for small silver hoop earrings, and wearing a knotted bandanna that bore the skull-and-crossbones emblem of Il Pirata, The Pirate.
But inwardly, Pantani was perplexed. At press conferences, he often talked of himself in the third person, as if the public Pantani were someone else. But when the swashbuckling image of “the little guy who could” was shattered by his blood hematocrit testing above cycling’s legal limit on the eve of a second Giro triumph in 1999, Pantani was crushed.
Ridiculed by those quick to jump to conclusions, humiliated in the press by accusations of doping, and subsequently hounded by no less than seven judicial inquiries into alleged crimes of “sporting fraud,” Pantani became more and more depressed.
The bicycle was his only true antidote to the personal onslaught. He rode it joyfully through the hills of Romagna to the southwest of his hometown. He later raced it to a pair of mountaintop stage wins ahead of Lance Armstrong at the 2000 Tour. And he came back again in the last summer of his life to show vestiges of his fiery climbing style in a 14th-place finish at the Giro. But for most of the final four and a half years, Pantani was chained to a nighttime world of discos, disillusion, and drugs.
He still had the trappings of success, but the troubled champion crashed his fast cars, abandoned his gated mansion, and in the early summer of 2003 split with his longtime Danish girlfriend, Christina Jonsson. After last-minute plans failed in June 2003 to get him a Tour de France ride on Jan Ullrich’s Bianchi team, Pantani was shattered.
He checked into the Parco dei Tigli, a high-class Padua clinic specializing in the treatment of nervous disorders. His personal manager and friend, Manuela Ronchi, said at the time, “I don’t know anything. I can only say that he must be suffering with something very private and that he doesn’t want to talk about it to anyone.”
His condition, which may have been incorrectly diagnosed, was treated with antidepressants. On leaving the clinic, he didn’t return to the bike. He became bloated: as much as 50 pounds over the sleek 125-pound climbing machine that took 36 race wins (half of them at the Giro and the Tour) in 12 years of professional cycling.
He was interviewed for the last time in September 2003 by Mario Pugliese, a boyhood friend and writer with the Voce di Romagna. He told Pugliese, “The champion I was exists no more; he is far from the man that I have become.”
Pantani was dismissive of his fans in his last interview. “If they still cheer me, it’s not through affection but because they have need of a personality.” And he was tired of being that personality, Pugliese wrote.
Four months later, a 34th birthday party was thrown for Pantani by a friend, a disco owner. A dozen people came to this last supper. Recalling that evening, Pugliese told French journalist Philippe Brunel, “In the middle of the meal, Marco stood up, took from his pocket a packet of cocaine in front of everyone. He went to the toilets, followed by a friend who wanted to stop him. The two argued. The evening degenerated. On leaving, all his friends said to themselves, ‘This is the last time that we’ll see him.’ Marco had arrived at the ultimate stage of dependence.”
Pantani still had hopes of kicking his drug habit. He twice visited Cuba, where a friend, the ex–Argentinean soccer star Diego Maradona, had been treated for cocaine addiction. On February 27, Pantani was due to fly to Bolivia with a priest who runs a secluded detoxification center for young people. But 13 days before departure, and five days after checking into Le Rose hotel in Rimini, Pantani’s heart failed. An autopsy pointed to fluid on the brain and in the lungs as contributors to his death. The final verdict was cocaine poisoning. Like rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, it seemed that Pantani’s bright star had burned out on a diet of drugs.
On nine pages of his passport, which was found next to his bed at the Rimini hotel, Pantani wrote: “I’m left all alone. No one managed to understand me. Even the cycling world and even my own family.” Also included were some loving words for his estranged girlfriend, who must have been on his mind that Valentine’s Day. He then addressed his dependence on drugs. “I want to go to Bolivia to break this addiction,” he wrote. “I want to finish with that world, and I want to get back on the bike.”
Tragically, this was one uphill battle that not even Marco Pantani could conquer.