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Should the Tour de France Celebrate Marco Pantani’s Career?

Marco Pantani on Alpe d'Huez, by Hein Ciere, CC BY 3.0
Marco Pantani on Alpe d’Huez, by Hein Ciere, CC BY 3.0

Stage 2 of the 2024 Tour de France starts in Cesenatico.

There’s only one reason why this holiday resort on the Adriatic coast has been chosen by the race organisers. Think of a distinctive bike rider from the 1990s with a bandana and earrings, making him look at bit like a pirata (pirate).

The reason the Tour is being hosted by Cesenatico is Marco Pantani. Cesenatico was Pantani’s home town.

Actually, there’s probably another reason why the Tour is going to Cesenatico, and that’s money. A start town pays €90,000 for the privilege of hosting la Grande Boucle. But the Pantani connection is what drew the Tour to Cesenatico

Pantani is mentioned by the race organisers in their Press Kit for the Grand Départ 2024, and the late Italian racer is sure to get plenty of coverage in media in advance of Stage 2.

There’s a statue of Pantani in Cesenatico, which could provide the backdrop for television presenters as they discuss his legacy.

Marco Pantani statue at Cesenatico, by PROPOLI87, CC BY-SA 4.0
Marco Pantani statue at Cesenatico, by PROPOLI87, CC BY-SA 4.0

But what is Pantani’s legacy?

An Outstanding Athlete Given a Small Boost by Drugs?

One reader who reviewed The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell on Amazon says:

‘…I can now see why outstanding athletes like Pantani, whose abilities I find awe-inspiring, need to take dangerous chemicals to give them just that bit more performance or endurance’.

reveiwer of the death of marco pantani on amazon

I’m sure many people will have the same view of Pantani: a huge talent who needed a little boost to compete with this rivals. But that misunderstands the message of Rendell’s book.

The New Statesman says that the book does not reveal a prodigiously gifted but flawed sportsman; instead, Pantani ‘was a pharmaceutical creation almost from the beginning. He was cycling’s greatest cheat’.

The Times called Rendell’s book ‘nightmarishly bleak’.

Even though Marco Pantani did have some talent for climbing, the truth appears to be that he was not an outstanding athlete; his wins were entirely down to cheating.

The Death of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell
The Death of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell

Buy The Death of Marco Pantani, by Matt Rendell

Pantani’s Life and Career

Pantani was born in 1970 in Cesena and grew up in Cesenatico, where he joined the Fausto Coppi cycling club aged 11. He won the Girobio (the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia) in 1992. He then turned professional.

He won two consecutive mountain stages in the 1994 Giro. He finished second overall that year, and third in the Tour de France. Crashes with cars hindered him in 1995 and 1996.

In 1997 he became leader of a new team, Mercatone Uno. He won two Alpine stages of the Tour de France that year, establishing a record time for the climb of Alpe d’Huez in the first of them. His time still stands, although the top 10 fastest times are a who’s who of doping in cycling (including Armstrong, Ullrich and Virenque).

Pantani was third overall in the 1997 Tour.

1998 was Pantani’s glory year, winning the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. His Tour performance was preposterous, losing 4 minutes to Ullrich in the prologue, but putting 9 minutes into the German on a stage from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes.

Pantani was leading the 1999 Giro when a blood test at Madonna di Campiglio showed a haematocrit reading of 52%, compared with a UCI maximum legal limit of 50%. He was expelled from the race and forced to take a 2-week rest.

That was the beginning of the end for il Pirata. He continued to race sporadically, and his last Grand Tour stage win was in the 2000 Tour, in Courchevel.

He was admitted to a psychiatric clinic in 2003 to deal with addictions, and he died in 2004 in a hotel in Rimini from cocaine poisoning.

It transpired that Pantani had been a client of Francesco Conconi from 1993-98; and il pirata was later linked to Dr Fuentes through Operacion Puerto.

Should the Tour de France Celebrate Marco Pantani’s Career?

This brings me back to the question in the headline: should the Tour de France celebrate Marco Pantani’s career?

The case for acknowledging Pantani is as follows. Cycling fans saw him race in the 1990s, and he made an impression on many of them. He was a showbiz personality even if you disregard any sporting achievements.

Plus if you ignore Pantani and others like him, you’re effectively saying that the Tour de France was a worthless charade in the years in which he took part in it.

Then there’s the case for ignoring Pantani. He didn’t achieve anything within the rules of the sport. All his wins were through cheating, and therefore count for nothing.

The ‘level playing field’ argument is bogus. EPO affected different riders very differently depending on their natural haematocrit levels. You simply can’t say that EPO gave all riders an extra x%, because it didn’t.

If Pantani has no valid achievements, why would the Tour tip its hat to him?

Those are the arguments, and you can pick your side.

Should the Tour de France Celebrate Marco Pantani’s Career?

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