Matt Rendell’s Biography of Marco Pantani
Matt Rendell’s biography of Marco Pantani, The Death of Marco Pantani, was published in 2006, so I’m somewhat late in writing a review.
The reason for doing so is the Tour de France’s visit to Cesenatico on Stage 2 of the 2024 edition of the race. Cesenatico was Pantani’s home town, and its hosting of the start of the stage must be seen as a nod to the Italian climber.
These are the points that struck me in reading the book.
1) When Pantani Was Growing Up, No one Was Called by their Real Name
Early on, we learn that:
- Pantani’s grandmother Delia called herself Alfea
- his grandfather Sotero called himself Bacon
- Sotero/Bacon’s father Ciro called himself Ferdinando
- Pantani’s father Ferdinando was known as Paolo
- Pantani’s maternal grandfather Bruno was known as Baio
- his maternal grandmother Maria was known as Poppona
On it goes. I don’t know what the explanation is, but it almost looks like a cultural practice not to use your real first name.
The relevance is that Rendell clearly did his research thoroughly, and went and talked to Pantani’s family and contacts in and around Cesenatico. All the name changes make it a little harder to remember who is who, though.
2) Pantani Was an Individualist
When Pantani was playing football, he wouldn’t pass the ball. He was an individualist unsuited to a team game.
We also find out that Pantani was strong-headed, impetuous, introverted, solitary, and had difficulty making friends.
Much later he is identified as having a personality disorder that includes narcissism.
3) Some of the Reports of Old Races Are a Bit Boring
Rendell has watched old races featuring Pantani, including amateur events covered by Ultimo Kilometro.
You’d have to be really fascinated by Pantani to want to know all about those competitions. Perhaps more selectivity would have been better.
One thing that struck me here was the different ways the author found to describe ‘cadence’.
‘He turns the pedals eighty times a minute…Della Vedova increases the tempo…the pedals which accelerate to a hundred and ten breathless strokes per minute, a fast spin…he cannot reach a hundred pedal strokes per minute…Marco’s final pedal strokes must touch a hundred and twenty pedal strokes per minute’extract from chapter 2 of the death of marco pantani
4) It was at the 1994 Giro d’Italia that Pantani Became Popular in Italy
Pantani won consecutive mountain stages at the 1994 Giro d’Italia, and these attracted big TV audiences in Italy. This was his breakthrough as a popular sporting idol.
Pantani was 3rd in the Tour de France that year, performing remarkably on the stage to Val Thorens after a fall.
5) Pantani Crashed a Lot
Marco Pantani crashed a lot.
He had crashes when he was driving, and he was often hit by cars when cycling – notably when training for the 1995 Giro d’Italia, which meant that he didn’t participate in that race.
Pantani also had a bad crash when a driver was allowed onto the course of Milan-Turin in October 1995 as a group including il pirata were on a fast descent.
6) EPO Entered Cycling around 1991
Greg Lemond says that it was in 1991 that average speeds in the Tour de France increased dramatically. The American former winner struggled to keep up.
An average haematocrit level for elite athletes was 42%, but blood tests at the 1996 Tour of Switzerland showed an average 46%.
In 1997, the UCI introduced a maximum level of 50%, beyond which cyclists would be suspended for 15 days. At this time, Pantani was medically supervised by Francesco Conconi’s Biomedical Studies Centre at the University of Ferrara.
7) Pantani Had an Elevated Haematocrit Level When he Won the 1998 Giro
Before the final time trial of the 1998 Giro, Pantani was called at 6.30am for a blood test. He had to present himself by 7am. In the event, he showed up at 7.17am, and recorded a haematocrit level of 49.3%.
One of Pantani’s teammates, Riccardo Forconi, returned a reading above 50% and was not allowed to start the time trial. There were allegations that Forconi and Pantani’s blood samples had been swapped.
8) The Discovery of a Huge Haul of Doping Products Kicked Off the Festina Affair at the 1998 Tour de France
Most cycling fans remember the Festina affair, and the name Willy Voet rings a bell. Rendell’s book reminds us of all the details.
The 1998 Tour started in Dublin, and Willy Voet was a Festina soigneur driving from Belgium to Calais in order to take a ferry to Dublin. He was stopped by French Customs officials.
Voet was driving without a licence after a speeding offence in January 1998. The officials searched his car. They found:
- 82 vials of human growth hormone
- 60 capsules of epitestosterone
- 248 vials of physiological serum
- 8 syringes of hepatitis A vaccine
- 60 tablets of Hyperlipen, to lower the amount of fat in the blood
- 4 doses of somatropin
- 4 ampoules of Synacthene
- 2 vials of amphetamine
- 234 doses of recombinant human EPO
After Stage 4, Festina’s directeur sportif and doctor were taken in for questioning, and the team was invited to withdraw from the race.
The famous sit down protest took place after a rest day at Tarascon-sur-Ariege, with Pantani taking a leading role. Bjarne Riis was one of the first to break the strike.
Pantani won the Tour de France that year, after beating Jan Ullrich by nine minutes on a stage to Les Deux Alpes.
9) It was at the 1999 Giro at Madonna di Campiglio that Pantani’s Doping Caught up with him
It was in 1999 at Madonna di Campiglio, when Pantani was leading the Giro by a large margin, that his doping caught up with him.
Teams and riders should only have had ten minutes’ notice of a test, but in fact Pantani and his team got wind of his test 24 hours in advance. His own test the night before showed a haematocrit level of 48.6%.
On the morning of his test, Pantani was called at 0725 for an 0735 test, and he presented himself at 0746.
After eight analyses, the reading was 52 to 53%, and Pantani was declared unfit to race. Pantani smashed a window in his hotel room with his fist.
Soon after, it emerged that Pantani’s blood, taken following his 1995 Milan-Turin crash, showed a haematocrit reading of 60.1%.
In December 1999 there were revelations from an investigation into the University of Ferrara’s Biomedical Centre, and more specifically into Francesco Conconi, Michele Ferrari and Maro Pescante.
Since 1979 Conconi had been administering blood transfusions to boost athletes’ performances. The practice was superseded by the advent of r-EPO in the early 1990s, then returned at the end of the decade.
A database from the Biomedical Centre, epo.wks, showed that EPO treatment had been given to cyclists including Gianni Bugno, Claudio Chiappucci, Rolf Sorensen and Maurizio Fondriest.
Another database, dblab.wdb, contained the results of blood tests between 1992 and 1995.
Pantani’s haematocrit varied between 40.7% and 58%, a range of variation of 42.5%. The maximum natural variation is 10%.
Other riders detailed in the dblab.wdb file included Claudio Chiappucci, Guido Bontempi, Piotr Ugrumov, Nicola Minali and Ivan Gotti.
The earliest Conconi database containing details of Pantani’s blood dated from 18th December 1991 – eight months before his professional debut. This file suggests that he had taken anabolic steroids at that time.
Rendell concludes that Pantani’s entire career was based on doping, especially r-EPO abuse.
10) In the Aftermath of Madonna di Campiglio, Pantani Started Taking Cocaine
A couple of weeks after Pantani returned from Madonna di Campiglio to Cesenatico, he told his Danish girlfriend Christine that he had started taking cocaine.
As time went on, cocaine and crack cocaine addiction became a major problem for Pantani. The drugs were probably supplied by organised crime.
11) In December 2000 a Court Found Pantani Guilty of Doping
A court case concerning Pantani’s blood values from the 1995 Milan-Turin crash ended on 11th December 2000, with a finding that he had committed fraudulent acts to improve his competitive performance.
This verdict was later overturned on a technicality – that the law in question did not make Pantani’s actions crimes.
In June 2002, he was found guilty of doping in relation to an insulin syringe found in his hotel room. He was disqualified for 8 months.
12) Pantani Was Rich
Despite the chaos of his life, Pantani was rich.
In 2003, he had property worth at least €12 million, and €20 million in current accounts. That made getting him off cocaine more of a problem than it would have been if he was poor.
13) Pantani Ended His Days in Hotel Residence le Rose in Rimini
Pantani went to Hotel Residence le Rose in Rimini in early February 2004. He had cocaine delivered to his room, then spent four days there.
He was found dead, barricaded in his room, by the receptionist. He had taken six times the lethal dose of cocaine.
14) Widespread Doping Does Not Mean a Level Playing Field
Different people respond differently to EPO.
‘This individual variation means that, in conditions of widespread r-EPO doping, the best performance is likely to come not from the best athlete but from the athlete with the best response to r-EPO treatment’.epilogue to the death of marco pantani
Therefore widespread r-EPO doping does not mean a level playing field.
Rendell says that Pantani’s successes ‘were not what they purported to be at the time, and they would have been struck out had their true nature been known’.
The Death of Marco Pantani is thoroughly researched and informative. The information about blood values and doping leaves no room for doubt, and the conclusions Rendell draws are logical and convincing.
At times there is more information about Marco Pantani than I really wanted to know. This includes what are in effect race reports from his early years; it also applies to Pantani’s movements between one hotel and another, and phone calls to suppliers, towards the end when he was addicted to cocaine.
This could be because Rendell is clearly a nice chap, and felt an obligation to the sources who had taken the trouble to provide him with the details to include them in his book.
Rendell’s account of Pantani’s life and career is definitive. I won’t need to read anything else about the Italian bike racer for as long as I live.