Italian cycling hero’s mysterious death and maverick life
Marco Pantani is alone on Valentine’s Day – Saturday, 14 February 2004. In the Italian seaside resort of Rimini, he’s holed up in Room 5D of the Residence Le Rose hotel. His behavior has been erratic, according to other guests.
Lance Armstrong, a year and a half Pantani’s junior, had won the last four Tours de France, and would go on to win three more. Pantani, who earned the nickname ‘Il Pirata’ – the Pirate – because of his bandana, shaved head, nose stud and earrings, has been out of the spotlight for more than three years now.
When he was at his peak, he was professional cycling’s swashbuckling folk hero. At the 2000 Tour de France, he raged against Armstrong’s dominance and his own waning power, winning a stage in the clean, alpine air of Courchevel. The day remains the most-watched cycling event in Italian television history.
Towards mid-morning, Pantani has three telephone conversations with reception. The person next door is bothering him. There are no people in that room. In his last call, just after 11:00, he asks for the police to be called.
A climber’s body is thin, small, sharp-boned, and powerfully built. Pantani had these characteristics. Giro d’Italia and Tour de France victories in 1998 were only the sixth double ever achieved by a rider in history due to his remarkable ability to thrive in thin mountain air. A true legend, Fausto Coppi joined the likes of Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Fausto Coppi in the pantheon of greats with this race.
There had been a lot of change by 2004, however. It was 20kg over Pantini’s racing weight, and his frame had filled out. In spite of his star status, his image had been tarnished, at least for some.
Only two stages remained in the 1999 Giro d’Italia, but he finished the race in ignominy rather than triumph.
He was frogmarched out of the team hotel by Italian police on the morning of the penultimate stage. His blood test results indicated that he had been doping.
Pantani’s teammates cheered their leader from the hotel balcony. His expulsion from the race was protested by fans who blocked the road.
“I’ve been in two big accidents, but this time we’ve touched bottom morale-wise,” said Pantani.
Pantani and Rimini were separated by this fork in the road. His world was plunged into darkness that he could not escape.
Afterwards, the hotel’s receptionist provides fresh towels to Room 5D under the pretext of consulting with the owner. The door is unanswered when I knock on it. A second attempt is made by the receptionist after he has spoken with his boss again. Marco Pantani is found dead on the room’s mezzanine level by a pool of his own blood after he unlocks the door with a master key, removes the furniture barricading it from the inside, and forces aside the furniture from the inside.
There is no doubt he left behind a legacy of glory, played out in front of an adoring public. There are, however, questions as well. Despite Pantani’s popularity, not everyone adored him. It is possible that some wanted him dead