I really started getting interested in pro cycling just as Marco Pantani was making his premature exit from the top ranks of the sport, then shortly after, his death in 2004. I remember him mainly as that funny little bald guy with the bandana and big ears (pre-pinback) who could, when he was on, climb like an angel.
So it was with great relish that I dove into The Death of Marco Pantani: A Biography, by sports journalist Mark Rendell. The story isn’t pretty from Day One, but is a fascinating look into what makes a champion a champion and how that same thing can destroy him in the end. Rendell speaks Italian and had extensive interviews with those closest to Pantani, including his parents, his agent and even the guy whose job it was to keep him away from cocaine (unsuccessfully, it goes without saying)!
The research is exhaustive. So much so that I found my eyes glossing over as I read yet another 3-page analysis of one of Pantani’s blood tests. It’s all very technical, but Rendell is right in going this route because we need to know the details to see what a juiced-up mess Pantani was throughout his career.
The main thesis of the book is that Marco was using performance enhancing drugs for most of his time on the bike and that he was an enormous cocaine abuser. But the book – especially the first half – also highlights his career, from a junior through to his short time at the top of the sport, to his speedy demise. I found the race descriptions a little too dramatic for my liking and the style seemed a bit contrived, but it didn’t take away from the enjoyment too much – just a matter of preference probably.
Although the book is all about Marco it can easily be read as a condemnation of the EPO era – the 1990s and early 2000s – and just one more piece of proof that the culture of drugs was rife in the pro peloton at that time. It’s not a pretty picture, but if it was it wouldn’t make for such good reading!