É Andato da Solo

Valentine’s Day marked the 6th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. And in light of Padraig’s recent post “Reclaiming Our Past” and a tweet forwarded by Joe Parkin questioning why some idolize Pantani while reviling other dopers, I wanted to do a little writing. That’s how I think through a question like that. It is interesting how we process our cycling idols (not just their performances) after we know they were cheaters, and Pantani occupies a particularly soft spot in my heart, so…

First of all, let’s be entirely clear. Marco Pantani cheated. He did it systematically, repeatedly and seemingly without remorse. As cheaters go, Pantani laid the blueprint for how not to do it. Through this prism, perhaps David Millar lends the best example of how to cheat well, i.e. with subsequent apology, outspokenness and openness, but that’s another post. Not only did Pantani dope, but he also led a rider’s strike at the ’98 Tour to protest police raids on team hotels aimed at rooting out the dope. Bold. Brazen. Shameful. Full stop.

So, on some level, Pantani was a bad guy. He dazzled on the bicycle, thrilling us with monster mountain breakaways executed with panache and merciless cruelty toward fellow racers, but it was all a lie. Here was this improbable, little guy with a pirate’s beard and kerchief crushing the legs of all comers. He was a star, if an awkward one, that would eventually burn out.

We all know the story by now. Pantani was broken by the revelations of his cheating. He retreated into drug-use and the resulting paranoia. He isolated himself, one last breakaway, in a hotel room, and did cocaine until his heart refused to go on.

How do you idolize a man like that?

The answer is: I don’t. I think making heroes of people is cruel. It puts them up on a pedestal they will eventually fall from. Pantani fell hard. He died, and don’t think the fame and shame didn’t play a part. I think it’s fair to ask: Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? The answer, to both questions, is probably yes.

So then, backing away from idol worship, what is it that endears a rider and a person like Pantani to a rider and a person like me?

Well, like me, Marco Pantani was an addict. I empathize with that trajectory of self-importance to deep shame to self-destructiveness. His highs were high (winning the Giro and the Tour), and his lows were low (six-feet below sea level to be exact). He did amazing things, but remained all too human. He could never win enough or do enough coke to quite escape that doomed trajectory. Here was a master of the sport to whom I could relate directly.

As I climbed in the mountains of Southern Vermont, I thought of Pantani. I tried (and failed) to dance in the pedals like the little Italian. When I got off the bike, I had nothing further to live up to. To me, Pantani is and was just a man, with all the frailty and failings attendant thereto. Unlike the untouchable idols of pelotons past, Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, and LeMond, Marco Pantani didn’t ever demand more of me than I could provide. He let me ride and be who I am, not more, not less.

I believe there is a flawed genius in each of us. If you tick back through that list of bike racing heroes, you will be able to hang faults on each of them. Coppi and Anquetil doped. So did Merckx. Hinault is an asshole, a graceless winner, a poor loser, and a lout. LeMond, for all his charm in victory, has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe. None of this makes them unworthy winners in my mind. It just makes them men. Like you. Like me.

When we talk about the legacy of our sport, doping is one of the unavoidable subjects. It may be the one thing that keeps us from getting too carried away with idol worship, and that is, in my humble judgement, probably a good thing. I don’t mean that as an absolution for dopers or an acceptance that doping goes on and is ok. Each of us is responsible for our own actions, and where riders are systematically cheating and by extension tearing the sport down, that is clearly a bad thing. But, and this is important to me, it is just a sport, and we are just riders.

Image: Spray paint on canvas board by the author, inspired by this AP photo.

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18 comments

  1. Rod Diaz

    I think you hit it on the head when you say “flawed genius”.

    Pantani was a little, fragile boy from Cesenatico, so buried by insecurities (Elefantino burnt him so much to get those ears fixed) that he aimed to trascend by burning himself out on all ends.

    I remember him very well – in fact, he’s one of the reasons I am a cyclist. But not because he was a great champion, but because in his moments of great accomplishment and childishness he always seemed so human.

    It is kind of amazing how many of those fragile climbers have also cristal-like psyches: Bahamontes, Gaul, el Chaba Jimenez… All a bunch of wackos. And I still love all of them, and am glad that our sport can accomodate these tragic personalities.

    I love my mom and my mad. And I love my wife. But they are not idols, nor perfect. Same with Marco. I’ll take him over tricky Dicky Virenque any time. Or Lance, for that matter.

    On a separate account – maybe we should understand most of our “idols” are merely humans who are very good at one thing or another. But people nonetheless, not demigods or supernatural creatures. Just because someone can pedal hard, drive 400 y with a golf club, or kick a ball into a net are they better humans. They might be references and inspiration for their particular disciplines, but nothing more.

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  3. Carl Johnson

    My thoughts exactly on Pantani. He paid the price, and somehow that made him more human than many of the others. I’m past idolizing athletes, and down to hoping that the ones I like best are clean. Just hoping, not believing. Marco was a guy who couldn’t find his way out, and somehow I can relate to that.

  4. Souleur

    I agree with much you poignantly write here Robot, with one exception (which I will get to).

    Pantani holds a very very special place for me also, because as I was cutting my teeth in the saddle, & he arose like a phoenix from the flames. I naively bought his performance hook, line and sinker. His Maillot-Jaune win was spectacular, his Maglia-Rosa win, no less. And whereas these were phenomenal he had just as many days that were disappointing as I can remember. There were just as many days that I threw my bologna sandwich at the TV in disgust.

    I simply remember that as his humanity as you well mention. He had good days, days that were transcendant, and days that made us all look fairly equal. In all that however, he was a GC’r, every day he thought he was ‘it’. Everyone did recognize his threat. All recognized his potential to inflict a level of hell and suffering in the peloton that is reserved only for those destined for an eternity in Gehenna. He could shatter them, if he willed it.

    And in all this he was crassly Italian. He doped, he rode flamboyantly, he was PRO. In all these things he was supremely Italian. Should we have expected less? I do respect the fact that he did ride and live as he did, yet did not necessarily hide who he was. Afterall, we all knew he doped, and it wasn’t because he was found dead in a pile of coke in a lonely hotel room, in fact, it was nearly predictable. We all knew years prior that he doped, and whereas it was a known, we still held him dearly. Il Pirata. He rode it, he lived it, he maintained it in an Italian style just as his forefathers did, and I consider him no less than they. He simply showed us his pedigree, and that is where I think he holds a special place for me.

    Did Pantani kill cycling, or did cycling kill Pantani? Actually, there is another plausibility, and that is did Pantani kill Pantani? I think the latter, simply with cycling in the backdrop of a life that was self-destructive. Hence, is my belief that with cycling removed, Pantani would have likely died much the same, without a notable heritage however and without a lesson that may have touched someones life.

    Yet just a generation away, I will be willing to bet that Pantani will live on much like Coppi does in my mind now, like Anquetil, like Merckx. He will vicariously take on a legendary status over time IMHO. Yes perhaps stains and all initially, yet history will slowly over time wash his stains clean. I am mindful partly due to the fact that I lived during Pantani’s short existence, I witnessed it, I know it, stains and all. I didn’t witness the Coppi et al., and they did much the same, yet, history only reveals that to those who are diligently looking into it. For the casual observer, history is kinder and gentler, probably due to the fact that we take away from history simply what we desire to. Isn’t that what we often do anyway? And my view is rather optimistic, others are pesimistic/realists. Nonetheless it is the sport I love, legends and all.

    I believe in time, the same will hold true for Pantani. I hope.

  5. Lachlan

    that’s pretty interesting… Pantani would be far from the list of riders I’d first think of to define PRO…

    PRO can be flamboyant, but, for me anyway, has more system and care of detail & obsessive attention in everything. Pantani for me was almost the brilliant anti-pro who rode like an amateur, and so made stuff exciting.

    But then I’m not the owner of the phrase “PRO” here :o) Nor did I know the man!

    It is maybe an interesting question… who would you define as the most PRO riders for each of you?

    I’m more towards the genre of Kelly, Bruyneel, Museeuw, Fondriests, Merckx……

    1. Padraig

      When I think of Pantani what I recall, more than any other detail, is how he inspired every Cat. 4 for 100 miles around me to attack on climbs, in the drops. Even if they weren’t pure climbers, they still punched the steeps with their hands in the hooks. I’ll be honest and say that at the time I thought it a silly victory of style over function, but in years hence, I’ve come to cherish those views of riders killing it. He inspired riders and you could see in those attacks, exactly what they were trying to evoke. There’s good to be found in anything that causes you to ride your heart out.

  6. SinglespeedJarv

    Interesting take on the story. How did Pantani kill cycling? Seems to me the sport is alive a well today and a lot more interesting than watching liars who thought they were gods. Cycling didn’t kill Pantani. I’d agree that Pantani killed himself, or rather his ego killed him, but it had accomplices and those were the parasites who “helped” him through his career and helped themselves to his successes.

    I think you idolized him, otherwise you wouldn’t have ridden up mountains trying to emulate him, or written an article in homage to him. Perhaps he should be left to rest in peace, no need to elevate a cheat and a liar to legendary status.

  7. velomonkey

    I will say this – I never really got what was all the fuss with the guy. He was such a dork when he was on carrera, he litterally looked 50, and then all of sudden he gets his ears pinned back, shaves his head, grows some facial hair and wears a big gold hoop. If that is cycling style then count me out. He was another skinny climber guy, but with a shtick. Italian, sure, but Mario was WAY better in my book.

    I will say this, I had the same remembrance as padraig, the dude would climb in the drops – FOREVER. I would watch it sometimes and think how the freak is he doing that? Guess we got our answer. Occam’s razor, sometimes it is that easy.

    Oh, he didn’t define how NOT to cheat. He defined how not to cheat when you’re caught. The dudes not getting caught, that’s how yo cheat – and they’re out there. Millar defined how to act when you get caught cheating, plus he had good style not in line with a pirate and had a good accent.

    Lastly, ok, fess up, did the article take longer or the spray paint?

  8. James

    My problems are with all athletes/persons who cheat to win. Is it really winning? What does one win by cheating? I thought Pantani was great when he first soared up the mountains to the consternation of the big favorites. But upon the discovery that it was all a fraud it took the beauty away. So, I’m afraid I don’t mourn Pantani nor feel anything but disgust with all those “champions” who weren’t truly champions (whether they were/are caught or not). Cheating is cheating no matter how you look at it. Whether in a road race or the boardroom. A cheater is a person to abhor, not to admire.

  9. Jonny

    I agree he “dazzled” us and we all saw a bit of ourselves in him. I disagree with the LeMond “has been an unhappy legend, a dour presence in the cycling universe” narrative. Maybe he went about it wrong, maybe he needs a good publicist but he is right.

  10. Lachlan

    I’m torn between agreeing that anything that inspires ride-your-heart-out riding is good, and thinking that it is however a shame when it’s something that inspires only the cat 4′s…. who then remain cat 4s partly due to thinking that riding like Pantani for half a mile then blowing was a sensible way to win a race or be a better racer : o ) )

    kind feel like those are the same guys who’d also emulate Abdoujaparov’s whole-road-weaving-with-elbows style in every sprint for every city sign, on every group ride, endangering life, limb and everyone’s cool…

    1. Padraig

      Jonny: I’d really like to disagree with you, but in retirement, I think those words ring true. I don’t think the last two years of his career were happy (how would you like to find out, years later, that everyone who’s butt you used to kick had suddenly gotten an invisible jet pack), and I don’t think retirement has made his participation in the bike industry any happier. Let me add that I know a few people who went on the American Express Viet Nam bike tours with him and had delightful experiences with him, so I don’t think he’s an unhappy guy, but his most visible interactions with the sport are probably less enjoyable than he’d like.

      Lachlan: You know, most of those guys raced pretty seriously for a few years after that and upgraded as they figured out what worked for their talents. They eventually stopped climbing in the drops, of course. Naturally, the elite riders knew that wouldn’t work for them, so they never tried it. (And yes, we had a few Abdoujaparov emulators as well; they all learned to look up). Overall, not a bad thing in my view.


  11. Author
    Da Robot

    @Jonny I didn’t mean to imply that we were unhappy with LeMond, and I agree that he’s probably right in what he says. What I meant to say (and didn’t perhaps express well enough) was that he himself has seemed so unhappy. Rather than reveling in his accomplishments, he has seemed bitter, angry and depressed, which is unfortunate.

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  13. Author
    Da Robot

    @SingleSpeedJarv What I meant when I implied that Pantani had killed cycling and cycling had killed Pantani was that il Pirata and his downfall had a serious, negative impact on sponsorships, as money fled from the sport. To be sure he was only one in a long string of betrayals for sponsors who wanted to be involved with sports that garner GOOD publicity, but he still played a part. And when I said cycling had killed Pantani, what I meant was that, and if you read Matt Rendell’s excellent “The Death of Marco Pantani” it becomse very clear, there was a degree to which the guy couldn’t live away from cycling, which meant he couldn’t live a stable life aimed at getting over his addiction problems. The travel and emotional strain of living up to the expectations was too much for him.

    It seems I wasn’t nearly clear enough on this one. Sorry for that guys.

  14. Lachlan

    whatever, I’m resolved to climb my local 12% climb in the drops this weekend.
    Just for old times sake.

    and if I’m really feeling it…. I’ll even kick it off in the big ring : o )

  15. SinglespeedJarv

    Da Robot, I think the Pantani killing cycling analogy is just to early, that threat to cycling came with Puerto and all the subsequent doping busts since. It was with OP that I think the world woke up to the huge problem that cycling had with doping. Although obviously it was acknowledged by the sport, until OP no-one in the sport seemed to want to do much about it. But OP saw the start of the big sponsors taking their money out. I think Pantani did more damage to the fans thans to the sport, I think he broke a few hearts. As for not being able to live without cycling, I think that is the same for a lot of people, professional or not. And having read Rendell’s book, I just contend that it was less Pantani not being able to live without cycling, but more that his ego couldn’t live without winning, without the adulation of his fans.

    I don’t think it is a bad article, I just disagreed with points, besides it’s generated good debate.

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