Matt Rendell’s The Death of Marco Pantani is one of the best cycling books you will read. Few other texts do such a good job of explicating a complex subject, pro cycling in the age of EPO, with such lucidity and humanity, while simultaneously telling a fascinating story about a singular personality. Leaving aside whether or not Pantani deserved his fame and fortune, Rendell’s book does more than almost any other to put the top cyclists of that time into some cogent context.
Now there is a film out, based loosely on Rendell’s book, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist.
The book is better, as books almost always are, but the film is well worth watching, and it gives the story some added dimension that should be considered. It also contains long stretches of race footage that are fantastic and thrilling and stylish, all at the same time. In fact, one of my big takeaways from this movie was that riders were far more stylish on their bikes in the late ’90s. Jan Ullrich’s dangly hoop earring was cooler than anything Team Sky has done since its inception (that’s an opinion). The way Pantani climbed in the drops? Pure class. Evgeni Berzin and Pavel Tonkov were machines. Richard Virenque was as smooth as the back of a spoon. He floated like a birthday balloon. The bikes all looked great, too.
Another shocker from the film? Berzin is as big as a house now. I kept thinking, “Pantani didn’t OD. Berzin ate him.”
All of that aside, The Accidental Death of a Cyclist implies just the opposite, that Pantani’s demise wasn’t accidental at all. Kicked out of the sport for engaging in the same tactics as all his rivals, Pantani struggled to make sense of his future, of the possibility of himself as a cyclist. Like Floyd Landis years later, he was left asking himself, “Why me?”
He filled the void with drugs, and even in his diminished state there were players within the sport, and perhaps in the Italian underworld as well, who would rather have seen him permanently out of the saddle. Was Pantani’s death accidental, or just another necessary consequence of cycling’s darkest day? The evidence is there to be considered.
Just recently it was announced that the public prosecutor in Rimini, where the diminutive Italian met his end, will reopen the case based on new evidence that foul play may have been involved, although Rendell himself finds that unlikely as does a prominent local journalist, Andrea Rossini, who authored a book about Pantani’s last hours.
For those who would dismiss The Accidental Death of a Cyclist as just another story about a doper, which in some ways it is, I would recommend watching, if only to better understand what il Pirata did for our sport and to get a personal perspective on what it was like to try to ride for the win during the arms race (pun intended) of peak EPO.
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is in limited theatrical release. It can also be found on YouTube currently.