Reaching the heights, touching the void


Although I love professional cycling, despite its flaws, I have delayed reading Matt Rendell’s biography of the Italian climber Marco Pantani, who won the Tour de France and the Giro in 1998, and died of a massive cocaine overdose in a hotel room six years later, dogged by (well-founded) drugs scandals. The book got fine reviews, and Rendell knows the sport well (he is (co) author of one of the best books about being a team domestique). The reason I put off reading it was that I knew it would depress me.

The best way to summarise this is through a couple of lines in the final chapter:

Looking back, Marco’s successes, like any number of world records, gold medals, and winning sequences in recent sporting history have a phantom quality. … They weren’t events at all, but phantasmagorical experiences with no clearly definable reality that existed chiefly in the emotions they caused in millions of indivdual minds. The emotion most associated with Marco is euphoria, yet we know now that it was triggered by the poisons that flowed through his veins and made his flamboyant style possible.

It’s worth exploring this further. One of the most exciting sights in cycling is a climber attacking the field and gaining the minutes he needs to win – and Pantani’s stage win at Les Deux Alpes in 1998, when he attacked on a climb in atrocious conditions, descended recklessly, then climbed again, to make enough time on Ullrich to seal his Tour victory – was one of the most exciting days of racing in my lifetime.

But in a (literally) forensic analysis, Rendell demonstrates that Pantani had been blood doping through the use of EPO almost from the start of his professional career. At the same time, he kicks away one of the cycling fans’ supports. Almost all of the successful cyclists in the 1990s used EPO (Bjarne Riis, tour winner in 1996, has admitted it; Ullrich hasn’t but the evidence is against him, there are still questions over Armstrong’s win in 1999). So the fan’s defence is that EPO use must  have levelled the playing field – while quietly disregarding the talented but non-using Charly Mottet, who never finished the Tour higher than fourth. Rendell suggests that athletes respond differently to EPO, and that Pantani’s success might just suggest that his body was better attuned to the drug.

So far, this ia familiar story about 90s cycling – or even modern professional sport. But there are two other stories in Rendell’s narrative as well. The first is about the nature of cycling in Pantani’s native region of Emilia-Romagna, with its strong Communist traditions. The first chapter of the book places cycling, and Pantani, deep in their social milieu.

The second is perhaps more revealing. Rendell suggests that Pantani’s sporting success disguised a pattern of mental illness that might have otherwise been recognised more clearly – and which seemed to be inherent in his growing cocaine abuse after 1999. More: this might have been part of his make-up as a sportsman which enabled him to take the risks on descents which contributed to some of his victories, and also to some of his crashes. The other half of this, of course, is that some of the experts who tried to help Pantani identified this problem – but the cyclist’s fame and wealth, and some of his advisors who lived inside this bubble and benefited from both, meant that it was always impossible to address it.

The initial newspaper article, which led to the book, can be found here.


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