Book Review: The Death of Marco Pantani

Marco Pantani book

It might be St Valentines today but scanning Twitter it’s Pantani day to commemorate his death on this day in 2004 and the excitement he generated during his life.

There are a lot of books about Marco Pantani. Most are Italian. There’s a French one by Philippe Brunel, La Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani which is a good account. Brunel shuttles back and forth between France and Italy, Paris and Rimini to piece together the last moments of Pantani’s life and seems so suggest Pantani was a victim of conspiracies, whether his ejection from the Giro whilst leading the race, or his death in a hotel room.

But The Death of Marco Pantani is surely the best, being well-researched and a full biography of Pantani, from his early days to the post mortem.

It’s hard to identify why Pantani is still a celebrated figure. Maybe the premature death was like that of a rock star, although Pantani never went out in his prime, he’d been screaming downhill for some time. He seemed doped to levels that could make a Kelme doctor nervous but this doesn’t halt the nostalgia. There are several monuments on mountains. I’ve seen several “Il Pirata” bars that borrow his image. You can still buy merchandise, from t-shirts to bandanas.

Perhaps it’s because he was an artist? He spent time painting but his greatest work was on the bike, with pedal strokes replacing brush strokes. If almost everyone was using EPO back then there was no level playing field but there was a blank canvas at the start of a race. You didn’t know what would happen each day and with Pantani you often got art. Others rode in a linear fashion, calculating their efforts but Pantani seemed opposed to this spreadsheet sport. I can still remember his attack on the Galibier in the 1998. The Tour had been ruined by the Festina affair but Pantani salvaged something with his move, attacking in cold rain to leave Jan Ullrich floundering although the German’s failure to eat and don a rain jacket was actually as much to blame but the victors write history, no?

Well it’s here Rendell’s book appears. The myth is deflated but in a procedural fashion. The theme of doping is too often associated with the rider when of course it takes a team with managers, doctors, pharmacists and more. Rendell explores the circles around Pantani from his family to team management and later, to those trying to help him whether night club owners or clinicians.

The book reads well and this is worth noting because Rendell has assembled a vast quantity of quotes, statements, data and more and is able to weave these into a full story. In fact as an exercise you can open a page and count the facts listed. A random example, page 205, when Pantani is stopped for speeding on the autostrada we get the location of incident, that the police used a laser gun to measure the speed, the speed recorded, the local speed limit, the fine awarded and more. This matters because unlike so many other books Rendell isn’t presenting sensational hints of mafia involvement or police corruption.

Still if there’s a weakness to the book it’s when Rendell betrays this meticulous research to speculate on possible problems with Marco Pantani, to diagnose mental illness and then attribute this to his actions. He may be right but it’s a speculate leap away from the narrative analysis that fills most of the book. But it feels impossible not to guess, to wonder what could have been different if someone had acted differently along the way whether years ago or just in the hours before he was found dead in the hotel room.

Rendell paints a damning portrait of those around Pantani. Friends, staff and above all managers seem unable to cope with him, at times treating him as human ATM, if they could only get him back on the bike they’d hear the whir of banknotes being readied. Manuela Ronchi in particular comes out looking bad. She’s published her own account to explain things.

Rendell’s book is the cautionary tale of the man presented as the rider, fans might stand on a mountain to watch a legend ride past but strong legs and viscous blood can hide a wavering mind and a weak heart that feels alone with no cheering fans once the race is over. The book can be relentless with the facts but it’s still a complete story, more than others.

If you’ve read the book already you might be pleased to know a documentary film on Pantani is under production and involves some of those behind the excellent “Senna” film from 2010. The release is scheduled for May this year to coincide with the Giro.

A list of previous book reviews can be found here:

42 thoughts on “Book Review: The Death of Marco Pantani”

  1. Coincidentally, I’ve just finished this. Agree that it is comprehensive, particularly the last chapter on the found blood values, but overall I found it a bit dry. Think I forgave Rendell some of the speculation about mental illnesses, etc, as that seemed close enough to his conversations with the medical professionals who tried to treat Pantani.

  2. A book that is succinctly told, without much theorising on mafia etc. Although the book may come as too factual to some, certain quarters would delve into the numbers etc.

    • Alas, you’re right. It amazes me how we deplore Armstrong, Rasmussen, Cipollini (the Cipollini saga is still to be continued) etc. and how easily forget Pantani’s level playing field actions….

  3. I think elephantino was pressurr by the powers that be too much after his doiping ban that lead him into depression. One of the beat climbers. His power to his wgt ratio was awsome. Even tjoigh he his not a man for the tt,but what a climber he was.

  4. Having read this excellent book, one can’t help wondering if a part of Pantani’s problem was that he felt he was being made a scapegoat for all that was going on around him.

  5. “Friends, staff and above all managers seem unable to cope with him, at times treating him as human money machine, if they could only get him back on the bike they’d hear the whir of banknotes being printed.” – nailed it, right there. And there’s a difference between a cynical cheat and a helpless drug addict. I think that’s why many feel some sympathy for him.

  6. “Doped to levels that could make a Kelme doctor nervous” made me smile.

    But seriously, I think it is completely legitimate to speculate on mental illness. Those afflicted with depression often saddle themselves with unrealistic expectations, whether they are related to being the life of the party or winning bike races. I have little doubt that Pantani suffered from depression – it would explain much of his behaviour. And that could also be why people still revere him and dislike Armstrong – Armstrong came across as a win-at-all-costs sociopath, while Pantani was a tortured artist.

    And as always, great writing, Thanks again!

  7. This was the first cycling book I read and I still rank it up there as one of my favourites. The revelation that Pantani was heavily doping at the age of 16 (if my memory serves me correctly) is particularly scary. I also think that Rendell does a good job at the end of the book in combatting the commonly repeated line about everyone being on a level playing field as they all doped.

  8. Thank you for you kind words. Much appreciated. Any speculation about Marco’s mental health in the book is based on long interviews with Mario Pissacroia, the psychoanalyst who worked with Marco and a group of addiction and mental health professionals from late 2001, on and off, until his death. Their diagnosis, which is reproduced on p. 217, strikes me as a remarkable document. It took a very great deal of effort to obtain a copy, and I imagined that it would cause an immense stir and be the subject of some controversy and debate. The Instead, no reviewer has ever mentioned it, and the mental health issues raised in the book are dismissed as unfortunate inventions of the author.

    • Thanks for the comment. The diagnosis is there in 2001 – no invention – but it was the linking it to other aspects of his behaviour, it was there in 2001 but was permanent or just intermittent? It’s another “what if?” to think about what would be if the medics and managed to stop him racing to seek more treatment?

      On the subject of speculation, Brunel says when Pantani was tested at Madonna di Campiglion the NAS police were there and stood outside the hotel rooms which stopped team staff from coming and going. What if nobody could smuggle a saline bag to Pantani to dilute his blood for the test and he was reduced to gulping water which ultimately didn’t go far enough?

    • Well Matt, the diagnosis and mental health discussion in the book certainly struck me, and greatly affected how I felt about Marco. I hadn’t known much about him off the bike before, and he went from a cheat among cheats in my head to someone I felt great pity for. While not blameless, he was clearly a troubled and vulnerable man who, ideally, would not have been put in the position he found himself and couldn’t handle. Unfortunate that the bike both made and destroyed him, in a way.

      • Matt Rendell has done a brilliant job and made an almost perfectly balanced biography in my opinion. Unlike an vastly overrated guy like Paul they-took-away-my-dream Kimmage there’s no blind rage and/or condemnation in Rendell’s way of working with his stuff, he’s not a blind and naïve romanticizer in the mould of John Wilcockson but a journalist with both empathy and insight. In short a man of honour and integrity and “The Death of Marco Pantani” is easily on my to3 3 list of all time cycling literature.

        May I recommend Rendell’s “Kings of the Mountains” as well?

    • Good to see you comment on here Matt. Really enjoyed your motorbike commentary at Qatar this year, you picked up a few things we missed on the cameras and had some interesting (if often tangential) stories to tell, will we see any more of it at other races?

  9. When I first got into cycling I was curious about the love for Pantani. It kind of sums up the juxtoposition of cycling. The pure climber who always attacked is the most loved by fans but he is always one of the most suspicious regarding drugs. Even though everybody knows he was doped he is still lauded throughout cycling blogs. People are happy to let Pantani have his solitary Giro and Tour wins. Lance should have calmed down and settled for just a couple of Tour wins and he may have been left alone

  10. Definitely one of my favorite books about one of my favorite characters in the cycling pantheon. There seems to be an ongoing struggle among fans about how to feel about Pantani. Obviously, he was a doper and cheater. His tragic end and struggles with addiction garner him some sympathy. For me, what sets him apart a little bit is the joy he took in his victories. Many dopers maintain a sort of overly-serious, bordering on tragic mien, even as they stand atop the podium. They suck the joy out of the race in more ways than one. Pantani was different. You got the sense that he reveled in the spectacle as much as we did. That doesn’t exonerate him. It just speaks to the complexity of the man and the many issues attending to top level racing of that time. Rendell’s book captures all of this really beautifully.

  11. The fact is Pantani got court out at the 1999 Giro. The team doctor went out on the town the night before, without preparing for any eventuality that might arise the next morning.

    Forconi took the hit for Pantani the previous year.

  12. My favourite cycling book.

    What I liked about Pantani was his humanity, his fragility. He was doped from the beginning, as much a product of training as a hemo-druidic experiment. And I don’t forget or “forgive” that.

    But what was amazing was how high his joy could be, and how low his despair sank him. More emotion and passion that I dare to project. In a sense, it taught me the value of temperance – as a human being, not as a cyclist.

  13. I enjoyed this book a lot. As a warts-and-all Pantani fan still, I kind of wished I’d stopped reading halfway through and spared myself the deconstruction. I’d rather know him as a flawed hero than be shown all the flaws. A good read for all though. Nine years, eh? Bonkers…

  14. I wonder how his career would have gone if he hadn’t doped. I think there is mention of this in the book, where it speculates that he probably would have been pretty ordinary, relatively, if he hadn’t doped, based on his early race results. However, this probably applied to all the top cyclists of that era.

  15. “The Death of Marco Pantani” was one of the first cycling books I’ve read, although since then I’ve read many more (skipping however over the Lance Armstrong works of fiction). I found Rendell’s book the best of the lot, well researched, intriguing to read even if we knew exactly where the descending spiral would end. The book is on my re-read list, so that is saying something. I thought Rendel portrayed a flawed personality, a rider unhappy with himself and his life, and it really explained the anguish behind all those victories. As for the enduring interest we have in Pantani, I think the flawed character and tragic end certainly help in creating a myth. But myths are what cycling is all about, and whenever I see someone attacking madly on a climb I will forever be reminded of Pantani, and not Lance ARmstrong. When’s your next book coming out, Matt?

  16. I agree it’s a nice book. For me it adds to rather than detracts from the legend of Pantani. We can all agree that he was powered by more than just talent, in common with many of that era. Regardless of that issue, there is something iconic about him, perhaps it really is a young death that turns a face into a Che-like image, worn on T-shirts and dreamed of when ascending climbs at about half the pace of Il Pirata!

  17. I really liked Rendel’s Pantani book. I was struck by the idea of a cyclist struggling with mental illness. To truly push to past the edge is it necessary for one to have a bit of mental illness? Tyler Hamilton’s book talks about depression. Some even say Armstrong is a sociopath. LeMond in his prime dealt with ADHD and past sexual abuse as a child. As someone who’s struggled with depression, I can relate to the state of mind, though certainly not the level of performance.

  18. Not only did others treat Pantani (and Lance and others) as a “money making machine”, there’s also someone responsible for introducing the talent to injections, transfusions and the works when they were no more than children.

    Matt’s book is, like all his work, thorough, considered and compelling, but its hardly an easy, comfortable or a fun read. My guess is that we all love this sport for the same reasons, starting with the simple pleasure of a bike ride…the irony is that for many of us civilians it remains just that and our way of escaping our demons.

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