July 23, 2024
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By Drew Savage

The date is Valentine’s Day – Saturday, 14 February 2004. Marco Pantani is alone in Room 5D at the Residence Le Rose hotel in the Italian seaside resort of Rimini and has been acting strangely since arriving out of season on Monday.

Lance Armstrong, a year and a half his junior, had won the last four Tours de France and was about to win the next three at age 34; Pantani could have been in his prime. Pantani has been in the spotlight for more than three years now, earning the nickname ‘Il Pirata’ for his bandana, shaved head, nose stud, and earrings.

Back in his prime, he was professional cycling’s swashbuckling folk hero. In the 2000 Tour de France, he raged against Armstrong’s dominance and his own waning power, squeezing by the American to win a stage in Courchevel. In Italian television history, it remains the most watched cycling event.

In the middle of the morning, Pantani calls reception three times, complaining about people in the room next door – which is empty. Just after 11:00, he requests that the police be called.

It was Panani’s skinny, small build, sharp cheekbones, and powerful lungs that made him a classic climber. In 1998, he won the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France because of his ability to thrive in thin mountain air – a feat only six other riders have achieved. In the pantheon of greats, his name was carved alongside those of Fausto Coppi, Eddy Merckx, and Bernard Hinault.

Although Pantini was still a superstar celebrity, his image, for some at least, had been tarnished by 2004. His frame had filled out and he was 20 kilograms over his racing weight.

He led the Giro d’Italia by more than five minutes with just two stages to go, but his race ended in ignominy.

After failing a blood test on the morning of the penultimate stage, he was frogmarched out of the team hotel by Italian police.

Team-mates cheered Pantani from the hotel balcony. Fans blocked the road in protest.

Pantani said at the time, “We’ve touched the bottom morale-wise, after two big accidents.”.

At this fork in the road, Pantani found himself in Rimini. His world was plunged into darkness that he could not escape.

On the pretext of providing fresh towels, the receptionist goes to Room 5D later that evening after consulting with the hotel’s owner. Knocking on the door does not yield a response. After another conversation with his boss, the receptionist tries again. After unlocking the door with his master key and forcing aside the furniture barricade, he discovers Marco Pantani dead on the mezzanine level of the room.

While Pantani left behind a legacy of glory, there are also questions, since not everyone admired him. Some may have even wanted him dead.

Originally from Cesenatico, 14 miles up the Adriatic coast from Rimini, Marco Pantani came from an ordinary working-class family.

A neighbor suggested that he join the local cycling club as a youngster, and he became one of the sport’s greatest climbers as a result.

Compared to riders such as Miguel Indurain and Jan Ullrich, who had dominated through their time trials, Pantani was seen as a breath of fresh air. They were considered by the sport’s more romantic fans as ‘winning machines’ – difficult to beat, but also hard to love.

A climber who left his rivals gasping for breath in the mountains, Pantani was the antidote.

Pantani was different. He was an outsider. He ate Nutella, didn’t wear a helmet, or sang karaoke late into the night when other riders were in bed.

During the BBC Sounds documentary Pantani: Death of a Pirate, Pantani’s biographer, cycling journalist Matt Rendell, said Pantani wanted to use his bicycle as a paintbrush.

Millions were enthralled by Pantani’s success, but not just because of the way he won. His style, his panache, and the distinctive way he rode up mountains, hunched over his handlebars with his hands on the drops. It was the way he soared away from the rest, seemingly without breaking sweat. The Pirate rode his bike with his heart on his sleeve – glory or death.

He explained his all-in race strategy, in so far as it was, after winning a crucial 1998 Giro stage at Montecampione.

“I had no alternative. I had to see who was the strongest. I had no alternative. I had no choice.” he said.

He smashed the record for the fastest ascent of Alpe d’Huez during the 1994 Tour de France, a near-mythical climb up 21 tight hairpin bends.

Those three rides up Alpe d’Huez have never been surpassed by any other rider in the Tour. In 1995, he broke it again. In 1997, he came within four seconds of his own record.

One year later, he achieved his crowning glory.

A Festina team official was caught carrying performance-enhancing drugs during the 1998 Tour, and the team was expelled, riders arrested, and the peloton went on strike.

Defending champion Ullrich was in the yellow jersey and the race needed a hero. Enter Pantani, three minutes behind Ullrich.

Pantani turned the race on its head on a cold, wet day in the Alps.

As Pantani flew down the other side of the mountain, taking risks after risks in what must have felt like apocalyptic weather, he gained almost three minutes from Ullrich on the Galibier. Pantani cracked on the final climb, so Ullrich played it safe in his wake.

During the live television coverage, Pantani could be seen storming through the fog, up into Les Deux Alpes, and to the finish. By the end of that 15th stage, he gained nine minutes on Ullrich, whose calculations had been disastrous.

He would wear the yellow jersey all the way to Paris as a result of Pantani’s gamble.

The 1998 season seemed like the peak of Pantani’s career at the time, but 10 months later, he was ejected from the 1999 Giro after dominating with two stages left.

‘Tifosi’, Italy’s eager fans, as well as the peloton, were shocked to learn the Pirate had been denied his coronation. In the absence of a reliable test for banned blood-boosting drug Erythropoietin (EPO), riders’ health was imposed a 50% haematocrit limit as a result of his haematocrit levels being two percentage points over that limit.

Many cyclists who failed tests simply accepted their bans as occupational hazards, served their time, and resumed their careers. Others, such as Scotland’s David Millar, became advocates for clean cycling.

For Pantani – temporarily suspended from racing after failing a ‘health check’ – it was the beginning of the end.

He began regularly using cocaine then, according to those close to him.

After Pantani’s death in 2004, Indurain summarized the next five years as follows:

It ended up complicating his whole life and he could never get over it. He was never the same after the haematocrit test.”

While Pantani retained much of his popularity with the public, he was constantly involved in disputes with authorities – cycling’s governing bodies and the Italian government – and became increasingly paranoid, convinced that cycling was being unfairly targeted.

Pantani was treated at a drugs and depression clinic, and in October 2003 he told his fans to forget about him.

Pantani scribbled in his passport while on holiday in Cuba.

He wrote, “I am no longer the champion I once was.”.

If my fans still cheer me, it’s not out of affection, but out of need for a personality.

I have been humiliated for nothing. For four years, I have been to every court. Rules, yes – but the same for everyone.”

After his passport was discovered in his hotel room, those words became public knowledge four months later.

At his funeral, Tonina denounced the media who’d turned up, shouting: “You’re all to blame for my son’s death. What are you doing here?”?”

As his coffin was carried out of the church, more than 20,000 people lined the streets of Cesenatico.

Pantani’s death was initially ruled an accidental cocaine overdose, but it is not the final word.

After Pantani’s family claimed he had been beaten by a group of men, forced to drink cocaine, and murdered, a second inquiry was launched in 2016. It dismissed the claims as fanciful conjecture.

A third investigation into Pantani’s disqualification from the 1999 Giro, and his death five years later, was announced by the Italian authorities in November 2021 with a focus on mafia involvement.

A new piece of evidence was uncovered almost by accident, which sparked the investigation.

One of the guys having a conversation mentioned the involvement of the Naples mafia – the Camorra – in Pantani’s death, according to investigative journalist Lorenzo Bodrero in Pantani: Death of a Pirate, which was completely unrelated to Pantani’s case in 2016.

For years, there have been reports of mafia involvement in Pantani’s death because of the large amount of money the organized crime syndicate would have lost on unlicensed gambling markets had he won the 1999 Giro.

As a result, the police had stumbled upon evidence that seemed to support their theory.

Fabio Miradossa, a dealer who supplied Pantani with drugs towards the end of his life, also testified.

According to Bodrero, this guy was his pusher, the one who sold him cocaine.

According to Miradossa, Pantani did use cocaine, but not to the extent that would cause him to die within a few days.”

A well-known criminal claimed his mafia contacts had predicted Pantani’s failed blood test at the 1999 Giro.

“Bet against Pantani if you have money, because he won’t get to Milan,” is their reputed advice.

Pantani’s biographer, Matt Rendell, has always been skeptical about the mafia rumours.

As a rule, the Camorra doesn’t try to fix something by somehow contacting the haematology department of a hospital in Como,” he told BBC Sounds. “That’s not the way it works. It’s a bit cruder, on the whole.”

However, a government commission investigating mafia activities was less certain.

The possibility that the mafia altered the results of the Giro d’Italia remains an open hypothesis today, according to Nicola Morra, president of the Parliamentary Anti-mafia Commission.

Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to exclude it as we would have liked.”

In the 1999 Giro blood sample, the commission found “several and serious” anomalies. Under rules imposed to ensure riders’ anonymity, the test tube containing Pantani’s blood should have only been recognizable by a number to a select few officials, but was marked with his name.

According to the commission, Pantani’s blood sample had also been taken an hour earlier than indicated in a previous court case, opening the possibility of tampering with it.

It is possible to manipulate the test tube by correctly placing the time of sampling from Marco Pantani at 07:46, according to the commission.

It could also be that Pantani’s drug test result was entirely self-inflicted. That the drug testers caught a doper.

According to Christophe Bassons, a French professional cyclist who insisted on riding clean, 95% of riders were on EPO at the time.

Retroactive testing of urine samples collected during the 1998 and 1999 Tour de France editions somewhat supported his estimate as detection technology improved.

Another 12 riders’ results were deemed “suspicious” after they tested positive for EPO, including Pantani.

However, some riders of that era managed their haematocrit blood tests by dodging drug testers and timing their consumption of EPO to stay within the prescribed limits.

It seems Pantani believed, on the day he was led out of his team hotel and out of the 1999 Giro, that he wasn’t cheating any more than his rivals.

Pantani left notes that support this claim, according to his mother.

She told BBC Sounds that he never wrote ‘I didn’t take any’. He said he was doing what he was allowed to do, but never said ‘I didn’t take any’.

It is possible that Pantani’s descent into cocaine addiction and isolation could have been sparked by the perceived injustice of not being able to defend his title at home.

Other anomalies surrounding his death have never been fully explained.

Pantani’s body contained more than six times the lethal dose of cocaine, according to Professor Giuseppe Fortuni, a lecturer in forensic medicine at the University of Bologna at the time. Tests on Pantani’s body were conducted by Fortuni, the pathologist.

The coroner felt that if Pantani had intended to commit suicide, he would have used the prescription drugs that he had with him at the time.

Miradossa, Pantani’s drug dealer, may not be entirely reliable, but he cast doubt on the circumstances of Marco’s death.

“I think Marco was murdered because he was looking for something,” he told the Italian government’s Anti-mafia Commission.

According to my experience and the photos and videos I’ve seen, Marco did not take drugs in that room.

Pantani preferred to smoke cocaine, but there was cocaine on his body suggesting that he had sniffed it.

“Marco didn’t sniff, so whoever did the crime scene was unaware of this fact,” Miradossa concluded.

Her son’s death has been the focus of Tonina Pantani’s advocacy for further investigation.

There were too many things. Strange things…not Marco’s habits,” she told BBC Sounds.

It is likely he did not sleep above [in the mezzanine of the hotel room where the bed was and his body was found] but rather below the TV.

I asked the hotel manager whether there were damages to be paid; he said, “No madam, nothing was broken, everything was simply disassembled.”. What the hell were they looking for?

Marco was lying in the coffin. I touched him, his hands. How did he make such a mess without a scratch? There were scratches on his face that made me wonder if he had been beaten.”

Tonina also claimed that her son’s baseball cap was missing, and that two jackets found in the room were not his.

Details can be found here.

According to a 2007 book, two aluminium containers at the scene once contained Chinese food – which Pantani hated.

Residence Le Rose’s second entrance was reportedly unmonitored by CCTV, allowing third parties to enter and leave the hotel discreetly.

It is alleged that Pantani’s room contained 20,000 euros (£17,000), or 12,000 euros (£10,000).

All of these details might hold the key to understanding what happened in Room 5D.

It is possible that Pantani, paranoid and under the influence of drugs, tore apart the room himself. He broke furniture while high on cocaine during a holiday in Cuba late the previous year.

One of those who is skeptical that Pantani’s death was more than an accident is John Foot, professor of modern Italian history at the University of Bristol.

“I’m saddened by the case being reopened,” he told BBC Sounds. “For me it’s a clear case of cocaine overdose, and the evidence is pretty compelling.”

We’re going down a blind alley and he won’t have peace,” I thought.

There wasn’t much to this story, so they’re going to continue rummaging.”

Currently, the latest investigation into Pantani’s death is being conducted behind closed doors in Rimini. It’s unclear when the results will be released.

Possibly the only certainty is that we, and perhaps no one else besides Marco Pantani, will ever know for sure what happened in that Rimini hotel room.

Although the truth may have died with the man, the legend lives on.

“This extraordinary kid didn’t breathe, sweat or panic… he didn’t even seem to try, but he could just fly away,” recalls Rendell.

In another world, in another life, what might he have been?

“His life and the sport he played at the time prevented us from looking further.”

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