When you’re at the very peak of your sport there will always be questions asked around how you got there, and how you stayed there. But for some of the very best in history, they became victims of high performance; chewed up by their own hype and spat out at the side of the road to fend for themselves.
This was the fate that one of the world’s greatest cyclists met nearly two decades ago. Marco Pantani was one of the kings of Grand Tour cycling in the 1990s and in 1998 became the seventh, and last, cyclist to win both the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same year.
But in 1999, while competing in the Giro, the rider known as The Pirate was expelled from the Tour for “health reasons”. Pantani had abnormalities in his blood and while he and his cult of fans claimed it was natural, others jumped to the conclusion of stimulant EPO.
Following the doping allegations, and his final stage win in 2000, Pantani descended into a rabbit hole of depression and self doubt culminating in his death in 2004, aged 34, from cocaine poisoning. Some members of his family believe he was murdered in order to stump his success.
“He was labelled a doper but never once failed a drugs test,” says his former lawyer. “My brother belonged to everybody, I never got to enjoy him as I would have liked to,” one of his siblings added.
A new film released this week, The Natural: Marco Pantani, explores, through the eyes of close friends and family, his charm, devotion and spontaneity but also his fall from greatness and into a man within himself.
The documentary compares his doping allegations to being slapped in the face. Why not a punch? A punch hurts but a slap humiliates.
Pantani was acquitted of two of the three charges against him and the third was dropped after his death, but the saga of the greatest climber of all time reminds us of the fragility of those who often look untouchable – as if we all have a limit. Pantani’s came when people stopped believing in his exceptionalism.
And he was exceptional; the record holder for some of the fiercest European climbs – notably the Alpe d’Huez.
Former greats Eddy Merckx and Lance Armstrong received bans or had titles rescinded after being found guilty of doping. It says something about the fine lines in cycling and the scrutiny that the sport attracts that Pantani felt similarly vilified despite never testing positive.
Fausto Coppi [twice], Jacques Anquetil, Stephen Roche, Eddy Merckx [three times], Bernard Hinault [twice], Miguel Indurain [twice] and Marco Pantani. They’re the seven names to have done the Giro-Tour double, what many know as the hardest feat in road cycling.
But what does it matter when thereafter the pit of despair engulfs any memory of success. Pantani suffered from the questions of him by self-questioning himself. His story is a lesson to us all; high performance athletes suffer like the rest of us.
The Natural: Marco Pantani is out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Download-to-Own