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The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell

Release date: 22nd June, 2006
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson

List Price: £16.99
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The Death of Marco Pantani
By Matt Rendell
Weidenfeld & Nicolson

4 price: £10.18, saving 40% (£6.81) on rrp

When cycling legend and five-times Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil was asked whether he ever took drugs to win le tour, he famously remarked that it couldn't be done on mineral water. It gave the impression that cycling was rife with drug abuse. Recent events at the Tour de France have done nothing to dispel this impressionÖ

Shortly after Marco Pantani's birth in 1970, his mother's suicide bid failed and the episode was to mark the start of a difficult childhood for this awkward loner which eventually led to his early death from a massive cocaine overdose in a Rimini hotel room just 34 years later.

Yet in between he became one of the greatest cyclists of his generation, feted by prime ministers, admired by sportsmen and the possessor of a fortune garnered from sponsors delighted to be associated with a man whose electrifying mountain ascents drew massive TV audiences.

His annus mirabilis was 1998 when he won both the tours of Italy and France. It was the year when the Tour de France witnessed an almost complete collapse of professional cycling after the entire Festina team was withdrawn before the race when a team car was impounded on the Franco-Belgian border loaded with a cornucopia of doping products. Pantani's subsequent victory was seen as a triumph of the clean over the cheats.

But, as Matt Rendell reveals in his absorbing biography, Pantani had a dark secret. From the moment he become a professional cyclist in 1993 and possibly even before, he had been systematically using drugs, in particular the blood doping agent erythropoietin (r-EPO), under the medical supervision of his teams' doctors.

Although he continued cycling for several years afterwards, amidst a bewildering miasma of court cases, he was finally found out at the Italian mountain town of Madonna di Campiglio whilst leading the 1999 Tour of Italy by a country mile. In those final years he continued with the doping programme and developed a taste for unnatural quantities of cocaine and women of easy virtue, fuelled by his growing madness and vast wealth.

Rendells's book is superbly researched. After interviewing almost all the leading players, it is difficult to argue with his conclusion that Pantani was "an inseparable fusion of inspiration, rancour and insanity."

There are long passages on the dynamics of r-EPO and Rendell goes to great lengths to describe the exact significance of tests Pantani underwent throughout his career. Although these may seem a little dry and difficult to follow, they add to the astonishing picture of a sport corrupted by the use of chemicals.

Not all of Rendell's interviewees will be happy with the result of his research, despite the fact that he has attempted to be scrupulously fair in his analysis and conclusions, reporting at length the continuous denials of Pantani and those around him. It's appropriate, therefore, to give Rendell the last word:

"The idea of sport that Marco embodied wasn't one that encouraged the athletes to face the truth about their existences. It conceived of sport as media content (especially television content), of athletes and events as advertising billboards, and of physical movement as applied science, especially applied medical science. To be talented meant not only to have prodigious physical capabilities but also to be responsive to doping products and to be ready to play an almost literally blood-curdling game of Russian roulette using hormones, blood transfusions and steroids. In this high-stakes game the advantage is with the insaneÖ It didn't die with him."

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