of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell, and I now feel the need to fill you in. I
must admit, I approached this book with a great deal of curiosity. After
all, Marco Pantani was probably the most exciting cyclist to watch during
the ’90s (although I admit I wasn’t watching cycling back then), and he’s a
little guy–about my size–so I couldn’t help feeling some kind of
connection with him. So, I suppose you could’ve call me a fan.
But now, the connection has been severed.
You get the impression Matt Rendell was a fan too. While the book starts off
slowly as Rendell describes the contexts of Marco’s wins, it eventually
picks up a quick pace as Rendell prosaically describes the famed mountain
ascents the little Italian piloted in the early ’90s. Rendell reels you in
with some well-written description that makes the book difficult to put
down. Interestingly, as Pantani’s career continues, Rendell’s description of
the mountain escapades tapers off. Pantani’s early strikes in the ’98 Tour
(meaning his attacks, not his silly sit-ins against doping controls) warrant
mere mention instead of flowery prose, but it becomes obvious why.
See, for me, before reading this book, there was still a question as to
whether Marco doped. I suppose I was still holding out in hopes that the guy
really was a fearless competitor and that short guys can dominate in the
mountains like he did. But Rendell leaves no doubt by the end: Pantani
doped–hardcore. In fact, if there was ever a cyclist who doped, it was
Pantani. Rendell doesn’t just give you accounts from people who say they
‘think’ he might’ve doped (like you’ll find in Legend of a Tragic
Champion), oh no, he checks and double checks and triple checks. He
interviews the people who took the samples, he photocopies documents and
includes them on the pages of the book, he even includes information from
confiscated files used in the Conconi trial early in this decade, and it’s
downright fascinating what he finds.
As a former journalist, it was awesome to read about Rendell’s methods. His
journalistic integrity is far above the average.
The original title of the book was The Death of Marco Pantani and the Age of
EPO (as indicated on Amazon), but somewhere along the publication process
the subtitle was dropped. Nonetheless, it works. This book really is about
the age of EPO in cycling, and believe me, it really deflated my curiosity
about who’s going to win the next Tour. The European cycling scene is not a
pretty one, that’s for certain, and I definitely came away with a few
question marks about some of the people who are still involved in the sport.
Even less pretty was Pantani’s personal life. Rendell paints a picture of a
mentally ill coke addict who has way more money than he knows what to do
with and keeps dishing it out to drug dealers and other low-lifes. By the
end of the book, you’re wondering how Pantani survived himself as long as he
did. Some said he didn’t have much of a support system in place, but the
reality was that Pantani’s support system was simply a group of users and
abusers–parents not excepted–and anyone with sincere concern for his
welfare got chased off by the users.
I honestly think this is a must-read for cycling fans, but I also wonder how
many of them will be cycling fans when they get done. Rendell did a great
job of addressing the philosophical implications–Should fans really invest
so much in sporting figures? How susceptible are we to the crowd mentality?
etc. There are so many cleaner sports out there that I think actually
deserve the tifosi’s affection (mountain biking, cyclocross, triathlon,
heck, even bowling). Nonetheless, as Rendell points out, even the fans are
doped by the euphoria of the sport.
Just my thoughts.
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