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Last Updated: Friday, 19 March, 2004, 16:57 GMT
End of a troubled ride
By Andrew Benson

Marco Pantani
Pantani's chances of greatness disappeared in a fog of scandal
The cyclist Marco Pantani, who has been found dead in a hotel in the Italian seaside resort of Rimini, had come to personify his sport's troubled relationship with drugs.

The Italian, who was 34, had the talent to go down as one of cycling's greats, but after winning the Tour de France in 1998 his life and career spiralled out of control.

That year was the zenith of his career - as well as the blue riband Tour title, Pantani also won the Giro d'Italia.

Pantani, known as "The Pirate", had been expected to become a major force in cycling since he made a name for himself taking on the great Miguel Indurain in the mountains of the Tour and Giro in 1995, and now he had well and truly arrived.

But that nickname was to come to reflect more than his bald head, goatee beard, earrings and bandana.

The year Pantani won his greatest triumph also saw cycling rocked by a massive drugs scandal, when a masseur with the Festina team, one of the best and most famous in the sport, was found to have performance-enhancing drugs in his car.

Pantani was not involved in that controversy, but he was to brew up plenty of his own.

A new force arrived in cycling in 1999, as Lance Armstrong returned from a headline-grabbing battle with cancer to win the first of what has become a record-equalling run of five Tours de France.

Pantani chased the great American all the way, but the Italian had already become embroiled in the scandal that would overwhelm his career.

Pantani, a tiny man who excelled on the toughest mountain stages, was thrown off the 1999 Giro d'Italia after failing a test for haematocrit - an indicator, though not proof, of the use of performance-enhancing drugs.

MARCO PANTANI FACT FILE
1970: Born on 13 Jan in Cesena, Italy
1992: Makes professional debut
1995: Bronze in World Championships
1998: Won Giro d'Italia and Tour de France
1999: Thrown out of Giro for failing blood test
2001: Syringe of insulin found in Pantani's room during Giro
2002: Banned for eight months but wins appeal
2003: Spends year battling for reputation in court. June - books into clinic for depression and drug use. October - acquitted of sporting fraud

It marked the start of a battle from which Pantani will now never emerge.

From that point on, scandal seemed to follow Pantani everywhere he went - on and off the cycling stages.

A titanic battle with Armstrong followed on the 2000 Tour.

It started innocently enough, when the two men rode side-by-side at the head of the field up the daunting Mont Ventoux stage, with Armstrong allowing Pantani to win in an apparently sporting recognition of his rival's ability.

But the American later said he regretted giving up the stage, and angered Pantani by referring to him as "Elefantino" - the little elephant - in reference to his prominent ears.

Pantani was furious, and set about trying to destroy Armstrong's Tour by powering ahead on a later stage. He failed, but made an enemy for life, at a time when he badly needed friends.

At this time, cycling's reputation was perhaps as low as it had ever been, as a series of top names became embroiled in a seemingly never ending run of drugs scandals.

And Pantani was never far from the headlines.

In 2001, a syringe containing traces of insulin was found in his hotel room in a police raid.

Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani on the Tour de France
Armstrong and Pantani fought a brief, but intense rivalry
Pantani insisted the syringe had been planted and that he did not stay in the room on the night in question. But a court did not believe him and he was suspended for six months.

Pantani was refused an entry on the Tour de France in 2002, and his life soon appeared to be heading downhill fast.

That year saw him embroiled in a series of court cases springing from the doping allegations, and he marked the beginning of 2003 with cosmetic surgery to pin back his ears.

An attempted comeback last year foundered when he failed again to secure a place on the Tour, and in June he booked himself into a clinic that specialised in depression and drug addiction.

Pantani's court battles appeared to have reached a conclusion when he was acquitted of sporting fraud by an Italian court in October last year.

But a tragic story came to its wretched end on Saturday with his death, alone, in an apartment in a seaside resort in winter.




SEE ALSO
Pantani cleared of fraud
02 Oct 03  |  Cycling
Pantani back after ban
25 Mar 03  |  Cycling
Pantani's doping ban lifted
17 Jun 02  |  Cycling
Pantani not picked for Tour
02 May 02  |  Cycling
Pantani launches Armstrong attack
18 Feb 02  |  Other Sports
Police raid Giro teams' hotels
06 Jun 01  |  Other Sports
Battle against drug peddlers continues
15 Feb 04  |  Tour de France
1996-2002: Doping and the great recovery
24 Jun 03  |  Tour History
Virenque 'did not supply drugs'
06 Nov 00  |  Other Sports


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