Valentines day, the 14th February, is also the anniversary of the death of Marco Pantani, and each year those of us who read the cycling press read celebrations of his life and memorials of his death. We hear from those who still revere him as a cyclist, those who decry him simply as a cheat, and others who mourn the tragic death of a young man in a hotel in Rimini. But surely he is not this or that or the other; he is all of these things.
There’s no shortage of current riders describing Pantani as their inspiration and the reason they first decided to race a bike, and fans and journalists reminiscing about the excitement of watching Pantani launch his trademark attacks in the mountains. We also read about the drugs; to many Pantani is simply a cheat, and nothing more. It seems that to those who see things in black and white, just writing about his exploits on the bike equates to glorifying and celebrating the dopers – as if Pantani and his like shouldn’t be discussed in any terms other than as a bad person who cheated.
Whatever your views on cheating in sport, and however you decide to understand the context of Pantani the cyclist – a great cyclist in a drug addled era? – he was a young man who led a troubled life and died in pretty awful circumstances. Does the fact that he cheated to win bike races leave us unable to reflect on the tragedy of Pantani the man?
Of course it shouldn’t, and we should also have no qualms about discussing Pantani the cyclist either. When someone has cheated to win bike races, it’s very simple for the powers that be to airbrush them out of the record books with a blank line and an asterisk, but you can’t also remove them from cycling culture and history. Just because Lance Armstrong’s name no longer appears in the Tour de France winners list doesn’t mean that ‘the look’ didn’t happen, or the dash across the corn field as Beloki crashed, or his battle with Pantani on Mont Ventoux.
I’m not suggesting we should celebrate these things, and revere the riders who took drugs and cheated the public out of an honest spectacle, but just that we shouldn’t ignore them and pretend they didn’t happen – that would be ridiculous.
Whatever your distaste for his methods on the bike, you cannot deny that he influenced and inspired people; those who went on to become pro cyclists, those who didn’t, and those who simply had their lives illuminated by his dynamic attacks in the high mountains. However misguided that now seems, it happened.
I’m not an apologist for Pantani or any other cyclist who doped and cheated to win bike races, but if you’re going to start trying to mentally airbush out every cyclist who ever took drugs you’re going to have to go back a long way. Pantani should be mourned, of course, but also remembered as a man, and a cyclist, of his time.
Recommended: The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell