r-EPO Man

Photo: VeloPress

It’s always a let down for a fan to realise his or her idol is not all that they were held up to be. And while I was somewhat a fan of Marco Pantani, it was neither a surprise nor a let-down to read about his troubled life, and his subsequent sad, lonely death.

It wasn’t a surprise, or a let-down, to read that possibly his whole career was fueled by a dependence on recombinant EPO, among other performance enhancers. I knew it while watching him win the Tour in 98, I knew it when I watched him vainly struggle to hold the wheel of a super-charged Armstrong in the 2000 Tour, and I knew it when I saw him valiantly try to re-capture his former climbing prowess against the lesser gifted, yet somehow superior Simoni and Garzelli et al in the 2003 Giro, his ultimate swansong as it would eventually transpire.

Did I care that he was loaded? No. All his contemporaries were, it was no secret. Did I get an invigorating thrill from watching him fly up iconic mountain passes while holding the bars in the drops, sitting, standing, always accelerating, striving to get to the summit as quickly as possible, to shorten the suffering as he often stated? Hell yes. He was an entertainer. He was a craftsman. An aesthete. And he was a loner, foregoing any real support from a team that lacked talent and panache, something that probably pleased him as he loved to be the centre of attention.

And just as he rode alone, he lived alone. Although he was surrounded by an entourage who all claimed to be doing their best for him, ultimately he was neglected by them, and left to die a lonely, depressed, paranoid and disturbed man.

The Death of Marco Pantani doesn’t try to dispel the notion that his career was based on deception, nor does it try to glorify it. It is a stark assessment of the facts, and only the staunchest of tifosi could argue against those facts. But it still hits hard to read of such a spectacular fall from grace, the downward spiral from the pinnacle of the sport, and indeed from the pinnacle of celebrity, to a demise that one would normally associate with that of a rock star or actor. Maybe that’s how he saw himself, and how he thought it would be befitting for him to be remembered, like an Elvis, a Jim Morrison or even a James Dean.

Just as we still listen to The Doors, and watch Viva Las Vegas or Rebel Without a Cause and take pleasure from the experience, so too will we remember Les Duex Alpes in 98, or l’Alpe d’Huez in 95 and 97, not because we were watching a flawed individual, but because we were being entertained by a consumate showman, a master of his craft at the height of his profession.

And for that I can only be appreciative. RIP Marco.

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65 Replies to “r-EPO Man”

  1. It’s brilliant book that not only puts a career, but a whole generation into to stark contrast the public perception of the time.

    The one thing that annoys me is how Pantani is seemingly being held up as some kind of saint by journalists and bloggers alike, primarily because of his exciting riding style, his showmanship. But how much of this was made possible by the doping?

    Personally I think between them, Armstrong and Pantani represent everything that was bad about a generation of PROcycling and I feel they have cheated me of my enjoyment of that era. My memories are of disappointment with the scene, the fact that (pretty much) everything was a lie. I was racing at the same time (not the same level, obviously) and it frustrated me that if I rode clean, why couldn’t they? It isn’t hard to say no, some managed it, so why couldn’t the others? I see no glory, just greed. I will remember Pantani for the way the cycling world let him fade away, but I prefer to remember those like Christophe Bassons who were cheated and hounded out of their chosen career, they are the real heroes.

    Another book that is excellent at opening up the darker recesses of that generation is Bad Blood by Jeremy Whittle.

  2. Of course he was no saint, but he was great to watch. I don’t think EPO gave him his climbing talent, but it obviously embellished it. I guess that’s why they are called performance enhancing drugs, not performance creating drugs.

    Alex Zulle put it this way; (Following his confession during the Festina Affair:)
    “It’s like when you’re driving. The law says there’s a speed limit of 100 km/h, but everyone is driving at 120 km/h. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two options: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter.”

    Seems not much has changed.

  3. Illuminating book on doping in general as it got pretty darn technical about the subject. I enjoyed reading about the drama in the racing much more than the drama in the doping. And at the end of the day it seems that’s what most of us choose to do, focus on the racing.

    Seemed like Marco had a pretty challenging life from the get go. Mix that with a heap load of talent and a nefarious cycling culture and it’s no wonder how it ended up. It’a also hard for me to put all his faults on him alone. We’re all a product of our circumstance to an extent. Yes, we are ultimately responsible for our own choices but the factors that influence those choices can be stronger than will.

    I wonder if Frank can ever bring himself to read this book.

    Next up in Velominati Book Review: It’s Not About the Bike. Wait for it.

    no fucking way.

  4. @Brett
    why not drive at the speed limit. It’s not fucking hard, just don’t press so hard on the accelerator. Zulle’s team-mate Basson managed to do that and so did a fair few others who lived through that era, even Millar resisted the culture for quite a few years. Too many greedy bastards out there.

  5. This conversation may well bring home a point I have recently learned quite well.

    That being: We only take away from any conversation the things we want to hear.
    Think about it. Its utterly true.

    Someone can say something realatively positive to me, but I can draw out of it a negative. Conversely, they can be negative, but I can draw out of it pollyanna positives.

    This book is one I would like to read, but am pretty sure as brett eludes to it, the opinions will vary according to readers.

    Pantani was heroic to me. I was inspired by his riding, not knowing at the time he doped, but later did find it out. Did that change anything in my mind about him, really?? Nope. I chose to believe and accept it all.

    I chose to believe that it was a level playing field afterall, since, they nearly all were doing it, plus a good amount of amphetamines too. I chose to believe that he did on a couple of occassions trancend the peloton, rising like a pheonix from ashes, after utter desparation and turmoid and disappointments…that Pantani on his own made it and eclipsed a penacle.

    I also closely related to Pantani. His loneliness, his depression, the hard days. He knew them and inflicted it upon the peloton with a venom unlike any I have seen since. Only, I cannot inflict the same because I am a pussy and softer than he.

    He was also quintessentially Italian. Proud, arrogant, colorful, unrelentingly over the top. Because of it I bought my first really good road bike, a bianchi boron steel and lovingly ride it to this day, flailing it at times like Pantani, just at short spurts in comparison with about 25kg extra on my frame.

    Jarvis has his take, and that is his.
    Mine was much different, and that is mine.
    the spectrum of opinions is a gulf. good write up brett and thanks.

  6. Maybe it was the longer steerer tube, or is his incredibly slight build in relation to his height, but I remember always thinking that his bike seemed much too big for him. I’ve tried his descending style, but it really doesn’t work for me.

  7. I tried to climb out of the saddle yesterday in the drops ala Pantani. It kicked my ass. I don’t know if it’s because it’s new, or it’s just a harder position, or what. What’s the word on his climbing position? Is there an advantage to climbing out of the saddle in the drops? Most I’ve seen now do it only when attacking and for short distances, not all day, like he did.

  8. Pantani did have a longer steerer tube and custom-designed drops, so they weren’t actually as low as yours or mine. I think if I tried that on my bike, I would probably burn out really fast if I didn’t just fall over (then again, I’m only about 5cm taller than Pantani and a whole lot heavier).

    I can do an Evans (and look just as ugly doing it””not for nearly as long, mind), but have learned to just be patient on the climbs (I climb and descend like a stone) and stay in the saddle for almost everything but the steep turns and the short, steep bumps, which I’ll try to sprint over. The climbing is getting better this year, which pleases me, but I’ll never be a goat or a Pantani…

  9. @david
    his climbing advantage was 50-60% hct. Nothing to do with climbing on the drops. Although climbing on the drops was one of the styles that I took from both Pantani and VDB, but because it looked cool, I didn’t care if it was efficient or not, it was all about the style.

    @Souleur
    perhaps it was something about the “quintessential Italian” in him that I didn’t like. I struggle with people with huge egos giving themselves nicknames. After reading the book, I do wonder how much cocaine played in his life, it may explain the arrogance and the ego.

    I also wonder how much the knowledge of the past, gained after the event, has coloured my memories of those days. I do remember that you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing another Bianchi and the ones with the yellow colour-scheme just ruined good style.

    For someone who tried so hard to create an image, a persona, I think he did a terrible job of being stylish. Like those people with big houses and too much money, who have no taste.

  10. Jarvis :@david
    his climbing advantage was 50-60% hct.

    Oops. You mean it wasn’t the steerer tube and custom-designed drops? Are you sure?

  11. Actually, I feel like when I climb in the drops, it preloads your hips or something. It’s really fast. But, like you’re all saying, you burn out in no time.

    Brett, awesome piece. I am really afraid to read this book. Pantani is a big hero of mine. It’s not that I don’t want to read about the drugs – I know that they were doing. My heart broke for him in his last years, and I was devastated by his death. So was Michelle. Its a moment I remember all too well.

    Based on how heartbreaking the story is, I just don’t know if I can take it.

  12. Great post Brett, that’s a well rounded review of his legend. Drugs or no drugs I would say he was the best pure climber of his generation. I loved watching him and loathed watching Virenque. Have I expressed my hatred of him enough? Talk about obnoxious salutes. Luckily he didn’t win too often.

    But I digress, Marco: his descending technique was insane, I tried that about three seconds. Climbing in the drops,like everyone here, tried it, can’t do it for long.

    When he first came on the scene (an unknown to me), in his blue-jean Carrera kit winning mountain stages, that was very thrilling stuff.

  13. I just wish we got to see a Tour where Pantani gave it to Armstrong up a few cols and cracked him, only for Der Kaiser to come by and put time into him as well. Then Ulle comes through and takes the Tour in the final TT!

    It is a book worth reading for any cycling fan (along with Bad Blood (Whittle) Rough Ride (Kimmage) and From Lance to Landis (writer’s name escapes me). I challenge anyone to read those books and not come away with the belief that they all doped then – and possibly still do now.

    After getting thoroughly depressed and disenchanted with the sport, then go and read The Rider by Tim Krabbe. A great book about an imaginary amateur race.

    Don’t read Good Cadel/Bad Cadel’s autobiography. It is predominantly Bad Cadel – and the only interesting bit is when he talks about the team meeting prior to last year’s World Champs – when the team vote was 8 to 1 to ride for Gerrans instead of Cadel. But the team did do a very good job for him anyway.

  14. @Marcus
    I thought Paul Kimage’s book was a book written by a weak, broken man. I hated it. His psychology is precisely the type that dopes for the wrong reasons (though the “right” reasons to dope a difficult to justify). He had bad moral, and he hated training. He would get behind on this form, start a race, and drop out. Having dropped out, his morale dropped more, he trained less, and – lacking the racing kilometers his competitors were getting, he would get shelled out of the bunch in the next race, and drop out. It seems like he never enjoyed bike racing an awful lot.

    I sympathize with the guy, and I am grateful he opened up about doping. But it’s too easy to look at his style of training and say, “That’s a weak man with a weak mind. Of course he doped.”

    Take, then, A Dog in a Hat, by Joe Parkin. Same situation. Under classed. Doped like Kimage. But the guy was living his dream and loved to climb aboard a bike. Completely different book, different take on the sport, and – I feel – the same message on doping in cycling.

    I never dropped out of a race, ever. I couldn’t live with myself if I did. I think your mind is the most important component in any sport. Love him or hate him (most of us here hate him), Lance Armstrong epitomized that. His mind was so strong, with 2/3 the form (and more dope) than his adversaries, he’d win the race at the start line, just though his sheer will and determination.

    One of his great quotes (despite his CoTHO status)

    Pain is temporary, quitting is for ever.

    It’s true. I don’t even quit on intervals. I don’t quit “riding tempo” until I simply can’t go any further. I haven’t raced in several years, but I still push myself so hard I can’t hold my body up on my bars at the top of a climb when I push myself. If I don’t have the form to do another interval or ride a hill hard, I’ll make that decision before I start the interval or hill – never during. I never allow my mind to shut my legs off during an effort. It’s a flood gate and once you open it, it just becomes more and more acceptable to quit.

  15. frank :
    One of his great quotes (despite his CoTHO status)”

    Pain is temporary, quitting is for ever.

    It’s true. I don’t even quit on intervals. I don’t quit “riding tempo” until I simply can’t go any further. I haven’t raced in several years, but I still push myself so hard I can’t hold my body up on my bars at the top of a climb when I push myself. If I don’t have the form to do another interval or ride a hill hard, I’ll make that decision before I start the interval or hill – never during. I never allow my mind to shut my legs off during an effort. It’s a flood gate and once you open it, it just becomes more and more acceptable to quit.

    Couldn’t agree more on any of this. Principle and practice are very sound. I try to instill this in my kids (off the bike), but it’s a sign of strong character. I’m no LA fan, but that’s a terrific quotation, which translates roughly as HTFU.

  16. By the way, awesome photo of the book; love how you propped it up against your bars. Are you experimenting with dropping your bars some? It seems you have more stack above the stem than I recall in other photos.

    Also, what bar wrap is that? The texture looks almost like cloth tape.

  17. @frank
    Yep, what an eagle eye you have! I dropped the stem and shortened it from 130 to 120. Hard climbing in the drops Pantani-style though!

    The tape is Zero Gum Wrap, it is almost a rubberized type of material, very grippy but doesn’t clean very well.

  18. @frank
    I didn’t say that Kimmage was a good guy just that the book was a good read – you would have to agree that it was enlightening. And I disagree with your interpretation of his doping. Didn’t he do it in a post-Tour crit which was effectively meaningless?
    No doubt he was/is a nasty piece of work…

  19. @Marcus
    I didn’t mean to imply that he should be dismissed; I was trying to say that due to his mentality and his bitter writing style, that it’s easy to dismiss him as such. And yeah, I don’t think he doped much. Just once or twice, at minor races. Which is all the more reason it’s disappointing his style makes it so easy to disregard him.

    But I agree, the book was enlightening, but I found his attitude in it unappealing. Like I said, Dog in a Hat was much better. And, Breaking the Chain, I thought, was truly Earth shattering.

  20. Breaking the Chain was a beauty – thinking of that book prompted me to do a quick check of the Lexicon. I couldn’t find an entry for “Reeshard”… surely that super-douche qualifies for his own listing?

  21. @frank @marcus @brett
    Tricky Dicky

    @marcus
    Kimmage a nasty piece of work? What fucking planet are you on? A Rough Ride wasn’t the easiest read, but perhaps you’d be a bit bitter if you’d gone from being a champion to an also ran. People react differently to failure. I think Kimmage was immensely brave for writing the book, don’t forget he was the first. Without him the chances are many of the other books might not have been written. He is also one of the best journalists out there, he is willing to ask questions of people and still one of the few to have stood up to Armstrong and it seems to take a lot of balls to question/stand-up to Armstrong. Kimmage was right all along as well, he is one of the good guys, along with David Walsh (Lance to Landis author).

  22. @Jarvis
    Was referring to Kimmage’s persona – he comes across as being pretty sour on life and bitter about cycling (maybe forgive the latter, but not the former). He would most likely disdainfully call all velominatus a bunch of ‘chamois-sniffers’.

    He doesn’t exactly come across as the kinda guy who you would want to hang out with – examples off the top of my head: his description near the end of the book of riding L’Etape; and his (self-admitted) shoddy treatment of his in-car partner during a Tour he covered as a journo. Nasty is the right word I believe.

    I do applaud his courage for spitting in the soup (see my first post above) – but he was never a ‘champion’ rider – which he candidly admitted.

  23. I was nervous to read this book, as I was worried it wasn’t about cycling, it was about doping… but reading this article tells me I should get over it and read the bloody thing. I read Kimmage’s book, and it nearly put me off cycling. It certainly made me half the size of my next internet order of EPO and ease back on ingesting extra testosterone for about a week. I know he’s a ‘real journalist’ relentlessly seeking the truth, but it does smack of a crusade. That youtube video of him vs. Pharmstrong is compelling viewing… even if CoTHO makes good points (e.g. “David Millar, and I like him, was caught with his fingers in the cookie jar… he then chose to speak out against doping”)

    Don’t know if you’ve read ‘Le Metier’ by Michael Barry, but that is an awesome book about the pro-cyclists way of life… unfortunately currently slightly tarnished by Landis’ accusations against Barry (who has always appeared anti-doping)… with great insights into every aspect of cycling, throughout the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, Autumn – that’s ‘Fall’ for you yanks) culminating in his late season stage win in Tour of California, where he just applied Rule #5 and blew away everybody else because his legs just felt stronger and he could dish more hurt. I finished that chapter, got on my bike, and rode the longest I’ve ever ridden at the highest average speed, imagining I was at the head of the paceline trying to get my sprinter to the 10km to go line in good position – I was picking up random cyclists en route, and telling them to “take my wheel, I’ll get you back to the peloton”… am sure that’s why there are still cyclists in London who point at me, and won’t make eye contact. A great book about what’s good about road cycling (second only to the Rider, as has been pointed out)

  24. @roadslave says, “I was picking up random cyclists en route, and telling them to “take my wheel, I’ll get you back to the peloton””. Now that’s the way you ride with anonymous strangers on the road. Cool.

  25. @roadslave
    I take no credit for picking up on this, or for questioning why a supposedly “clean” pro would choose to call his book this. All the credit belongs to this very good blog.

  26. @Cyclops
    It’s not like any of us have ever really doubted that he doped, but it is amazing to see the story catch so much traction. I have a funny feeling like it’s going to stick this time around. As they say, you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the peoples some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.

  27. @frank
    I dunno. There was an excellent article somewhere about a month back outlining what the possible causes of action might be. From memory it is not clear there is one – unless someone can get done for lying to a grand jury (as happened to those convicted post Balco). But hope springs eternal …

  28. @G’Phant
    I think I read the same piece; there’s also a question over how sweeping the case could be interms of misuse of government funds, but it appears that no US Taxpayer money go towards operational costs of the Postal Service.

    I dunno either; just a sense that this time it’s different – there’s also a list of famous US athletes in other sports coming out with admissions, and so the tone in the US towards doping is a bit different than the other times these allegations have come up. I’m also not seeing him swinging and punching like he has in the past. It’s intangible, but feels somehow different.

  29. Yeah, when it comes down to it we’ll all still cycle with great passion and follow our heroes, fallen or otherwise, but I think this time there is going to be a huge fallout and a lot of people being discredited/disgraced.

    I’ve never been a huge LA fan but one one hand he did do something incredible with seven in a row. On the other hand it all adds up. His ego, his personality, his resources, etc. points toward a person that would do whatever it takes to reach his goal and in my heart of hearts I’m pretty convinced he’s lying.

    At least I can say that I’ve never owned a Livestrong bracelet. Ha!

  30. Isn’t USPS a gov’t body though and therefore still mis-use of federal funds? Either way, simply on the grounds that he hasn’t threatened to sue anyone yet would suggest something is up. On top of that a lack of denial, the only defence is to attack the investigation or attempt to find technical failings. Then there is Armstrong’s team meeting with Federal Attorney’s to discuss the case…

    G’phant, there is one big problem that Armstrong has and that is the SCA case in ’05. Anything contradicting his sworn testimony then is going to give trouble

  31. While we’re on the subject of doping I would recommend a viewing of the documetary Bigger Stronger Faster* http://www.biggerstrongerfastermovie.com/

    It’s a good examination of the win at all costs culture of professional sports and also our own double standards as fans and spectators.

    From imdb: “The documentary examines the steroid use of the director Christopher Bell and his two brothers… Beyond the basic issue of anabolic steroid use, Bigger, Stronger, Faster* examines the lack of consistency in how America views drugs, cheating, and the lengths people go to achieve success.” – http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1151309/synopsis

  32. I’ll add that the filmmaker covers all sports in this film. For the segment on cycling he interviews Landis after his TdF title was stripped and he was still denying doping.

  33. @Shannon
    Yeah, I’ve watched that, it’s pretty grim, but doesn’t really break down any barriers that we didn’t already have broken down. The main subject is pretty funny in his little shorts and his shrunken nuts!

    Have you guys seen this? Very funny comments on there, the moderators mustn’t know anything of his past and detractors to let them through! I even got a comment on there…

  34. @frank The fact that Huevos has hired some of the biggest guns in the business – PR and legal — as well as the fact that he is laying low – very low – says volumes…

  35. @Brett geez dude, that is totally hilarious. Like more than half of the Lance “support” quotes are bogus…too funny. Love the one from Kik!

  36. Well, I had to leave my own message of “support” for Huevos signed as “Floyd L.” hahahaha…..

  37. @Shannon
    First off, welcome. I’ll kick this off to say that I think all of us here at Velominati (except maybe @Jarvis who has a very firm line on who/what he does and doesn’t support – and we love him for it) fully acknowledge the hypocrisy inherent in loving sport; the issue of doping is a particularly complicated one, but really just one facet of our sport. Our Doping category shows a pretty healthy slice of our flirtations with the subject.

    I haven’t seen that film, but I’ll watch that, shriveled nuts and all. Thanks for the link.

    As someone who places personal responsibility above all else – we all have control over our destinies and our choices – I do put a lot of stake in the environs that one is raised in. I feel bad for the sport in general; the riders entering the sport are young and don’t usually have a higher education and can’t generally appreciate the magnitude of the choice they are making when they accept a vitamin injection or some such thing and start down a path, guided by their mentors who have a similar background, into doping. Then they become the mentors, and the mentors become the coaches and directors.

    As a society of (generally) sloths, we’ve set out a set of principles of what we believe is to be “fair sport”, and then we set about reconciling the two environments.

    It’s fucked completely and while I personally wish there were no drugs in the sport – and think it’s possible, right, and should be our top goal – when I look at it through that lens, I have a hard time pointing the finger at the riders and saying, “you’re to blame”. We all have to work together and understand each other. It’s possible, but at the moment we’re about as close to resolving the issue as the Middle East is to finding Peace.

    And Merckx knows we all wish that would happen.

  38. @Frank
    Thanks for the welcome. I’ve been perusing the archives lately and I like this place.

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