With the beauty of hindsight, in 2015, this documentary about the rise and fall of Marco Pantani already seems dated. Sentences starting with, “If he [Pantani] did dope…” from friends, family and ex-riders seem deluded or plain ignorant. There is no question anymore. Pantani did dope. Family and friends can wear their rose-tinted glasses, but director, James Erskine, should not. And in my opinion, I think this film reveres Pantani too much and gives hope to doubters who believe maybe he was clean after all and it was a conspiracy.
The film’s two most interesting points revel in or suggest conspiracy theories. Firstly, the theory the mafia rigged the Giro d’Italia 1999 result by organising Pantani’s expulsion with a positive drug test. Even though Pantani was definitely guilty of doping, he asserts so was everybody else and questions why he was victimised. The obvious answer is not only was Pantani winning the Giro that year, he was destroying his competitors. However, Pantani points to unusual betting behaviour and an earlier than scheduled drug test for reasons to be suspect.
The second conspiracy centres around the 2000 Tour de France and what happened at the top of Mount Ventoux. Why did Lance Armstrong chase down Marco Pantani only to let him win? Why did Armstrong call Pantani a “shit-starter” to the press and what did he say to him behind closed doors? Pantani, the man fondly known as ‘the Pirate’, surely did not drop out of the Tour a few stages later just because of stomach cramps? Although the director raises an interesting plot point here, it feels underdeveloped.
A big problem with this film is that it lacks journalist rigour. It seems preoccupied in mythologising ‘the Pirate’ and sticking to the two-dimensionally dramatic structure of the rise and fall of a sportsman. What are we really to make of Pantani? He was an eccentric loveable guy who was crushed by the powers-that-be of the sport he loved, but he still cheated. I feel sorry for him and his family and annoyed at Armstrong and other riders for using him as a scapegoat. But then what? It all leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The records state Pantani is the last man to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in the same year, in 1998, but a French Senate report, released in 2013, found Pantani tested positive for EPO from retroactive testing of his 1998 TdF blood samples.
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is a nice tribute to a loveable man caught up in a murky world, but it doesn’t pursue Pantani’s real tormentors – the world cycling body, the UCI, and Lance Armstrong. When it comes to the topic of doping in professional cycling, I prefer the more hard-hitting Stop at Nothing: The Lance Armstrong Story. However the best piece comes from BBC Radio 5 live; Peddlers: Cycling’s Dirty Truth is a two-hour truth bomb that includes interviews from whistleblower ex-riders and anti-doping experts.