Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist

Blur of Riders - Tour de France 1995 - 02

Photo: A blurred image taken at the 1995 Tour de France. Pantani was in the peleton somewhere, although almost certainly not in this image. See below for more.

A few days ago, I was watching a stage of the Giro D’Italia live on Eurosport. It was a mountain stage – one of three stages in this year’s Giro celebrating, or perhaps, commemorating the 10th anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death. You could almost hear the intake of breath from Eurosport’s commentator, Rob Hatch as he introduced a segment that Eurosport’s producers were going to play in on a split screen during an otherwise quiet moment in the race’s live coverage ahead of a big climb.

Hatch knew that even just playing the clip would cause some very strong feelings among viewers. Then we watched some highlights of Pantani on that same climb in a past Giro, sweeping up the hill. A little later, Hatch told us that his Twitter feed had indeed exploded.

“Il Pirata” was a cyclist who still divides those who follow the sport. He had an undoubted innate ability, and was unquestionably the leading climber of his time. Yet he was a product of the EPO generation, and his life ended far too soon with Pantani addicted to cocaine, hoovering up vast amounts of the stuff that would eventually kill him in an off season hotel room in Rimini.

As such, I find it hard to stomach some of the respect that is being paid to the rider. While he was incredibly talented, I’m certain that I’d never want a “commemorative” pink jersey bearing his name such as that one Rapha has released recently. That just feels a little unhealthy. Let’s face it, you don’t see too many people wearing Livestrong gear these days either.

Pantani’s is undoubtedly a tragic story. And cycling is full of legends. The sport creates them to an extent few other sports can ever truly manage. Yet I find some of this very uncomfortable, and because of that, I’m not sure I’d raise him to the very highest pantheons of the sport.

Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is a new documentary that was released in cinemas a week or so ago, timed to coincide with this year’s Giro D’Italia. A race that started so successfully in Belfast and Dublin, and concludes this weekend in Trieste.

I had planned on seeing the film in the cinema, but even during its first week of release, it was only available in very limited number of screenings. Somewhat ironically, Curzon, who were showing it in several of their sites, managed to only have screenings at weekends that actually clashed with live coverage of this year’s Giro! In other words, the very people who were likely to want to see the documentary would probably be found in front of a television watching this year’s coverage at the time it was being screened.

Fortunately the cinema release was really only there to get some media coverage, because the film was released on DVD and Blu-Ray earlier this week. So I watched it at home. I suspect that given Channel 4 seems to have partly funded it, it’ll end up on television sometime around this year’s Tour de France.

Anyhow, logistics aside, what’s it like as a film?

It’s based on Matt Rendell’s excellent 2006 book The Death of Marco Pantani, and the film features interviews and some narration from Rendell. It’s a fairly evenly told story, telling of Pantani’s discovery of how good he was at cycling as a child, through to his emergence onto the professional circuit and his arrival at the Grand Tours – the big races that every rider wants to perform at. It also details the appalling crash that Pantani suffered which nearly ended his career before it had properly got started.

Inevitably, the film simplifies the story to fit into a 90 minute runtime. While this is fine to a large extent, I don’t think that the film quite gets under Pantani’s skin and explains what makes him tick to the extent that the book does. And I’m not sure that Pantani’s superstar status in his home country quite comes across.

On the other hand, the film does of course benefit from numerous clips of Pantani racing, as well as contemporaneous interviews with him and others. We also hear from his mother as well as other friends and colleagues from his career. These all certainly mean that it makes a great companion piece to the book and well worth watching.

The nature of a documentary like this is that the film has to be made up largely of archival clips alongside some new interviews. Where it perhaps falls down a little is the use of an actor playing Pantani on some of the climbs as an illustration mechanism. I preferred not to see an actor but either just a bike wheel on a climb or even the point-of-view shots of what the various mountain stages actually look like on quiet days when there’s no crowds lining the sides of the road. Seeing an actor who looked a bit – but not really like Pantani just didn’t work for me.

I also felt that there were a few too many camera tricks to energise some of the segments of racing. Just showing the video would have been fine. Films like Senna have shown what can be achieved using archive footage alone, with new interviews just added as sound.

But I’m being picky. The producers and director did make one interesting choice, which was to dub on sound effects of bicycles being ridden. And it was quite refreshing. If you watch televised cycling you rarely actually hear the sound of the bicycles, because the camera is usually on a motorbike which drowns all the other sound out – or even a helicopter. I found it quite an interesting idea to hear the sound of a chain being turned during an attack even if it was added in an edit suite.

The construction of the documentary was fine. Sometimes I find it a little forced if we always have to start at the end and work backwards, although that’s actually how the book was written!

And I think the film handles the cases for the “prosecution” and “defence” quite evenly. Yes he was the best climber of his generation, and yes he was a knowing member of the EPO set – actually probably also a generation since so many were taking the drug. In fact, although in a piece towards the end Rendell lays out the case for why it must have been nearly impossible for Pantani not to have been pressured into taking drugs by team managers, rivals, sponsors and doctors, I think the book did a better job of painting Pantani as – well – not the brightest spark in the world. Maybe it’s not right, but the smarter you are, the less sympathy I have for you if you do wrong.

Remarkably, Lance Armstrong manages to come out of this film worse than anyone else, and certainly Pantani. He barely features, but a throw away comment and his behaviour to someone who was certainly up there with him, shows what a vindictive man he could be.

Overall, if you like to watch professional cycling, then I’d recommend seeing this film. It’s not quite as polished at The Armstrong Lie, but it’s still a worthy piece. At time of writing I believe that it’s still in cinemas in some parts of the country. But otherwise, pick up the DVD or Blu-Ray. Fortunately they were the same price at Amazon. However, given the amount of archival standard resolution footage, I wouldn’t pay over the odds to watch it in HD.

Personally, I loved the drama of watching Pantani going up a mountain. His ridiculous bursts of speed. The seeming impulsiveness of his attacks. Yet I was never a massive fan of his. I don’t know why, but

I thought that I’d never seen Pantani race in the flesh. But actually, as the documentary shows, Pantani raced in the 1995 Tour de France. I watched the riders process the on a neutralised stage of that year’s Tour, the day after the tragic death of Fabio Casartelli in the Pyranees. As I’ve mentioned before, that day saw Casartelli’s Motorola team, with Lance Armstrong among them, ride out ahead of the peleton as they respectfully rolled across the finish line. Somewhere in the midst of the blurred photo above may – or may not – be Pantani. But that was the only time I “saw” him.

So I respected him, but never loved him. I was still shocked by his death in 2004 though, and he was an incredible rider.

The Armstrong Lie

Motorola Team - Stage 16 1995 Tour de France

I’ve been watching the Tour de France for as long as I can remember. Back in the eighties, I readily adopted the new sports that Channel 4 brought to air – cycling, NFL, although perhaps not kabbadi. I certainly remember seeing Greg Lemond beat Lauren Fignon in a final stage time trial in 1989, to win the Tour by 8 seconds. But as I was watching Alex Gibney’s new film on Lance Armstrong last night I was trying to work out when I’d ever seen Armstrong in the flesh.

I came to the conclusion that despite all those “victories”, I’d only actually seen Armstrong once. I’d arrived in the French Pyranees on the day of the 15th stage of 1995’s Tour de France. It was the day that young Italian rider Fabio Casartelli died after crashing on a mountain descent.

The following day, I was in Pau as a neutralised race arrived at the finish line, Casartelli’s Motorola team-mates riding ahead of the peleton to salute their fellow rider. Lance Armstrong was one of those team-mates, alongside his good friend Frankie Andreu. That’s the picture you can see above.

So somehow I never managed to see Armstrong ride competitively live. But he’s a man who’s career I’ve always followed assiduously. While I might not have been a “Team Lance” advocate – never having read one of his best-selling books, or ever buying a Livestrong band, preferring to support charitable causes in different less overt ways – I still followed Armstrong assiduously. I wasn’t “inside cycling” enough to realise quite what a nasty piece of works he could be. I was of the belief – the Armstrong lie – that a cancer survivor like him surely wouldn’t mess around with his body after surviving that? How naïve. It was the slow ebbing out of information and admissions that saw me realise my mistake.

When I looked at IMDB to see Gibney’s prolific output, I wasn’t too sure how good The Armstrong Lie could be. Only last year he made the excellent Mea Maxima Culpa, and he’s been directing and producing several documentaries a year in recent years. Can one director maintain the quality with his volume of output?

And given the fact that Armstrong was far bigger than cycling in his homeland, was this documentary going to leave the cycling aspect behind?

I need not have worried.

Gibney presents a thoroughly engrossing two hours built around several interviews with his subject. He’d began making a film about the man back in 2009 when Armstrong had decided to come out of retirement and return to the Tour de France. Gibney’s cameras followed him that year, getting intimate behind the scenes access and the daily thoughts of Armstrong. At some stage though, that film began to fall apart as Armstrong faced mounting accusations from former team-mates like Floyd Landis. And so the film was never completed.

Gibney returned to the film when Armstrong, in the face of over-whelming evidence against him, decided to make a televisual confession with Oprah. Gibney got back in touch with his subject, and was alongside Oprah’s crew as he made his admission in January this year. Gibney interviewed Armstrong himself just after he’d recorded with Oprah. A couple of months later, he got another interview with his subject – probably the best of the bunch.

This documentary is built around this series of interviews as Gibney weaves through the claims and counter-claims, the lies and and the accusations. He doesn’t seem to be limited in the footage that he’s collated, with lots of Tour footage from US and UK coverage, as well as video testimony from Armstrong and others.

He also has extended interviews with former team-mates including George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu, as well the latter’s wife, Betsy Andreu. He even, remarkably, has an interview with Dr Michele Ferrari from 2009 before emails revealed that Armstrong was still secretly working with him. Of the major players who are talking, Tyler Hamilton is probably the obvious face that’s missing.

We also hear from the journalist David Walsh, who has faced legal action on multiple occasions over the years. Some of the unedited press conference footage in which we hear his voice, as well as that of fellow journalist Paul Kimmage, is very enlightening.

This is all beautifully weaved together with good use of graphics, and cross-cutting between participants. This isn’t an easy story to tell properly, and you could easily get bogged down in some of the detail, but Gibney keeps things moving.

And the closing line, which Gibney has caught in his January 2013 interview with Armstrong, is fascinating. I won’t spoil it here.

The film does leave question marks over Gibney’s own views. He’s quite self-critical during the film, particularly of the “Go Lance” attitude he was taking during the 2009 Tour. He’s aware that he was getting sucked into Armstrong’s narrative – that his film could be seen as extending the Lance myth. On the other hand, Gibney still thinks that in spite of everything Armstrong is an exceptional athlete. That’s probably true. He has the view that since everyone was doping at the time, the record books should read Armstrong* rather than being left blank.

I’m not sure that’s a viable answer. That’s expecially the case since the film includes the sequence during which Armstrong needlessly chases down Felippo Simeoni and explicitly gestures for him to zip it and maintain the omerta. Not every rider was on drugs. And Gibney hints that Armstrong did something even during the Tour he followed him on, when large parts of the sport had definitely cleaned up.

And Gibney is aware that he might still be helping perpetrate the Armstrong myth by making this film with the interviews that Armstrong has offered. Although revealingly, he says that he stopped staying in touch with Armstrong after telling him what he was calling the film. Armstrong has yet to see the film, although his “people” have seen it.

All told, a genuinely enlightening film that does add to what we know of the story. I’m not sure yet when the UK release date will be.

[Update] According to Empireonline its UK release is 31 January 2014. And there’s a nice picture from the set of a new Lance Armstrong drama directed by Stephen Frears.