Friday February 14, St Valentine's Day marks a decade since Marco Pantani - one of cycling’s most flamboyant characters, was found dead in a Rimini hotel room. His fantastic successes at a time of the sport’s greatest excesses have produced a vibrant yet tarnished legacy. This is the last in a special series of features, we look back at his career and his tragic death. From February's issue of Procycling Magazine.
Anyone who has followed cycle sport for a decade will remember where they were on Saturday 14 February, 2004 when news broke that Pantani had been found dead in a small Rimini hotel. The Italian news agency ANSA announced his death at 10:42pm with a single sentence news flash. The news spread around the world in minutes.
I was at the Tour Méditerranéen in southern France. Mario Cipollini had won the day’s stage and I was enjoying dinner with photographer Graham Watson in a tiny Provence hotel.
A call from Reuters shattered the peace – Pantani was dead.
It signalled the start of one the most intense days of my career. After quickly writing a profile of him, I realised I had to go to Cesenatico. I’d been there for team presentations, training camps and the celebrations when Pantani had won the 1998 Tour de France. This time, it would be for his funeral.
Early the next day, I started to drive across the south of France and northern Italy, stopping to write a story for a British newspaper and other stories for a special issue of Cycling Weekly.
Pantani’s death had struck everybody.
Arriving in Rimini late on Sunday afternoon, I headed to the mortuary. Along with a handful of Italian journalists, I talked to Felice Gimondi and saw the detached lid of Pantani’s coffin waiting in a room. From behind a door we heard the outpourings of grief of Pantani’s sister Manola and his father Paolo before the chilling noise of the power tool tightening the screws on the coffin lid.
I visited the Residence Le Rose hotel in Rimini, where Pantani had been found. The air was damp, as it often is in February. Rimini seemed a cold, lonely place to die.
The next day, Pantani’s body was moved to a church overlooking the main Cesenatico canal for a day of mourning.
I visited the church with several other journalists to pay my respects. We had all known Pantani from the Giro and Tour. We had all been touched by his sensitive character and his success as a rider. However, when Pantani’s mother Tonina recognised Alessandra Di Stefano from Italian television, she began to shout at us:
“You’re my son’s assassins. You killed him,” waving at us to leave the church.
The day of the funeral was dark and cold but the weather did not deter a reported 30,000 people from turning up. The road outside was packed tight and the service was relayed via speakers. The press was allowed to follow the service on television in the priest’s side room.
Pantani’s agent Manuela Ronchi was the last to read out a message, stunning everyone by quoting what Pantani had scribbled on nine pages of his passport a few months previously. It was a confused defence against those who had demonised him and accused him of doping.
It ended with a call for honesty and a plea for people to speak out, perhaps against the doping in the sport. But Pantani’s final words fell on deaf ears – we now know the doping continued.
Following the ceremony, Pantani’s coffin was carried to the cemetery a kilometre away by several of his former team-mates. The crowd walked in silence, accompanying Pantani to his final resting place next to his grandfather Sotero, who had bought him his first racing bike.
It was dark by the time I’d finished writing my stories and been interviewed by several radio stations. I had a four-hour drive home but decided to visit the cemetery one last time. Pantani’s body had been placed in a concrete tomb above ground, with a plastic cover carrying his name. The cement was still wet. People stood in silence until the cemetery closed at six o’clock.
When I returned to my car, it was impossible not to shed a tear and finally release my own emotions.