When the Tour de France swept through Yorkshire earlier this summer it seemed that professional cycling had won the heart of the nation once again. Seeing the crowds of people lining the streets, and witnessing the almighty cheers as I did on Sheffield’s Jenkin Road, it is difficult to believe that just a few years the sport had been embroiled in doping scandals.
One of those lost generation of cyclists was Marco Pantani, whose life and untimely death at the age of 34 is the subject of a new film, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which screened Nottingham’s Broadway cinema on Monday. Known for his almost ability to destroy his opponents on the most gruelling mountain climbs – not to mention his capacity to clock up speeds of up to 100km per hour on the descents – he made history when he claimed victory at both the Giro D’Italia and Tour de France in 1998.
At its heart this documentary is about the purity of cycling and its solitary nature, as well as the human desire to tackle the most unforgiving terrain. It follows the a young Pantani rise through the ranks to become a professional cyclist with legions of adoring fans who referred to him affectionately as ‘The Pirate’. In the archive film footage of the great tours, the dramatic mountains provide the backdrop to Pantani’s feats of endurance. We also see him come back from a devastating cycling accident which almost left him unable to walk let alone cycle. These scenes are punctuated with poignant, funny and insightful interviews with his mother, journalists and fellow cyclists, including Sir Bradley Wiggins.
But of course the sport, and Pantani’s successes, were overshadowed by the practice of doping, the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells so that more oxygen reaches the muscles. In 1999, Pantani was disqualified from the Giro following an irregular blood test – and it was something he never truly got over. He descended into a spiral of cocaine abuse and eventually died alone in his hotel room in 2004.
Overall, this is a poetic film which offers a fascinating portrait of a super-human cyclist whose iron will was crushed by allegations of doping. The level of his involvement is left somewhat ambiguous and there is the suggestion that he was a victim of corrupt doctors, sponsors and the pressures faced by professional cyclists. Any idea of wrong-doing is glossed over by the interviewees – but ultimately, viewers are invited to make up their own minds about whether his achievements are diminished by the allegations.