Friday, February 27, 2004
I frequently forget that racing is a rather small subset of cycling’s breadth. If you happen to walk down the main quad at Duke there’s a bike very similar to this one locked up at a rack in front of the clocktower quad. I have no clue who owns it or how he/she built it, but it puts a smile on my face to see evidence of someone flying the hoopty (or in Chicago-ese, freakbike) flag on a campus which doesn’t necessarily openly embrace such iconoclastic endeavors. It seems that it’s been inert for some time and North Carolina’s recent spate of unusually harsh winter weather hasn’t been kind to the drivetrain. I feel compelled to do some impromptu community service and restore the rusty chain to a more rideable state.
I have a poster of Marco Pantani on the side of my refrigerator which serves as a daily reminder to my vacillating love/exasperation with the sport of professional cycling. Not long after Pantani was kicked out of the 1999 Giro d’Italia (due to an elevated hematocrit only one day from certain victory), I took artistic licence with Pantani’s likeness in outrage at the prevalence of EPO and god knows what else pro cyclists inject into themselves. I added an image of a gigantic syringe injecting Pantani’s outstretched arm. Now Marco Pantani is dead, younger than me at only 34 years old. My reflection upon his mercurial career and descent into the deepest throes of depression and loneliness leaves me troubled for I’m both angry at his denials of cheating, yet saddened that perhaps he was more of a pawn in an increasingly cutthroat profession.
I strongly suspect Pantani’s death on February 14, 2004 to be a suicide, although the exact cause may never be more than the coroner’s initial heart failure diagnosis. I hadn’t really even realized that he was absent from cycling this year. Pantani seemed to be on the comeback trail last year after his respectable showing in the Giro, but being snubbed by the Tour may have served as the last straw in his litany of public humiliations. I remember hearing that he checked himself into a clinic to treat his depression last summer, but I figured he’d be back.
I lost a great deal of respect for Pantani once he was tossed from the Giro in 1999. If he had confessed to using EPO and quietly took his punishment (in the example of Alex Zulle following the infamous 1998 Tour de France “Festina Affair”) then I could forgive him for succumbing to the immense pressure to achieve results, especially in his native Giro d’Italia. Instead he lashed out at the media and police and seemed to revel in his self-annointed martyrdom. For a while I stood amused at his increasingly erratic behavior and poor performances on the bike these past few years, but clearly he was permanently scarred by his ordeal.
It’s disturbing to think of Pantani’s untimely demise, the death of Jose Maria Jiminez in similar circumstances last December, and the mysterious deaths of young professionals due to heart failure which never seem to end. The same day that Pantani was found dead in his Italian hotel room, a young (21 years old?) Belgian professional was found dead having passed away while sleeping. I’m not a physician, and I believe that some of the deaths of 20-something year old professionals have been due to family histories of heart problems, but it seems that far too many young professional cyclists are dying in their sleep under mysterious circumstances. Will our sport take a hard look in the mirror and clean itself up, or will it implode and lose all credibility? I don’t know. I’m watching the unfolding THG scandal involving California’s Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative (BALCLO) and it’s ever widening net of big name professional athletes with rapt attention. The scandals involving cycling in Europe never receive media attention in the US, but maybe if some prominent athletes with household name recognition in this country are busted real progress can be attained in cleaning up professional sports.