Professional cyclist Marco Pantani's life and career epitomizes the highs and lows of modern professional cycling. He became a national hero in Italy when he won the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in the same year - one of only seven men to have done so. He was a legendarily great mountain climber and continues to hold the speed record for climbing the iconic Alpe d'Huez. He was tainted by scandal and accusations of doping, though the charges were never conclusively proven. He battled depression and drug addiction and died in a hotel, alone, in 2004, aged 34, of a heart attack caused by excess consumption of cocaine. He knew triumph and tragedy in equal measure.
Pantani was a small child who already had the protruberant ears that would earn him the sobriquet Elefantino ("Little Elephant"), a nickname he despised. He was energetic and curious, and rode the bike his mother bought him all over the countryside, several times getting hit by cars. He brought that bike inside every night and washed it in the bathtub, then slept with it by his bed. His mother worried that he was ruining the walls; his father worried that he wouldn't be able to make a living on a bike, and wanted the boy to become a plumber, like him.
Luckily, the racing paid off. After several successful amateur seasons Marco became a professional racer at age 24. He placed second in the Giro and third in the Tour de France that year, 1994, attracting attention with his fearsome mountain attacks. The next year, in the Milan-Turin race, a jeep drove onto the course and hit him head-on. He shattered his leg and was on crutches for months; people said his career was over.
But he did return, with his prematurely balding head shaved, a goatee, an earring, and a bandana around his pate; in keeping with his new image he called himself Il Pirata ("The Pirate"). He continued his crazy solo attacks in the mountains, and his streak of bad luck. In 1997 a black cat dashed in front of him during the Giro, and he crashed and dropped out of the race. Later that year he finished the Tour in third place after having climbed the numerous switchbacks of the Alpe d'Huez in 37 minutes, 35 seconds; Lance Armstrong tried, and failed, to best that record in a time trial at the 2004 Tour de France. (Pantani's feat was even more amazing when you consider that he had climbed the mountain as part of a much longer stage; Armstrong had only the steep slope to scale. Pantani was truly a great climber.)
1998 was Pantani's greatest year, the year he won the Giro and the Tour. He was a hero, and a personable one. He enjoyed chatting with his fans after races; children loved him. He was generous: when an earthquake struck Assisi, he loaded a truck with food to drive there. He bought a villa for his family and a Mercedes Benz for his Danish girlfriend Christine Johansonn. He was an iconoclast and sensualist; he played the horses, raced pigeons, celebrated nonconformity and chaos. He began to use cocaine.
In 1999 he announced his intention to win the Giro-Tour double for the second year in a row, something no one else had ever done. But it was not to be. During a routine blood test at the second-to-last stage of the Giro he was found to have abnormally high blood hematocrit levels, though no evidence of EPO itself. He could have waited two weeks till his hematocrit levels returned to normal - a safety precaution, not an official drug violation - but he chose instead to make accusations of fraud, fabrication, victimization. He demanded, and got, DNA tests - which proved that the tests had been accurate. He withdrew, gaining weight, escalating his drug use, driving too fast, wrecking cars.
In 2000 he was riding again, and had a tiff with Lance Armstrong. After a mano a mano battle up Mont Ventoux Armstrong let the Italian win the stage, and Pantani responded by insulting the American in the press. Armstrong retaliated by calling him by the hated handle, Elefantino. Pantani went on the attack in the next few mountain stages, so rattling the Texan that he forgot to eat and bonked, losing crucial minutes to Jan Ullrich, the real threat for victory. But Pantani's revenge was self-defeating, and he was caught, dropped, and lost 14 minutes, after which he dropped out of the race. Armstrong won his second Tour de France that year, but Pantani would race only sporadically after that.
In 2001 a police raid at the Giro turned up a syringe with traces of insulin in Pantani's room, and he was banned for another six months. He became even more depressed; the drug use escalated again. He had surgery to pin his ears back. He did respectably in the 2003 Giro but was crushed when he was passed over for the centenary Tour that year and checked himself into a mental institution for depression. On Valentine's Day his body was found in a seaside hotel in Rimini, Italy; 30,000 fans lined the streets at his funeral. He is buried in his hometown of Cesenatico.