Gearing up with the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist, James Erskine’s Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist uncovers both the agony and the ecstasy.
Easy Rider by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Bikes, it appears, are a lot like buses. You wait for ages and suddenly two come along at once. At least that’s what seems to have happened with films about cycling, with James Erskine’s Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist hot on the heels of Alex Gibney’s documentary The Armstrong Lie. Based largely on Matt Rendell’s biography The Death Of Marco Pantani and structured around an interview with the cycling author, Erskine’s documentary follows the rise and fall of Italy’s answer to Lady Diana, Marco Pantani – the last double winner of both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, who died in 2004 from an overdose of cocaine, “Il Pirata” thrown off kilter when the doping pandemic amongst professional cyclists goes public. It’s road racing with the wheels come off.
Starting out as a road racer in Cesenatico, Italy in his teens, Marco Pantani was soon snapped up by local managers thanks to his god-given gift for cycling uphill. It’s a talent that saw the rising star rapidly climb to the peloton, the young pretender enjoying overtaking his rivals on the climb so much that he would often savour the feeling by dropping back to last place before launching his meteoric push through the field. Reaching the podium in the Tour de France in 1994, Pantani’s career careened off-course when he crashed into a car during a rapid descent on an unprotected road during a race. But despite multiple breaks, Pantani was soon back racing, battling it out with Lance Armstrong on the course and setting records for mountain stages in Alpe d’Huez in 1997 before going on to win both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 1998. But when drugs are discovered in the Festina team’s transporter crossing the Belgian border, Pantani became the impromptu spokesman for the boycotting cyclists before the sport itself is irreparably punctured.
Made up of archive footage and talking head interviews with Pantani’s mother, girlfriend, trainer and biographer, Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist is a very personal look at cycling – from familial accounts of Marco as a boy stripping his bike to make it lighter and faster. Like Matt Wolf’s Teenage, the documentary is interspersed with dramatic reconstructions, which see a bald, lycra-clad actor convey the agony and the ecstasy of Pantani’s passion for cycling, climbing uphill on an exercise bike, as well as his rapid decline into cocaine addiction. It’s described as a confused escape from the pressure of a high-stakes sport turning on itself during the doping scandal, Pantani no longer able to bear the shame and judgement of a once beloved public.
But while Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie is as much a film about power and lies as it is about Lance Armstrong, Erskine’s documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist restricts itself to the biography of the Italian road race rider. There are some limited attempts to explain the doping with EPO (erythropoietin, the hormone that allows red blood cells to absorb more oxygen and create more energy) and some hinted suggestions at the systematic drug-taking organised by team sponsors going on behind the scenes. But Erskine’s film draws a veil over the doping controversy, stopping short at implicating Pantani directly, choosing instead to leave both the drug-taking and doping hidden behind closed doors.
One of the most interesting aspects to Erskine’s documentary is the effect Pantani’s death has on the Italian people – provoking a wave of grief not unlike JFK in the United States and Princess Diana in the UK. Whether Erskine has done enough to establish Il Pirata’s popularity in the Bel Paese remains doubtful, but there’s no doubting the Italians’ attachment to the beautiful sport of ciclismo. And like all good Italian champions, Pantani is a kind of super-hero with a god-given gift to cycle up mountains. A fascinating testimony to a cyclist with raw talent, divine inspiration and sheer determination, Erskine’s documentary Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist forges the myth of this relentless climber racing towards the fall.
Pantani: The Accidental Death Of A Cyclist is released on 16th May 2014 in the UK