Photo from Andrea on Flickr.
22nd February 2013.
Gerard Vroomen asked an interesting question on Twitter on Monday. He was wondering why Marco Pantani gets so much kudos when he was as much a doper as Lance Armstrong. This has been something I have been thinking about recently as I wrestled with my own views on Marco Pantani while reading Matt Rendell’s book “The death of Marco Pantani”. Even though I have always known he was a doper and cheat I have held him in high regard as a magical rider and along with many cycling fans, I’m sure, spared him a thought on Valentines day. But why was I so delighted when Lance Armstrong was convicted of doping last month, while my adoration for Pantani is only starting to waver now almost 14 years since being kicked out of the Giro at Madonna di Campiglio for having a high hematocrit level. This was one of many times he recorded a high level and probably wasn’t too surprising given his links to Francesco Conconi and Eufemiano Fuentes. However Marco was a god to me and many others while Lance was the devil.
The case of Lance Armstrong is fresh in the memory which might explain the hatred towards the American. Both he and Pantani rode at the same time, indeed they saw each other as rivals and for a while were not on good terms at all, however they were at opposite ends of their careers. They were both around at the time of the Festina affair but that episode affected both men in different ways. The scandal was meant to be a watershed moment for the sport in terms of doping, but it seems to me that it only resulted in a framework being created where if you wanted to cheat then you better do it properly around the new rules set down. In Armstrong’s case this was perfect. His and US Postal’s method of systematic doping in a very professional way was at odds with the old style Italian way of doing it on the cheap in the dysfunctional Mercatone Uno team. They were both cheating at the same time but Pantani was the one that got caught, first. Is the fact that Armstrong did it better annoy people? But while Armstrong helped to bring a new era of doping but Pantani and his generation had paved the way.
So Pantani was popped in 1999. The Internet wasn’t exactly in its infancy but it was nothing like it is now. There were less news outlets covering cycling, less cycling websites and no twitter. You had to go searching in the regular press to read about Pantanis ban and even if you read cycling magazines you didn’t get the same background information from the TV documentaries to the USADA reports that we have with Lance Armstrong. There also wasn’t social media platforms where fans could discuss and argue their point. So simply there is more information about Lance Armstrong. If you want to find the whole Marco Pantani story you have to go looking. That’s not something many fans would do.
Perhaps riding style is a reason for the differing opinions on th two. During last season Team Sky and Bradley Wiggins’ dominance was often compared, unfairly I thought, to Armstrong and his US Postal outfit. The comparison was unfair to the Americans. The trains of both teams were similar but Armstrong still gave fans plenty of excitement, attacking his close rivals and winning on some iconic climbs but Pantani probably gets slightly more kudos for his natural climber style and his desire to go on long lone breaks over the mountains.
So finally I have to mention personalities. One thing both had in common was their dishonesty. A reason Armstrong gets so much flack is because he denied he had doped for such a long time but it has to be remembered the Pantani did the same and even suggested there was a witch-hunt against him in the way Armstrong always has.Other aspects of each ones personalities though seem very different which may explain why Pantani is better regarded than Armstrong. Lance has been described as a bully who was at the heart of his teams doping culture, driving it forward, Marco seemed more of a loner and troubled soul who needed guidance when he was off the bike. Pantani’s troubled mind and tragic end will also always afford him some sympathy.
So something I think every cycling fan needs to look at. We want transparency within the UCI and demand that present riders say the right things when commenting on doping but sort of turn a blind eye when our heroes from Franco Pellizoti to, dare I say it, Eddy Merckx are implicated in a doping story. You can still hold them up as great riders and entertainers but one thing is for sure they are not champions. So my views on Pantani will have to change too. As with the organisation of the sport I have to start afresh. I need to find new heroes.