Marco Pantani: The Rise and Fall of Cycling’s Greatest Climber

Marco Pantani is revered by cyclists as arguably the greatest climber in the sport’s history.

However, the story of this legend’s spectacular climb to greatness is mired in controversy, and ends tragically surrounded by doping allegations, depression, and addiction.

Who was Marco Pantani? Why is he known as the greatest climber in history? What happened to him, and why did he pass away so young?

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • The Greatest Climber of All Time: The Peak Of Marco Pantani’s Career
  • Background: What Is Blood Doping?
  • Allegations of Doping Against Pantani
  • Pantani’s Decline And Death
  • Marco Pantani’s Legacy

Read on to learn the tragic story of Il Pirata: the greatest climber in the history of cycling.

Marco Pantani: Title Image
Credit: Aldo BolzanCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

The Greatest Climber Of All Time: The Peak Of Marco Pantani’s Career

Pantani was one of cycling’s great characters.

Famed for his aggressive riding style, Pantani earned the nickname “Il Pirata” (The Pirate) both for his attacking nature and for the signature bandana and earrings he wore while racing. Il Pirata was to become a fan favorite of the ’90s, renowned for his stellar mountain performances.

Marco Pantani grew up in Northern Italy and was part of the Fausto Coppi Cycling Club in the town of Cesenatico. In 1992, he won the Girobio – the amateur version of the Giro d’Italia at the age of 22, turning professional shortly after.

In 1994 he showed flashes of what was to come, claiming several mountain stages and finishing second in the General Classification in his second run at the Giro d’Italia. He followed these results up by finishing third in the Tour de France’s General Classification, winning the best young rider’s white jersey in the process.

Pantani was plagued by injuries in 1995 after this strong start – although he still finished third in the 1995 World Championships and retained the white jersey in the Tour de France.

The breakthrough came with the reformation of the Mercatone Uno team in the buildup to the 1997 season with Pantani as leader, which would quickly become one of the strongest international teams of the era.

Leading Mercatone Uno in the 1997 Tour de France, Pantani claimed two stunning stage victories in the Alps – including on the legendary Alpe d’Huez.

Marco Pantani nears the final hairpin of the road to Alpe d'Huez on his record-setting climb at the 1997 Tour de France.
Marco Pantani nears the final hairpin of the road to Alpe d’Huez on his record-setting climb at the 1997 Tour de France.

Credit: Ein Ciere, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Edited from the original.

Pantani climbed Alpe d’Huez’s iconic 13.8 km and 21 hairpins in an astonishing 36 minutes and 55 seconds – a record which still stands – leaving rivals Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich floundering behind him.

The following season, Marco Pantani made cycling history in the historic 1998 Giro d’Italia.

Going into the Giro, Il Pirata’s competitors included the Russian Pavel Tonkov, who’d won the 1996 Giro, and Swiss two-time Vuelta champion Alex Zülle. By the end of Stage 15, an individual time trial to Trieste, Pantani had conceded over four minutes to Zülle.

Incredibly, after a stellar performance on the Marmolada climb, Pantani made up the lost time and climbed to the top of the General Classification, stealing the lead from Zülle and donning the maglia rosa for the first time in his career.

On the following stage up to Alpe di Pampeago, Pantani successfully defended his position from Tonkov, before beating him on the next stage to Plan di Montecampione. He then outmatched Tonkov in the final individual time trial, despite Pantani being considered the weaker time trialist.

His heroic performance in the 1998 Giro d’Italia won Pantani the maglia rosa by a minute and a half over his rival Tonkov in the General Classification, in addition to victory in the Mountains Classification and second place in the Points Classification.

Two months later, Pantani entered the 1998 Tour de France.

Often a poor time trialist, Pantani began Le Tour by finishing near-last on the opening individual time trial, losing over four minutes to 1997 Tour champion Jan Ullrich.

However, Pantani would go on to win the 1998 Tour through his absolute dominance on the climbs.

In the first mountain stage of the Tour, Pantani bested Ullrich by over nine minutes after a crushing attack on the Col du Galibier. This triumph gave Il Pirata a six-minute advantage that he was able to defend to the end.

Marco Pantani won the 1998 Tour de France’s maillot jaune, becoming just the seventh rider in history to achieve the Giro-Tour double in the same season. Nobody has repeated the feat since.

1998 was the summit of Pantani’s career. The following season, he would be accused of blood doping and disqualified from the Giro d’Italia – an event that began the downward spiral of his life and career.

Marco Pantini's fans graffiti the road before the peloton's arrival to Les Deux Alpes during the 1998 Tour de France.
Marco Pantini’s fans graffiti the road before the peloton’s arrival to Les Deux Alpes during the 1998 Tour de France.

Background: What Is Blood Doping?

Blood doping is the illegal practice of boosting an athlete’s performance using drugs and blood transfusions. Studies estimate that blood doping improves an athlete’s performance by up to 10%.

During exercise, muscles require a constant feed of oxygen. Red blood cells carry oxygen to an athlete’s muscles. Blood tests can measure an athlete’s hematocrit level, which describes the volume percentage of red blood cells in their blood, and therefore how much oxygen their blood can carry to muscles.

During long periods of intense exercise, such as a multi-stage cycling race, red blood cells are depleted faster than the body is able to produce them, and the hematocrit level of a competing cyclist will naturally drop over the course of the event.

Blood doping involves extracting blood with a high hematocrit level and storing it to then be re-transfused into the athlete’s system between the stages of an event, achieving a higher hematocrit level than the body is able to maintain on its own.

For example: a cyclist might begin the Tour de France with a 45% hematocrit level, and end it with 40%. Meanwhile, a rival who is blood doping will hold onto that 48% hematocrit level and potentially even see it increase throughout the Tour, allowing them to perform at a higher level with more oxygenated muscles.

This is compounded by the drug EPO, which stimulates red blood cell production and can provide athletes with an even higher peak hematocrit level than is otherwise possible.

It’s an open secret that during this time, EPO and blood doping were rife in professional road cycling. American cyclist Tyler Hamilton described this era as the “wild western days” of doping, and it was a major component in other infamous doping programs such as that of Lance Armstrong.

Regulators detect blood doping by testing an athlete’s hematocrit levels during competition. UCI regulations consider anything above 50% hematocrit level to be indicative of doping.

Allegations of Doping Against Pantani

Pantani was disqualified from the 1999 Giro as the race neared its end after a blood test detected a 52% hematocrit reading.

Though it’s technically possible for humans to naturally achieve this level without doping or EPO, Pantani’s 52% result was recorded in the final stages of the Giro and was therefore highly suspect, so he was disqualified.

At the time of his disqualification, Pantani was leading the General Classification and had won four stages. With his disqualification, the entire Mercatone Uno team withdrew from the Giro, and Pantani himself didn’t enter another race for the rest of the season.

It was later revealed in medical records from 1995 that Pantani had recorded a 60% hematocrit level, and a 2013 retroactive inquiry into doping confirmed that a sample collected from Pantani during his legendary 1998 Tour de France victory had tested positive for EPO.

Though he was never charged with a crime, after his 1999 disqualification Pantani was subject to numerous court cases around his use of doping, and several posthumous inquiries produced damning findings.

Pantani’s final years were dominated by a sad decline before his tragic death.

Pantani’s Decline And Death

Pantani found little professional success after his hiatus from racing following his 1999 disqualification.

Having found some form, he was forced to withdraw from the 2000 Tour de France due to stomach issues, and would never compete in Le Tour again.

From 2001 to 2003 he raced infrequently, his career now marred by cheating allegations: he was also later disqualified from the Giro again in 2001.

Pantani made another comeback to the Giro in 2003, riding well on the climbs but placing 14th overall in what would prove his final professional race.

Suffering from mental health issues that had been present throughout his career, in 2003 Pantani was admitted to a psychiatric clinic that specialized in nervous disorders and addiction.

After being released from treatment Pantani told an Italian newspaper that cycling fans should forget about him, and that cycling was “the last thing on [his] mind.”

Cycling’s greatest climber had fallen from grace and rightly attracted condemnation in the sport. But while Pantani’s doping was a shame, what followed was a tragedy.

Marco Pantani died in 2004, aged just 34, of a drug overdose. He was found dead in his hotel room, where he had been isolating himself from his family and friends. Documents recovered after his death paint a dire picture of Pantani’s mental wellbeing in the final years of his life.

Statue of Marco Pantani in his hometown of Cesenatico.
Statue of Marco Pantani in his hometown of Cesenatico.

Marco Pantani’s Legacy

Today we recognize Marco Pantani as a legend in road cycling, though his achievements are tarnished to many by his misconduct.

His life is the subject of numerous documentaries and books, statues, and memorials dedicated to him can be found throughout northern Italy. The Memorial Marco Pantani race is held annually in his hometown.

No matter your feelings on his behavior as an athlete, the latter years of Marco Pantani’s life are tragic and his story is one worth remembering in both the cycling and international sporting communities.

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One of BikeTips' content creators, Riley spends most of his time on a bike battling the hills of the Chilterns or winds of North Cornwall. Off the bike you're likely to find him writing about cycling or reading about everything else.

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