Doping and climbing: Marco Pantani – part 2

This post is continued from part 1.

Although it was never proven, observers often speculated that the first race to be won by EPO was the 1994 edition of the Ardennes classic Fleche Wallonne. Both Greg LeMond and Laurent Fignon have dated the appearance of EPO to the early 1990s, with LeMond pointing to 1991 as the year where the peloton’s speed started to noticeably increase, but 1994 was something else.

At Fleche Wallonne, the Gewiss-Ballan team totally controlled the race, chasing down a breakaway, until three of its riders, Moreno Argentin, Evgeny Berzin, and Giorgio Furlan, leapt off the front with the rest of the field powerless to chase them down as they took the first three places. It was a dominating performance, which raised many questions and suspicions from observers.

Berzin then went on to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege four days later, and in the Giro shortly afterwards he won three stages on his way to overall victory. Accusations continued to be levelled at Berzin, and he was forced to defend himself against accusations by French rider Erwann Mentheour who published a doping tell-all book, Secret défonce: ma vérité sur le dopage, in 1999. After struggling to reclaim his 1994 form for the remainder of the decade, Berzin sought a comeback in 1999. Following exclusion from the 2000 Giro due to a haematocrit level over 50%, he retired shortly after.

Following 1994’s Fleche Wallonne, journalists spoke to the team doctor, one Michele Ferrari, and mentioned EPO. Ferrari’s reply has passed into cycling lore. “If a rider uses it, that’s not a scandal to me,” he said. “EPO is not dangerous, only its abuse. It’s as dangerous as drinking ten litres of orange juice.”

Ferrari’s comments seemed to encapsulate two trends in professional cycling in the 90s. The first trend was a continuation of the widespread use of drugs in cycling as a means of recovering from the hardships that cycling involved, of keeping up with everyone else, or ensuring a winning career. As Alex Zulle said, following his confession during the Festina Affair: “It’s like when you’re driving. The law says there’s a speed limit of 100 km/h, but everyone is driving at 120 km/h. Why should I be the one who obeys the speed limit? So I had two options: either fit in and go along with the others or go back to being a house painter.”

The second trend was a transition of drug taking from the hands of soigneurs on teams to medical professionals – doctors. This can broadly be seen as a professionalization of doping and part of a wider trend in sports towards seeking higher levels of performance from athletes by any means, and not just in cycling.

In Testosterone Dreams, John Hoberman sums up both these trends on the issue of professional performance enhancement for the benefit of athletes. Hoberman quotes Manfred Hoppner, former director of the East German Sports Medical Service (SMD) who said in 1990 that, “If we hold back, the athletes will treat themselves, or we will simply leave the field to medical charlatans.” Hoppner went on to say that doctors should be able to promote “quick recover and improved tolerance” with pharmacologically approved doses” of drugs. (Hoppner was later convicted of causing bodily harm to athletes, including minors.)

Former Canadian track coach, who coached disgraced sprinter Ben Johnson, was also in favour of empowering athletes. In the 1991 book Speed Trap he downplayed health hazards with doping and said: “If mature and informed elite athletes conclude that they must take steroids to survive in their sport, and can do so without jeopardizing their health, they should be able to make that choice freely.”

And there was sympathy for the plight of professional cyclists, too. Hoberman quotes German journalist and physician as saying: “No one can serious expect that these extreme athletes, tortured by tropical heat and freezing cold, by rain and storm, should renounce all the palliatives that are available to them.”

Ferrari, however, received little sympathy from Gewiss and was sacked. He continued to work with Argentin and Berzin in a private capacity, as well as a number of other high-profile new clients later, including – most famously – Lance Armstrong.

Pantani 2000
Winning against Armstrong in 2000

But back to our story. As we have seen, 1994 was a breakout year for Pantani and his path headed, literally, skyward until 1999 when he was excluded from the Giro for failing a haematocrit test when he was on the verge of another stunning victory. There were comebacks, with glimpses of form in 2000, but little afterwards. It was still a stellar career, however. But what if Pantani, throughout these fabulous years, was really one the sport’s most hardened dopers?

Journalist Matt Rendell’s biography, or exposé, The Death of Marco Pantani is an eye-opening read. Rendell sifts through the evidence in meticulous detail of Pantani’s hospitalization in 1996, his ejection from the Giro in 1999, and the trials of Professor Conconi that revealed a network of EPO use during the 1990s (mentioned here). The evidence included computer files from Conconi’s sports institute, charting the haematocrit levels of riders including Pantani.

Rendell’s conclusion is chilling: “There is incontrovertible evidence that Marco’s entire career was based on [EPO] abuse.”

From a number of sources, Rendell shows Pantani’s haematocrit levels fluctuating between 40.7 to 60.1 between 1994 and 1996. In July 1997 it was 47.2. Before the Tour in 1998 it was 49.3 before dropping to 45.7 in July of that year. There are gaps in the numbers, in 1996 and early 1997, but Rendell also shows high values outside Pantani’s ‘normal’ range for the remainder of his racing and concludes: “It is reasonable to conclude that the most successful period of his career, from 1998 until 5 June 1999, depended on anything else?”

It appears difficult to contest, therefore, that Pantani’s climbing exploits and his record times for Alpe d’Huez were boosted by performance-enhancing drugs. But his 37’35” record for Alpe d’Huez is likely to endure for some years. Lance Armstrong was 1″ shy in 2004. One would expect that if Armstrong could not best Pantani’s time in an ITT, with his superb time-trialling ability and being well-rested and perfectly warmed up for the attempt (rather than at the end of a long stage), then the record might be near impossible to best.

Although debate continues on the exact times, and where they are recorded from, a reasonable consensus has developed in most sources around the top numbers. Pantani holds the first, third, and fifth fastest times, with Armstrong’s 2004 time second (37’36”) and his 2001 time at fourth (38’01” – just 3 seconds ahead of Pantani’s 38’04” from 1995).

Indeed, Frank Schleck was the first winner since probably the late 80s to post a time over 40 minutes. Even the fastest ascents last year, by Floyd Landis and Andreas Kloden were still over 1 minute slower than Pantani’s record. This record, now a decade old, may have to wait for another ITT, in a toughly-contested Tour, before being broken.

For fans who love cycling, it is hard not to be inspired, even moved, by Pantani’s climbing exploits: the reckless attacks, the total domination of the toughest climbs. He personified the excitement of the mountains.

His performances were seductive. Following Pantani’s win in 1998, despite the Festina Affair revealing systematic, pervasive doping in the peloton, there were few questions asked about Pantani’s own performance. In a notable lapse of journalistic objectivity, then VeloNews editor John Wilcockson wrote in Conquests and Crisis: The 1998 Tour de France, “Bravo, Marco! Your courage saved the Tour.”

Pantani 97
Defiant as always

But can we doubt Rendell’s conclusions? Pantani may well have been pharmacologically dependent on drugs for his stunning performances, and perhaps psychologically dependent as well for his winner’s mindset. With such a long history of doping, how can we know otherwise?

Pantani’s dalliances with performance-enhancing drugs is likely not a unique case, as past and future revelations of doping in cycling in the 1990s will attest. His story, though, his tragedy seems unique: soaring to the highest levels of the sport, before crashing into despair, abandonment, and ultimately suicide. Did he make a Faustian pact, with Mephistopheles played by EPO, crooked doctors, and the pressure of professional competition? (Is Pantani the Dorian Gray of cycling?) Was the reward for his bargain the tremendous climbing power he attained, but at a heavy price?

But Pantani was seemingly conscious of his bargain and one of his reported quotes nicely sums up his own approach, as well as the issues raised earlier about performance enhancement. “In cycling,” he said, “there is not a culture of doping, but rather a culture of champions, meaning: self improvement. That means doing things that are forbidden, but that are only forbidden if they catch you.”

His legacy remains, preserved in pictures and film. We are left with the incredible spectacle of Pantani in full flight in the mountains of France and Italy. The 37’35” record for Alpe d’Huez still stands, and may not be beaten for years. But that legacy is a tainted one: an inspiring pinnacle of an epic tragedy.

3 thoughts on “Doping and climbing: Marco Pantani – part 2

  1. Lance Armstrong was not 1″ shy of Pantanis record in 2004! He was 56 seconds behind the fastest time set by Pantani. The “record time” of 37.35 was clocked from a point 700m from the start of the climb, 14.5km from the finish(the road junction). Armstrongs 37min 36s was taken from the start of the climb, from the corner which marks the start of the climb, 13.8km from the finish. From that point Pantanis time was 37.15 in 1994, 36.40 in 1995 and 36.45 in 1997. For accurate statistics:

    The question is why the record is 37.35 when he actually did it in 36min 40sec? Unacceptable!

  2. for those who have doubts about the times… It´s always poissible to clock the times yourself from recordings of the events.

  3. Explanation for Fredrik Tag: Jusqu’en 1997, sur Tour de France, les temps de montée étaient pris près du carrefour de la route de l’Alpe d’huez et de la route du Lautaret (commune de Bourg d’Oisans), soit sur un parcours de 14,4 km. Depuis 1998, les temps sont pris au pied de la côte, au lieu-dit La Ferrière (commune de la Garde).

    Afin d’avoir des temps comparables, les chronométrages pris avant 1998, ont été convertis sur la nouvelle distance de référence. C’est ainsi que le record absolu détenu par Marco Pantani qui était de 37′ 35″ sur 14,4 km est converti en 36′ 40″ sur le parcours référence de 13,8 km.

    De même pour le contre-la-montre de 2004, qui se dérouile sur un parcours de 15,5 km avec un départ au centre du village de Bourg-d’Oisans, le temps de Lance Armstrong de 39′ 41″ est compensé pour avoir le temps sur le parcours de référence, soit un temps de 37′ 36.

    Il en va de même pour le temps de 40′ 42″ de Jan Ullrich qui est compensé en 38′ 40″.

Comments are closed.