Not many things make me mad, but stupidity is one of them. Like an otherwise respected and respectable Italian commentator writing a blog suggesting that Marco Pantani should perhaps be awarded victory in the 1997 Tour de France, given that the two men who finished ahead of him, Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque, have both subsequently been implicated in doping scandals.
Now need I waste brain cells explaining why this is perhaps the most ridiculous idea I've ever heard? No, there's really no need, is there? You all know why. If you don't try reading Matt Rendell's excellent biography, The Death of Marco Pantani, and formulate your own opinions about the authenticity of "il Pirata's" performances throughout his career. Yes, it pains me to say it, but very reasonable doubt exists about whether any of Pantani's victories were achieved without illegal aids. That's not to say that he wasn't a supreme natural athlete - just a realistic appraisal of a man who excelled in arguably the most dope-enhanced era in the history of professional cycling, or indeed sport.
Whatever his other legacies, since his death three years ago, Pantani has clouded judgments in Italy to almost the same extent as Princess Diana in this country. The latest evidence of that is French journalist Philippe Brunel's recently released oeuvre Vie et Mort de Marco Pantani, which goes so far as to speculate that Pantani may have been murdered. I recently spoke to Matt Rendell about Brunel's thesis, and you can read his comments in this month's Procycling. Suffice to say that Matt wasn't too impressed and, neither, based on what I've heard of Brunel's sleuthing, am I.
More intriguing is a story which has emerged in Italy in recent days. The unlikely source is a former mafia boss, Renato Vallanzasca, who claims that, as Pantani closed inexorably on victory in the 1999 Giro d'Italia, a fellow prison inmate assured him that the Mercatone Uno leader would not reach Milan in the pink jersey. The tipster seemed not to know how Pantani would lose, just that from his impregnable position at the top of the general classification, lose the Giro he would. "Do you have a few millions to bet?" he apparently asked Vallanzasca. "If you do, then bet on the winner of the Giro. I don't know who'll win...but it definitely won't be Pantani".
To me, the notion that Pantani's failed haematocrit test on the penultimate day of that Giro was a stitch-up is far more plausible than the idea he was murdered. What worries me, though, is that by endlessly pursuing these cloak and dagger stories, people are losing sight of the real reasons why Pantani died. Again, read Rendell's book and make your own minds up. I did precisely that recently, and nothing will alter my view that, if cycling didn't actually kill him, then the misguided attempts by him and his entourage to rescue Pantani's career ended his chances of solving much more vital problems.
But, again, that's just my opinion. What I am quite convinced of is that, if we are to honour Pantani and ensure that his wasn't a futile death - something which Brunel and many others have claimed as their noble goal - we have to look hard for even the most brutal truths. One of those is that Marco Pantani would have made no more worthy a winner of the 1997 Tour de France than Jan Ullrich or Richard Virenque.
Yes, that's right, sometimes the truth hurts.
See our December 2007 issue (106) for more on Pantani, an exclusive interview with Procycling Rider of the Year Cadel Evans, full `08 Tour de France route details and of course more from that man...Kevin "The Hulse" Hulsmans.
© BikeRadar 2007