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stereojet

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Matt Rendell, The Death of Marco Pantani
« on: July 08, 2015, 09:18 »
Well, since there's a new edition of this classic coming out, I thought I'd pop down my tuppence worth.

This is the best sports biography I've ever read.

That's all you need to know about it. It is definitely the best cycling biography and probably the best book about professional cycling ever as well.

OK, so why's that the case?

Firstly, as many readers know, Rendell was an academic before becoming a full-time writer. Rather than merely scanning old copies of cycling magazines and talking to a few friends/teammates/relatives of Pantani, he's delved really deeply into the archives, talked to just about everybody he could about Pantani and made extensive use of both medical and police files. Popular sporting biographies rarely go into this much depth, and TDOMP shows up the other cycling biographies for the hack jobs that most of them are.

Obviously, he's helped by having such a compelling central character. Where biographies of Merckx struggle with the fact that, at heart, he's merely a cyclist, Rendell has a figure who seems to embody Italian cycling, who has the hopes and ambitions of an entire nation resting on his shoulders, and whose decline and demise is tragic yet also sadly predictable. Pantani struggled throughout his life with the burden of the expectations of his family, coaches, teammates, sponsors, and ultimately his country. No wonder that he spiraled into depression and drug dependency. And no wonder that people still find him fascinating. He's a great subject for a biographer.

But it's not just that Rendell has a perfect subject, it's what he does with Pantani that is stunning. First, he engages with some very interesting ideas. The one that sticks in my mind (I'm writing this from memory) is a discussion that he has with one of the world's experts on super-slow-motion television footage. They discuss that famous image of Pantani in the maglia rosa, eyes closed and arms spread out like Christ. Ultimately it's not the most convincing element of the book, but which other cycling writer could you imagine spending pages discussing the iconic nature of an image of their subject? Rendell also offers such a forensic account of Pantani's death that I still find it unbelievable that anybody attempted to reopen the inquiry into Pantani's death. The scale of Rendell's research in this section of the book is stupendous and his evidence so utterly conclusive that anybody who reads it simply cannot even consider that Pantani was murdered.

Second, Rendell takes you through Pantani's greatest successes and moments of genius in such a way that you feel that you are almost there with Pantani as he ascends to the clouds. The quality of the writing in this piece of the book is magnificent. And it leads to the third, and for me most impressive aspect of TDOMP: its structure. Rendell composes the book in such a way that you are drawn into Pantani's success. The first half essentially deals with his cycling career, outlining his victories and demonstrating why so many were drawn to him. You can't help but admire Pantani's grace. Then Rendell drops you in it. The second half of the book details not only Pantani's sorry demise but also the extent of his drug use. Rendell comes into some criticism from general reviewers here, because the evidence that he uses is quite specialized and therefore to some readers, boring. It's not. It's essential to understanding Pantani and the book.


SPOILER ALERT

Why? Because it reveals exactly the debt that Pantani owed to performance-enhancing drugs *throughout his career*. Ultimately, the reader is drawn to the conclusion that Pantani was so doped up that even his amateur performances must come into question. There's strong evidence that he was doped even as a teenager, a shocking and heartbreaking notion to consider. This section shows exactly why Pantani felt so burdened by his reputation and why he continued to dope throughout his career -- he must have known that he was little without dope, and that the great responsibilities placed on him, not least by his manager and Mercatone Uno who funded a team built around him, meant that he needed to continue using if he was to continue to be a success.

And here's why the book is so impressive. Rendell has drawn you in through the first half and allowed you to believe in Pantani's genius. But incrementally through the second half he pulls all of this away, leading you to question yourself. Why did I believe in Pantani? Why couldn't I see that these unbelievable performances were literally unbelievable? Was I also engaged in a delusion because I *wanted* to believe? In doing this, Rendell indicts you as a reader and by extension every single Pantani fan. We are engaged in a mass delusion if we think he was clean. In a gentle and empathic fashion, Rendell builds up the case for the prosecution, noting Pantani's blood levels almost throughout his career, the way in which even his greatest victories owed their success to drugs. Ultimately, Rendell allows you to reconsider your own position as a cycling fan and to wonder about the expectations we place on our heroes; how they might feel pressured to keep up the pretense far and above the need to preserve their financial health. Are we part of the problem?

The structure encourages the reader to think about the gulf between the fantasy world of sporting achievement and the gritty reality beneath it. By separating the book into two halves it allows the reader to think about what they might have thought had they not read the second half of the book, and how we can cast aside our skepticism in the face of sporting genius but also how in doing so we choose not to think too deeply about the relationship between means and ends, and our own complicity in expecting great feats of our sporting heroes.

END OF SPOILER

I read the book in two days and finished it almost breathless. It's a stunning book -- one of the best I've ever read. While I understand why some readers might want more about Pantani's races I can't agree with them. The book needs the forensic examination of Pantani's drug use. But what is more impressive is that Rendell retains empathy for Pantani. He knows that Pantani was no monster but he points out that Pantani was as much involved in it as his trainers, dealers, managers, teammates, and sponsors. He was an active agent in his own decline and demise but he was subjected to pressures that were probably unbearable. And that is what makes the book, and Pantani's story a tragedy.

What's even more impressive is that Rendell still remains a fan of cycling. I met him at the 2011 British Road Race Championships, and he was as excited as any of the fans there, running back and forth from his position near the bar to the road whenever the riders were due, shouting 'ARRIBA!' at them when they passed. He was almost childlike in wonder after he managed to get Bradley Wiggins to sign a startlist for him. It's clear that he still adores cycling, even though he knows the the extent of its rotten core. I guess that once you've stared into the heart of darkness, perhaps it's best not to continue looking at it.

So yes, buy the new edition if you've not already read the book. The extra material focuses on the recent ludicrous attempts to reopen the murder case. I'm not sure how enlightening the new stuff is, but the rest of the book is one of the essential books on pro cycling.
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  • LukasCPH

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    What a review. :cool

    In my personal opinion, anything Rendell does can only be good. But I didn't realise it was that good.
    One for my list.
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  • Cyclingnews Women's Pro Cycling Correspondent
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    stereojet

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    Cheers. You'll enjoy it.
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  • just some guy

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    What a review. :cool

    In my personal opinion, anything Rendell does can only be good. But I didn't realise it was that good.
    One for my list.

    have you not read it , wow get in there tis a great book
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  • Of course, if this turns out someday to be the industry standard integrated handlebar-computer-braking solution then I'll eat my kevlar-reinforced aerodynamic hat.

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    LukasCPH

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    have you not read it , wow get in there tis a great book
    I'd need to purchase it first. :D
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  • Capt_Cavman

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    What a review. :cool

    In my personal opinion, anything Rendell does can only be good. But I didn't realise it was that good.
    One for my list.
    Aah, Mr Rendell, ever the fan.

    Paul Kimmage and he have previous attacking a fellow journo for running a doping story during the Cofidis scandal? When did Rendell decide to break with Omerta? After his 'hero' was dead and long after his life was filled with little more than drugs and despair

    The likes of Rendell, Fife, the Fotheringhams are very good writers, but I have yet to read anything in which any of them acknowledge their complicity in the tragic tales of their heroes. And until I do, I'm not inclined to pay to read their output. Of course, their work may be full of contrition but because I won't read it, I don't know it's there...C'est la vie.

    Apologies if my thoughts are misplaced here, I just needed to get that off my chest.
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  • stereojet

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    I think it's a very valid point, and I do wish there was more discussion of it in the cycling media. There is a real problem with the complicity of journalists in omerta.
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