“Floating”, “angelic” and “effortless” are words frequently used by colleagues and sports commentators to describe Italian cyclist Marco Pantani in Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, a sad British documentary about his short life. Winner of both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 1998, road-racing Pantani was for a time Italy’s Most Beloved, although his was a career ultimately bedevilled by doping allegations. It wasn’t just his addiction to cocaine, but more a sense of catastrophic degradation that took him out of cycling and led to his solitary death in 2004 aged 34.
Five foot eight and an elfin 50 kilos, Pantani rejoiced not just in the arduous competition-climbs up hill, but in the mindblowingly fast descents during which he would – uniquely – drop his backside over the back of his saddle and hunker into his bike, as though aligning himself ever closer to its pulse. Watching footage of him doing this, you are aware that even the helicopters swooping behind can scarcely keep up.
Archive of Pantani speaking and competing, and interviews with family and colleagues (Bradley Wiggins is sweetly admiring) build a picture of a thoughtful man, probably in the grip of drugs of all kinds – the film damns Italian cycling authorities for the pressure they put on Pantani to dope and the villainous speed with which they made an example of him, but is not always clear about which drugs and when. And yet Pantani’s ebullience and delight in his own talent always come through – he still commands the sort of respect Lance Armstrong (who appears here now and again, at his most hubristic) can only dream of.