Top level cyclists have that knife-edge ability to capture a once unassuming public’s imagination to their sport, whilst also surrounding themselves in scandal. Perhaps this rings true for all athletes, but, as one of history’s most famous, Armstrong showed us best how the cult of personality can be felt eerily more so in the pedals more than anywhere else. Whilst the documentary covering Lance’s confessions may have had its spotlight, a nice companion piece has arrived in the form of Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist. As a storytelling tool it lacks a few crucial spokes, but such limitations could never outrun the captivating story of its iconic Italian rider subject.
Marco Pantani, whilst not the all-time greatest in cycling, was still pretty miraculous. A high class mountain climber, his ability to aggressively take on and overtake so many riders when uphill was topped only by the fierce way in which he drew in fans, from his Italian people and beyond. He is the only cyclist thus far to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same year, but ‘il Pirata’ – as he was known – never got to rise to greater heights due to consistent doping allegations and the transpiring tragedy to which they led. Dying at age 34 from cocaine poisoning, the film follows Pantani’s life from start to its far too early finish, with his entire legacy dotted in between.
As you can imagine from that synopsis alone, Pantani’s tale is far too interesting to ever make an uninteresting watch. Even if you think hearing one tale filled with raw passion, a defying rise to fame and heart-breaking crash means you’ve heard them all, gaining a greater context into the world of cycling (particularly today where corporate interests have become so involved) will have to intrigue at least some newcomers. Indeed many of the interviews – such as conversations with Pantani’s mother and fellow cyclists – contain deep candour and warnings for anyone who aspires to be the top of their game.
Where Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist wobbles is its handling of the documentary format. In comparison to Jiro Dreams of Sushi’s stunningly captured cooking scenes, or The Imposter’s near total running time of re-enactments, here there’s but a handful of oddly chosen dramatic reconstructions. Sometimes the footage is also awkwardly edited together to atone for what wasn’t originally captured, such as when Pantani was injured by a car during a 1996 race (embarrassingly so). Interviewees are used to fill space where a narrator is sorely missed, and the stylistic choice of posting quotes from the conversations before we actually hear them can be a little distracting.
Perhaps where the film most needed to shift gears is in its final focus. There’s attention paid to whether the professional cycling behemoth wanted Marco out, with the ‘disgraced’ rider himself believing them to be a mafia. It doesn’t quite hit tinfoil hat territory, but where The Armstrong Lie could involve itself in its own central lie; this film lacks a definitive conclusion and doesn’t dig much up to throw on the table. It is nevertheless an exceptional story that captures Pantani’s charisma, which is no small feat given the fact that he’s sadly not around to contribute.
Words > Graham Ashton