Seven Years After Pantani

Feb 14 2011

Marco Pantani Memorial

“I always said that doping was generalized and you could say even democratic up to the time when they developed a test for EPO, then it became elitist. You needed cutting-edge methods to get around the tests from that point on—methods that often only the big riders and teams could access or afford.

      —Filippo Simeoni

[photo by mcalamelli]

The anniversary of Marco Pantani’s death might seem like a strange moment to talk about the progress cycling has made in the fight against doping. After all, the last man to win both the Tour and the Giro in a single year died from an overdose of one of cycling’s oldest performance enhancers. But the post-transfusion hospitalization of Riccardo Ricco just last week, brings out some important contrasts between conditions in Pantani’s heyday and cycling’s current state of affairs.

Pantani, like most of the best riders of his era, never tested positive. But unlike other big names, he left—or spent less effort covering up—an impressive trail of evidence: a then-legal 54% hematocrit value at the ’94 Giro. A whopping 60% after a crash at Milan-Turin the next year. In 1999, he became the first major post-Festina race ejection, being booted for a high hematocrit on Giro d’Italia’s penultimate stage, while leading the GC by more than five-and-half-minutes.

Most of the writing on the Italian following his death suggests that these values were indicative—or even low—for the blood thicknesses he raced at for most of his career. And yet, for all the insistance on the UCI’s part that the 50% limit was merely a “health test”, Pantani never suffered any physical problems due to his abuse of EPO (other than, one could argue, a crippling, clinical depression that lead directly to his death). The same (minus the depression) goes for Riis, Virenque and host of other trailblazers in the use of blood boosting drugs.

It’s not that EPO abuse is without risk—certainly the mystery heart attacks are well-documented—but for the most part, sudden, doping-induced medical emergencies among active pro cyclists were a rarity between 1994 and 2006. Off the top of my head, only one example comes to mind, and it was apparently unrelated to the blood-boosting drug itself.

With the advent of the EPO test in 2001, many people—Michael Ashenden, for example—think a good number of the pros switched over to blood transfusions. A cynical minority seem to believe—based largely on the statements of Thomas Frei—that EPO tests are ineffective, but the very fact that Ricco had chosen to favor transfusions over injections suggests otherwise. No reason to switch off of a successful doping regimen unless you believe it will no longer be effective.

Riccardo RiccoIndeed, what happened to Riccardo Ricco last week is an extremely rare occurrence in cycling—at least since the 1960s. He might not be quite as big a rider Simeoni is referring to in his quotation above, but certainly with Ricco’s results before his first suspension—and his fingers-in-the-nose victories since—his bankroll would have been more than sufficient to safely finance better living through chemistry at nearly any point in the past.

This startling difference in short-term outcome—podium vs. hospital bed—between the illicit ventures of Pantani and Ricco speaks volumes as to how things have changed in the interceding decade. But the general reaction to their respective falls from grace is a sharper contrast still. The report from a nascent on Pantani’s ’99 expulsion suggests a general sadness, combined with just a hint of conspiracy theory. The most telling part might be the embarrassing lengths Hein Verbruggen goes to to avoid suggesting doping.

Certainly a contrast to the reactions Ricco received to either of his dope-related suspensions. Granted, Ricco didn’t exactly endear himself to anyone, but the blowback from last week’s medical emergency was hardly sympathetic, hedged, or ambiguous. One can only hope things end up better for Ricco than they did for rider he had always hoped to emulate.

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