“It’s [in] the mountains where the pure, raw talent comes out,” states ex-cyclist Greg LeMond as he discusses the monumental inclines that punctuate the world’s most famous bike race, the Tour de France. They were where the hugely popular rider Marco Pantani – known affectionately as ‘Il Pirata’ after his bandana and earring combo – made his mark on the race’s history. Having previously covered football, cricket, and tennis, James Erskine turns his lens to the Italian rider in Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist (2013). Despite the sport as a whole having been in the fevered grip of doping scandals for many years, the shadow of Alex Gibney’s The Armstrong Lie (2013) certainly looms large.
Erskine eschews a journalistic exposé, focusing on the personal story of this uniquely gifted sportsman whose career followed the trajectory of his racing – imperiously reaching the zenith before barrelling down again. Using a blend of archive footage and talking heads, the director sculpts a lean and impassioned account of Pantani’s magnificent accent, and his devastating fall. The setting for two of Pantani’s most famous victories in ’95 and ’97 was the gruelling Alpe d’Huez, described in Geoffrey Nicholson’s The Great Bike Race as “a mathematical progression of tight corners and steep inclines.” This is precisely how the drama of the film’s first half plays out; from recollections of a boy leaving bigger kids in his wake, to an adult doing the same to the world’s greatest riders at Le Tour in 1998.
The racing itself is cut together with flare and energy, providing riveting excitement even when outcomes are already well-known. Allegations of drug use were recurring and became a major problem from 1999 onwards; the catalyst for a spiral into a mortal depression. This is not something that Erskine seeks to delve too deeply into, though he gives throat both to the accusations and the opposing conspiracy theories. Instead, the doc does an admirable job of presenting the media storm, the terrible shame felt by Pantani, and the sadness of such a precocious talent being shrouded in ignominy. Concentrating on the personal does mean, of course, that is not the film for those seeking an exhaustive exploration of the sport’s inherent corruptions. As such, it might not quite warrant the Yellow Jersey, but Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist proves a fitting tribute to a worthy ‘King of the Mountains’.