Tuesday, May 6, 2014

'Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist' (2014) directed by James Erskine

Professional cycling is an ego incubator.  Out there, alone for hours on the road, the cyclist's thoughts turn inward.  The pain they feel in climbing a hill is cross to bear, their speed entirely their own, every triumph borne solely by them.  No wonder they turn into pricks.  This documentary explores the life and untimely death of Marco Pantani, a hugely popular and vaguely eccentric professional cyclist feted for winning both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, a feat still unequalled in the sport.  He became known as 'The Pirate', becoming a folk hero in Italy.  He was on top of the (cycling) world.

Then six years later his cocaine-stuffed corpse was dragged out of a cheap hotel room. From the heights of athletic achievement to drug-fuelled depravity - what the hell happened?  Pantani: The Accidental Death of Cyclist tries to go some way to answer this question, linking athletic excellence with addiction, the sweaty cyclist conquering a mountain in the noonday sun a metaphor for deepr internal struggles.

Pantani's story is shown through a combination of stock footage and dramatic re-enactments.  By and large it's a pretty seamless combination, the lookalike they've cast as Pantani does a decent of job of standing in where cameras couldn't go. Though technically this is all decent enough, the childhood sequences have more than a whiff of a Dolmio ad, with a smiling Italian grandfather buying a young Pantani his first bicycle under a picturesque Mediterranean sunset.

As he begins to get a reputation as something special on a bicycle, particularly when it comes to climbing hills.  This quickly snowballs into a promising career, and soon he's a professional racer - picking up accolade after accolade.  Disaster strikes midway through his career when a forgetful cop overlooks a road closure - and while zooming down a mountain he smashes headlong into an oncoming car.  Doctors don't know if he'll even walk again - let alone cycle, but after a long period of recuperation he miraculously gets back on his bike and goes on to win big.  Textbook triumph over adversity stuff.  But this is cycling in the 90s, that's doping territory.  After failing a blood test he's disqualified and shamed, sending him spiralling into depression and drugs.

Hang on a minute... A champion cyclist triumphing over medical adversity followed by a doping disgrace? This is awfully familiar stuff...  It's impossible not to think of Lance Armstrong watching this, and particular of Alex Gibney's recent The Armstrong Lie, a documentary that covers the same territory beat for beat.  I didn't really enjoy The Armstrong Lie, but Pantani definitely suffers from being released in close proximity. This is more cinematic bad luck than anything particularly wrong with the movie, but if you've seen one explanation of what a peloton is, or how performance enhancing drugs work, sitting through it again is a bit tedious.

There are high points within the film. EPO, the drug that caused all this ruckus ups the red blood cell count, allowing more oxygen to be transported to muscles.  Having so many red blood cells means that the cyclist's blood runs the risk of "silting up" if their heartrate falls below a certain level, i.e. when sleeping.  To counteract this, doping cyclists had to sleep with heartrate monitors on that'd wake them up if they were in danger, after which they'd hop on exercise bikes built into their bedroom and start to pedalling away so as not to die. There's something poetically kinda neat about these quasi-vampiric nocturnal cyclists who've chemically screwed up their bodies up to such a degree that they need to cycle... or die!

But these interesting nuggets of information are few and far between, and as we close in on the fall from grace the documentary shoots for a rather far-fetched defence of Pantani. Essentially they infer that Pantani wasn't really doping, rather he was just too good a cyclist. It's just not interesting to see the same man winning every race, and so the top bods secretly plotted his downfall by faking the results of his blood tests and kicking him out of the sport.  This is paranoid conspiracy theory, and from my (admittedly armchair) perspective, if every other damn cyclist was shooting EPO into their bloodstream then in all likelihood Pantani was too.

There's also a suspiciously quick glossing over of his post-racing life, the audience only learning that he was difficult to be around.  Aside from people praising his athletic prowess there's a suspicious lack of people who appreciated him as a person.  Professional cyclists tend to be arseholes even when sober, so I can only imagine the horror of a miserable coked up self-hating one.  As such, the documentary ultimately feels a little like a PR exercise in image rehabilitation; smoothing off the rougher edges, downplaying the scandal and accentuating his victories - turning disgrace into tragedy.

What's left is a portrait of a man who was undoubtedly a very good cyclist, but doesn't appear to have that much more to him.  The attempts to define him as a flamboyant man in a buttoned-down sport never quite come off, the lack of any critique of his doping feels a bit cowardly and the conspiracy theory theorising is just far-fetched.  Even The Armstrong Lie, though largely dull, had the frisson of Armstrong publicly flagellating himself for the camera.

I suspect these cycling documentaries are tailor-made for those already into the sport, because they offer precious little to those that don't give a toss about bicycle racing.  In my book the gold-standard for the sports doc is Senna, which managed to draw me into a discipline and personality I knew next to nothing about.  But the difference is that Ayrton Senna was an interesting, charismatic kind of guy and professional cyclists are by design self-obsessed loners. Who wants to spend 90 minutes exploring their inner life?  Not me that's for damn sure.


Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is on limited release from May 13th.

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