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Cause Of Death: Broken Heart
Editorial by Tom Demerly.

Tom Demerly Announces during race.

On Saturday, February 14 the world lost a flamboyant sportsman, a gifted cyclist, a delightful caricature and a normal man: Marco Pantani, Il Pirata, “The Pirate” has died.

As you’ve probably read in the media already, Pantani was found dead in his hotel room at the Le Rose di Rimini apartments in the Italian city of Rimini on the Adriatic coast.

Tragically, the man who was greeted by hundreds of thousands of frenzied fans on the most difficult mountain passes of the most difficult races died alone, on the floor, in seclusion.

While the official cause of death was “heart failure” or some such medical mumbo jumbo a more accurate explanation was that Marco Pantani died of a broken heart.

Physiologically, what ever killed Pantani is a matter for the doctors. Philosophically, what killed Pantani is a matter of concern for us all.


Pantani’s athletic record was incredible. He won the Tour de France and the Giro d’ Italia. He came back from a horrific crash that caused his sharp, splintered femur to pierce his skin. His was third in the World Championship. He won stage after stage of the Giro and The Tour. And much more.

More importantly, Pantani raised living hell. In the crusty, old world, often times boring world of bicycle racing Pantani was 55 gallons of gasoline on a smoldering fire. He antagonized Lance Armstrong and just about every other world class cyclist in the major tours. Like the swashbuckling, sword swinging legend that inspired his nickname he was always ready for action. And if there was no action, he made it himself. He was the protagonist: The combatant. He attacked impulsively and seemingly without motive. He raced with passion and panache. With his shaved head, single gold privateer’s earring, colorful bandana headdress and diminutive climber’s stature he cut a dashing figure. As with most climbers, he may have been short, but he was a giant. His fans loved him for it; his detractors hated him because of it.

It would appear however, that his heart was as fragile as a hummingbird’s.

As you know, Pantani was a climbing specialist. He could ride up mountains faster than any other cyclist in his generation. He held the record for the fastest ascent of L'Alpe d’Huez in the Tour de France. His riding style was not smooth and powerful, but manic and wild. He would climb low on his bike, hands on the drops- utterly different than you and I. His impish face was etched in the agony of his efforts. He never succumbed to the difficulty of a mountain road, furnace like heat, or the challenges of the best cyclists in the world.

How ironic that he should apparently succumb to the frailties of being a human being.

Pantani had run-ins with the law. It was alleged that he used performance-enhancing drugs. The only thing a court of law could actually prove was that he tested too high for hematocrit. I know two people who test over the UCI limit for hematocrit regularly, and neither one of those have ever used a performance-enhancing drug.

I don’t know if Pantani used performance-enhancing drugs. The likelihood is that we will never know for sure. I’d prefer to think he did not, but that’s just me.

What I do know is that Pantani was dealt with cruelly. The press harangued him. They showed him in his worst moments as well as his best. Pantani was a famous man and one of the things I think a famous person has to trade for their notoriety is an enormous measure of privacy and sometimes dignity. All public figures open themselves up for the double-edged sword that is being in the spotlight. Both sides of the blade incised Pantani. Often times the spotlight is so bright that nothing hides in its shadows.

No one likes having their appearance made fun of, but we’ve all done it to each other. The press or a fan or someone once started calling Pantani “Elefantino” or “The Elephant” because his ears appeared large. Some people can let something like that roll off their back; others can embrace it and roll with, even use it. It bothered Pantani so much he eventually got cosmetic surgery on his ears to make them appear smaller. It is sad that affected him so much. Fans can be cruel, but I think a lot of the “Elefantino” stuff was just good-natured ribbing.

I wish Pantani had been able to say, “My ears are like an elephant, like Dumbo the elephant, and they help me fly up mountains. The other men can’t climb as well because their ears are all too small. But I have magnificent ears: A climber’s ears.”

We’ve all been made fun of at some point in our lives, but not on international television, over and over and over again. Most of us learn to let it roll off our backs and endure it. Pantani wasn’t able to do that. And it put a little crack in his heart. One of many.

Other things in his life made that crack grow until, in another irony, on Valentine’s Day, it finally tore through his entire heart and finished him.

Cruelty and betrayal weigh heavily on a person’s soul. Everyone deals with it differently. For some people, time heals all wounds. For others, it only causes the wound to fester and spread, like a malignant cancer. The only cure is kindness and understanding. Pantani had endured so much in his life maybe he was just too tired. Maybe all the comebacks and disappointments and insults and allegations and betrayals weighed so heavily on him he could not endure it. Maybe there was no one there to hold him up when he finally fell down. Of all those hundreds of thousands, no, millions and millions of fans there was no one there when he needed them. Isn’t that sad?

He had been treated for depression. He tried to beat it, but it appears to have been a bigger mountain than any he faced on the bicycle. Apparently he couldn’t get over the top.

If you’re reading this page you are likely an athlete of sorts yourself. So you already know that in endurance sports sometimes your ego is enormously inflated and then unceremoniously destroyed. It is a wild spectrum to swing through, and some people make the swing more gracefully than others do. It also helps when there is someone to admire you when you are at the top of the swing, and catch you when you fall to the bottom of the swing.

When something like this happens the first thing most of us try to do is find the lesson in it. What can we learn from the sad, untimely end of Marco Pantani?

There is probably no one lesson to be learned, but rather a series of them.

First off: Everyone, no matter how good or bad of an athlete, actor, singer or star they are- is human. They have feelings and those feelings can be hurt. All of us get and give hurt feelings. I’ve done it; you’ve done it. Some of it is to be expected. But Pantani had to endure an incredible amount of it, and maybe he was especially sensitive to it. Eventually the hurt can be so bad a person can’t recover from it on their own.

Also, it is important to see outside of your world. To see that everyone hurts, and that hurt is what happens- sometimes in volumes- before things get a little better. A depressed person cannot see that. They cannot visualize that things will get better. They cannot see any light at the end of the tunnel. If they are lucky they get help from friends and professionals and drugs to hold them up for the time being until they can see the light at the end of the tunnel on their own. But they have to have the endurance and desire to do it. Engrained deep in their soul and character has to be the desire and belief that things are not always all bad. They have to be a survivor. If you have survived to adulthood that belief has no doubt been tested for you many times.

Sure, it is a tough sport. But the pain you soak up in the final hours of Ironman or on a climb in the Tour de France is completely different than the pain you feel when someone you trusted betrays you, someone who you thought was your friend makes fun of you or the people you thought were your supporters insult and humiliate you. That kind of pain hurts. Sometimes it kills. Perhaps that is what eventually took poor Marco. The pain was just too much.

For me, as with most of you I am sure, I wish I could have ran into to Marco Pantani that day, February 14. I would like to believe I could have somehow reached him. I would have said, “Marco, wow, you are a fine cyclist. Really, kind of a hero of mine. I have always loved watching you in The Tour or The Giro. You always make it interesting. I tried climbing like you do on your drops once but I simply couldn’t do it. You really are quite a guy. Thank you for all the exciting moments. I certainly admire you.”

If he had confided in a stranger with his disappointments and fears I would have liked to tell him, “You are a famous man who has touched many, many, many people with your courage, strength and style. That is an enormous gift you’ve given us. Never mind the people who have caused you problems. All great men have problems- the greater the man the greater the problems sometimes. But remember all the good you have done. The smiles you have put on faces. The awe you have inspired, and the breath you have stolen from your fans when they watch you violate gravity itself. Never mind what some people say, they are cruel or jealous or ill-spirited. Don’t let them hurt you. You are stronger than that. I have seen it myself on TV. They are probably not happy themselves. They have never been able to do what you do- thrill so many fans. Remember Marco, you are a hero- even when you do not believe it yourself- you are still a hero my friend. That is how the world knows you, so please know yourself that way too.”

Sure, that’s very nice. And I am sure Pantani’s many friends did say those things to him. But my sentiments and yours, however well intentioned, don’t heal the broken heart that killed The Pirate. It was too late.

Sometimes a heart is broken so badly it can’t be repaired. Whether it is the mammoth, athletic heart of a super athlete or a normal, average everyday heart you have to be careful with them. Sometimes when they break, they can’t be fixed.