Did the Camorra organised crime syndicate have a sample of the late Marco Pantani’s blood manipulated to get him thrown off the 1999 Giro d’Italia and thereby rescue itself from having huge gambling losses?
That’s the hypothesis being explored by magistrates in Italy, who last month opened an investigation into criminal association for the purpose of fraud and sporting fraud.
They are collaborating with colleagues holding a separate inquiry into the circumstances of the rider’s death at the age of 34 in a serviced apartment in Rimini in February 2004, raising the prospect that they may perceive a link between the two events.
Officially, the cause was given as acute cocaine poisoning, but the case was reopened as a murder inquiry this summer after the Pantani family’s lawyer submitted new evidence, claiming that he had been forced to drink a lethal amount of cocaine diluted with water.
Pantani's mother: “Without Campiglio, there would have been no Rimini”
In June 1999, Pantani was poised to win the Giro d’Italia for the second year running. He had won the two preceding stages in the mountains to take a commanding lead in the general classification when on 6 June, before the start of the penultimate stage at Madonna di Campiglio, the news broke that he had been expelled from the race.
A blood sample taken the previous evening had returned a haematocrit level of 52 per cent, against a maximum permitted level of 50 per cent. With no test existing for EPO at the time, the UCI had introduced the rule in 1997, requiring riders testing above 50 per cent not to race for two weeks.
While no further sporting sanctions were taken against Pantani, who would also later be acquitted in a criminal case, many see the episode as starting the decline that would lead, five years later, to his death in a Rimini hotel room in 2004.
His mother, Tonina has said, “Without Campiglio, there would have been no Rimini.
“Next time you won’t get away with it,” says commissaire
Italian sports daily La Gazzetta dello Sport reports that magistrates based in Forli, close to Pantani’s home town of Cesenatico, have since early September been gathering evidence, including hearing from witnesses among whom were people associated with Pantani and his Mercatone Uno team.
The newspaper says that they spoke of a tense atmosphere during the race, and anonymous threats made against those around the rider, with the clear threat that he should not finish the race.
A little under a fortnight before Pantani’s expulsion at Madonna di Campiglio, Stage 11 of the 1999 Giro finished in Cesenatico on 25 May, and before the race resumed from the same town the following morning, rumours were rife that he had failed a blood test and was out of the race.
That turned out to be untrue, but what had happened, according to La Gazzetta dello Sport, was that there had been a delay of 20 minutes in Pantani providing the required sample. That led UCI commissaire Antonio Coccioni to warn the rider: “Next time you won’t get away with it.”
The episode, says the newspaper, provides the starting point for the investigators in Forli working on the hypothesis that organised crime circles had already decided that Pantani would not finish the race in Milan, although it acknowledges that there is a lot of work to be done in linking the UCI official’s comments to it, and that it could just be a coincidence.
Camorra stood to lose big money if Pantani won
Why would anyone want Pantani out of the race? At the time, what betting there was on cycling in Italy was operated illegally. The Camorra, whose origins lie in the region around Naples, realised too late that it had accepted far too many bets on Pantani winning the race, La Gazzetta dello Sport mentioning that losses could run into tens of billions of Lire.
By ensuring the rider didn’t complete the race, the situation would be the opposite, with a huge bonanza for the clandestine bookmakers, and investigators reportedly believe that the Camorra set about finding a way of ensuring that happened.
Such allegations have been made before; in late 1999, one of Italy’s highest-profile criminals, Renato Vallanzasca said in his autobiography that he had been approached by a fellow prisoner in a Milan jail who urged him to bet his savings on Pantani’s rivals.
The man, who claimed to be a member of a leading Camorra clan, told Vallanzasca, serving four life sentences for a range of crimes including murder and armed robbery, that although he didn’t know how, the ‘pelatino’ – the ‘little bald guy’ – wouldn’t finish the race, adding: “Trust me.”
Vallanzasca was subsequently interviewed by a magistrate looking into the events of Madonna di Campiglio, with Pantani’s lawyers claiming that blood samples had been switched, and the rider himself subsequently investigated for sporting fraud.
The man who once ran one of Italy’s most feared criminal gangs from Milan would not answer the magistrate’s questions, however, out of fear of reprisals by the Camorra, and without knowing the identity of the other prisoner – which would have led to the clan he belonged to – the trail was cold.
Magistrates pick up the trail
Now, however, the Forli investigators believe they do know who he was and the clan to which he was affiliated, and they have also heard evidence from doctors who have explained how it would have been possible to manipulate Pantani’s blood, which he had tested himself the evening before to ensure he was within the correct parameters.
A decade and a half on, many believe that the events of Madonna di Campiglio broke Pantani. In 1998, he became the last man to complete the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France double, but after his exclusion from his home Grand Tour the following year, he never scaled those heights again.
He did not defend his Tour de France title in 1999 – the year Lance Armstrong began what he has now confessed was a drug-fuelled seven-year dominance of the yellow jersey – and while he won two stages of the 2000 Tour, one of them on Mont Ventoux apparently ‘gifted’ by Armstrong to the Italian’s disgust, the downward spiral continued.
Pantani’s final race was the 2003 Giro d’Italia, where he came 14th overall and failed to finish higher than fifth in any stage. A few weeks later, he entered a clinic that treats people for psychological conditions as well as alcohol and drug addiction.
It is widely accepted that he used EPO throughout his career, with his haematocrit level said to reach as much as 60 per cent at times.
Two years after his death, Spanish ex pro Jesus Manzano said Pantani was a client of the doctor at the centre of the Operacion Puerto scandal, Eufemiano Fuentes.
More recently, a French Senate investigation into the 1998 Tour de France concluded last year that retrospective testing of samples from that race proved that Pantani, among others, was using EPO during it.
Yet whether or not Pantani was actually doping during the 1999 Giro is, for the magistrates in Forli almost a side issue.
Assuming he were, but managed to keep his haematocrit level below 50 per cent, the central questions are – how did his blood test result in a higher level, and who made sure that happened and why?
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.