More than two decades on, a court in Italy is today considering whether the late Marco Pantani’s disqualification from the 1999 Giro d’Italia was due to the intervention of the Camorra crime syndicate, based in and around Campania.
Pantani, who the previous year won both the Giro and the Tour de France – a feat no-one has matched since – was leading the race when news broke before the start of the penultimate stage that he had been thrown off the race.
A blood sample taken from him the previous evening, after he had taken his second consecutive stage win, found that he had a haematocrit level of 52 per cent, against a maximum permitted level of 50 per cent.
Under a rule introduced by the UCI in 1997 – no test existed for EPO at the time – riders who tested above 50 per cent were excluded from racing for two weeks.
No further sanction would be imposed on Pantani, and the rider was subsequently acquitted in a criminal case.
However, in 2016 magistrates said that his blood sample had been switched by the Camorra, which stood to lose a huge amount of money through illegal betting on the race in the event he won, although no charges could be brought due to a statute of limitations.
Sergio Sottani, the state prosecutor who headed that investigation, concluded that “A Camorra family threatened a doctor to compel him to alter the test results to cause Pantani to be outside the rules.”
Among the testimony considered was evidence from high-profile criminal Renato Vallanzasca that he had been told by a fellow prisoner in a jail in Milan in May 1999 to bet his life savings on Pantani’s rivals, and that he had been told that the defending champion would not finish the race.
Subsequently, a transcript of a wire-tapped telephone conversation between that prisoner and a member of a Camorra family came to light which appeared to confirm Vallanzasca’s allegations.
In 2018, a new file was opened by the District Anti-Mafia Directorate in Naples to establish whether the control that led to Pantani’s expulsion from the race had been “directed” by specific interests, reports La Gazzetta dello Sport.
Potential criminal charges in this instance include “criminal association with the aggravating circumstance of having facilitated a mafia association,” for which the statute of limitation runs for 25 years, ie until 2024.
The Italian sports daily reports that Pantani family lawyer Antonio de Rensis will oppose a potential dismissal of the case, and among the evidence he will present is that a sample of blood from Pantani tested on the same day as the one that resulted in him being excluded from the race showed a haematocrit value within the threshold – 48 per cent, compared to 52 per cent.
According to expert witness Professor Francesco Maria Avato, who has analysed both tests, the difference in the values can only be explained by one of the samples being manipulated.
De Rensis is also urging that the prisoner whom Vallanzasca claims told him that the race was being rigged to prevent Pantani from winning also be interviewed, as well as other people who were present on 5 June.
According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, investigating judge Rosa De Ruggero will announce her decision in the next few days.
Pantani himself died in a hotel room in Rimini in 2004, with his parents insisting that persons unknown had forced him to take a lethal dose of cocaine, but in 2017, Italy’s supreme court upheld a ruling from the previous year by a judge in Rimini that his death was not due to murder but rather suicide or accidental overdose.
That hasn’t put an end to the conspiracy theories, however, and his death is the subject of a film that will be shown in cinemas in Italy next month called Il Caso Pantani – L’Omicidio di un Campione (The Pantani Case – The Killing of a Champion). Here’s the trailer.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.