The story of legendary Italian cyclist Marco Pantani is a tragic one.
In a parabolic rise and fall, the last champion to win the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France in the same year (1998) died alone of a drug overdose in a hotel room in 2004, at the age of 34.
Il Pirata (The Pirate), as he was known because of his beard and bandanas, clambered up to the top ranks of the cycling world with extraordinary talent and determination. But just one year after his great double win, his career was compromised by doping allegations and his personal life was slowly destroyed by disillusionment with the professional sports world and his addiction.
Last year, the documentary ‘Pantani: The Accidental Death Of a Cyclist’ was released. The film traces the story of the Italian cycling superstar, including the voices of those who knew him best: his family and friends. It is now available to watch on Netflix UK and The IT Factor caught up with its London-based director and producer, James Erskine.
How did you choose to tell the story of the rise and fall of Marco Pantani?
‘I’m interested in making films about people in sport and really extraordinary stories. I was interested in making a film about cycling but I didn’t know what story to make. I found the story of Pantani, very fascinating, as it allowed me to explore the passion and the possibilities of the sport and also reflect on its dark side’.
What struck you the most about the Pantani story?
‘To me it’s a story of innocence lost. A boy that finds his self-expression and his desire on a bicycle that gives him a real sense of identity and a certain feeling – a great, natural talent. He became involved in a world where corrupt people tainted the world of sport. His pure ideals are tarnished by the reality of professional sports at that time.
How was it to deal with the people closest to him, during the making of the film?
‘We were in dialogue with his family and friends for over two years. They were supportive of the project to make a film about Marco. Obviously, there were concerns about how he would be represented and concerns about his story, some of which we know and some of which we don’t know. It was a long conversation, we kept going back and forth and talking about ‘Have we told the right story and the story we needed to tell?’, searching for the truth on a factual level and also on an emotional level, of what he meant to people and what his story meant’.
What do you think the legacy of Pantani in the cycling world and in popular culture is today?
‘I think Pantani in the cycling world is still seen as an inspirational figure. The way that he raced is still extraordinary and that is one of the things the film shows. A child with these abilities fuels the imagination and increases interest in the sport. He’s an artist on a bicycle. That is still true and will always be true about Pantani. He’s an artist, and people can see that his performances have been inspired by the sport and its possibilities. His performances and their memory will endure long beyond the questions of doping. Hopefully, with all the stories out now about many cyclists at that time, it will allow the sport to become honest and clean. But it mustn’t be boring either. What Pantani shows is that you can take a sport that is really arduous and you can paint it in a different light and drive people to the edge of their seats’.