A couple of weeks back I got to read from Twenty-One Nights in July as part of a double feature at the Golden Age. Much thanks to Kate and Simeon for setting up the evening. For anyone who missed out and is now lamenting my soliloquy on Pantani, followed by a reading from the book, here’s the former. For the latter, you had to be there I’m afraid:
In about half an hour some of you will be watching The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, which is a film about Marco Pantani, who is an interesting character. After winning the Tour de France in 1998, he got kicked out of the Tour of Italy for doping and then sort of went on a downhill bender and died in 2004 of a cocaine overdose in a hotel room.
Even though he undoubtedly doped, he’s very fondly remembered which is weird when you think about how much everyone hates Lance Armstrong now. You have to remember that this is a sport that comes from the Catholic nations of Spain, France, Belgium and, of course, Italy. Cycling makes a lot out of tragedy, corruption and martyrdom, and Pantani was all of those things.
By contrast, Armstrong was a sort of Puritan neo-liberal icon. He embodied this Reganist ideal that if you just focused hard enough, worked hard enough and believed in yourself you could achieve anything.
In 1996 Armstrong was told he was going to die of cancer, and then he went on to win the Tour seven times. In his autobiography he wrote:
I am very firm in my belief that cancer is not a form of death. I choose to redefine it: it is part of life.
Which is sort of strange. Surviving cancer is not a choice and to imply it is suggests those who die simply weren’t strong enough to choose to live, which is lunacy.
But then it’s also why Armstrong was so popular – he embodied the idea that you could decide your own fate.
Whereas there’s something different with Pantani. The writer Matt Rendell once wrote about him:
Those of us who saw him, and were inspired, were doped, at one remove, by those who doped Marco; and, like all drug-induced forms of euphoria, when the drug that induced it was gone, it existed only as a memory, and as a terrible temptation to self-deceive.
I remember reading that after Armstrong made his come back in my hometown of Adelaide, where the city council gave him the keys to the city and all the FOMILs were spray painting “Go Lance!” on the roads. At that point he was under investigation by the US federal government for doping. The self deception needed to keep believing in Armstrong was pretty intense.
We’d all like to believe we can control our own fate, but deep down we all know that’s nonsense, and I think Pantani embodies those two conflicting ideas. Within him, we can see the desire to be better than we are, but also this sort of Icarus fable of when you try to cheat fate, rather than reconcile yourself with it.
There’s a lot of cycling stars who personify the same Icarus fable. The 1906 winner Rene Pottier hung himself a year after winning the Tour, from the same hook he’d used to store his bike, 1951 winner Hugo Koblet smashed his car into a tree, 1952 winner Fausto Coppi died of malaria after being disowned by the Pope, 1973 winner Luis Ocana shot himself, and then there’s Tom Simpson, who literally rode himself to death in the Tour de France, uttering the famous last words “Put me back on my bike.”
To those who don’t follow cycling, that might just sound like the stupidity of men who didn’t know when to stop and took riding a bike too seriously. But I think it’s more complex than that. Roland Barthes once wrote:
What is sport? What is then that men put into sport? Themselves, their human universe.
I thought I’d do a quick readings that look at that idea on a grand scale, both related to an Italian cyclist called Gino Bartali, who won the Tour de France twice, once just before the Second World War, and in 1948, the same year The Bicycle Thief was made.
(Instead of the reading itself, here’s The Bicycle Thief. Thanks again to everyone who came along!)