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Marco Pantani, 34; Italian Cyclist Plagued by Doping Allegations

February 15, 2004|From Associated Press

RIMINI, Italy — Marco Pantani, the former Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner who had been plagued by doping accusations and suspensions in recent years, was found dead Saturday, Italian news reports said.

The 34-year-old Pantani, Italy's most popular cyclist, was found in a room at the hotel Le Rose in this seaside city, the ANSA news agency reported.

No explanation for his death was provided, although news reports said it was not a violent death. Police were on the scene.

There was no answer at Pantani's Mercatone Uno team or his management agency Saturday. A man who answered his manager's phone said the reports of Pantani's death were true, and that the cause of death wasn't yet known.

"I'm devastated. It's a tragedy of enormous proportions for the entire cycling world," former world champion cyclist Mario Cipollini told ANSA. "I'm at a loss for words."

In 1998, Pantani became the last cyclist to win both the Tour de France and the Giro in the same season. Since then, he had been accused of doping several times. He had denied those accusations.

He finished 14th in last year's Giro, one of his best performances since 1998. He had not announced any plans for this season, sparking speculation that he would retire.

Last summer, Pantani spent several weeks in a health clinic specializing in treatment for depression and drug addiction.

In 1999, he failed a random blood test and was kicked out of the Giro while he was leading the race.

A syringe containing traces of insulin was found in his hotel room in a police raid during the 2001 Giro. Pantani contended the syringe had been planted and that he hadn't stayed in the room on the night in question. He was suspended for six months.

In his prime, Pantani drew hoards of loyal fans to watch him sprint away from competitors while racing up steep mountain passes. After shedding the nickname of "Elefantino" -- little elephant -- for his big ears and small frame, Pantani became better known as cycling's "Pirate" for the bandanna covering his head and the earring he wore.

After turning professional in 1992, Pantani won eight Tour de France stages and eight Giro stages. He wore the yellow jersey as Tour leader in six stages and donned the Giro's pink jersey 14 times.

He registered 36 victories overall, the first coming in a 1994 Giro stage and the last in the 2000 Tour, when he rode wheel-to-wheel with Lance Armstrong.

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