Don’t Cross The River – Marco Pantani play


Back in the day I was fascinated with the Italian cyclist Marco Pantani. Given that I’m someone for whom going uphill on a bike is always a real struggle, climbers have always attracted my attention, not least because the pure climbers never seemed to have any real chance of wining the Tour de France.

So Pantani was a genuine hero, dancing on his pedals as he streaked away from his competitors on the toughest mountain stages.

And then suddenly he was a Grand Tour winner. Leading the Giro going into the final time trial in 1998, he produced the performance of a lifetime to hold onto the pink jersey. I did wonder if this sudden prowess at the time trial, previously his Achilles heel, was too good to be true. But it still seemed something to celebrate.

Twelve months later (after also winning the Tour de France in ’98) Pantani was expelled for the Giro for failing a drugs test whilst seemingly on course for a second successive triumph. He never recovered from that and died a tragic early death less than 6 years later after his life spiralled downwards in a mix of fame, drink and drugs.

Even in the light of all this I still wanted to believe that Pantani’s sudden improvement in the ’98 Giro was down to him starting to use drugs around about that time. But even that hope was shattered when I read Matt Rendle’s book ‘The Death of Marco Pantani’ last year. In the book, Rendell forensically uses evidence from blood tests to demonstrate that Pantani had been using performance enhancing drugs even before turning professional.

I mention all this because, between Friday’s James King show and the Bob Mould show on Saturday we went to see ‘Marco Pantani – The Pirate’, a play by Stuart Hepburn also at the Oran Mor. The play was part of the venue’s successful ‘A Play, A Pie & A Pint’ series and Saturday’s show was the final performance of the week long run.

Rendell’s book was partly the inspiration for the play but the Pantani on display is a less complex character. Jordan Young plays his Marco as a Glaswegian gadgie. It feels slightly wrong but thinking about it, if he’d played Marco as an Italian gadgie, it would probably have been worse. All told though this Marco is not only far less complex than the one depicted in Rendell’s book but also more sympathetic as the temptation of performance enhancing drugs is portrayed as having come with his first professional contract rather than before.

Due to its short length (under an hour), the play largely concentrates on Marco’s successes and his rise to fame with his decision to use drugs dealt with quickly. His fall, in reality fairly prolonged, is also dealt with cursorily towards the end of the play. Yet despite this, the denouement is surprisingly affecting, a tribute to the actors’ performances with both Blythe Duff (as Marco’s mother) and James Smillie (as Marco’s grandfather and a doctor) excellent.

At times the play did occasionally get bogged down in its use of cycling terminology, Italian names and lists of Pantani’s results, but Mrs MPT, who was much less familiar with the outline of the story than I am, followed everything and thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’m not aware of any plans to put this on again anywhere else at the moment but, if you get the chance to see it, I’d definitely recommend it . The Fringe perhaps?


  1. James McLean says:

    I’m also a huge Pantani Fan, and the book you mentioned took the wind out of my sails too but I believe Matt Rendle was honest in his depicting his life.

    I look back on that era as something we won’t see again, but aslo will remember it as a super exciting time to be a cycling fan.

    The Bianchi he rode in ’98 for is double was very cool and I have even done some art of it for a project I am working on.

  2. Hi James, yeah it was an exciting era, the problem is how much of it was true? I’d agree that Rendle’s book is honest – his intro says that he was a fan and implied that what he found was maybe more than he expected.

    Thanks for the comment.


  3. Keith says:

    Technically Marco Pantani never tested positive for doping. He was suspended for a high hemacrit level. Today we know this could’ve been due to dehydration as well as altitude.

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