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Cyclist Pantani found dead

Posted: Sunday, February 15, 2004

RIMINI, Italy (AP) Marco Pantani, the former Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner who has 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.

Prosecutor Paolo Gengarelli told reporters that different types of medicine were found in the room, including tranquilizers.

No cause of death was given, although news reports said it didn't appear that there had been any violence. An autopsy is scheduled for Monday.

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.''

Also Saturday, 21-year-old Belgian cyclist Johan Sermon was found dead from apparent heart failure, according to Belgian news reports. He was an under-23 rider with the Daikin team.

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

''It's still difficult to believe, I don't know what his health conditions were,'' former teammate, and 2000 Giro winner, Stefano Garzelli told ANSA. ''Certainly he had to deal with a lot of pressure, even from outside cycling. The pressure he was put under would have been tough for anyone to handle.''

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, which he was winning.

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 didn't stay in the room on the night in question. The judges dismissed the claim for lack of proof, and 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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