Before Armstrong’s cancer comeback to apparent Tour de France victory made him the legend of the peleton, it was Pantani’s name that was chanted by those lining the route, as the bald-headed, featherweight Italian pushed his way from the back of the field, up the hill and past the finishing line.
Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong - no love lost between these two very different cyclists
No climber was meant to perform like this. His was the type of story to capture the imagination, particularly for his emotional Italian fanbase. He was 'Il Pirata' - courtesy of his bandana, his shaved head, his earring and his irreverent attitude to those who were meant to keep him back from the top of the mountain.
This film follows his story from childhood where his parents scrimped to buy him the red bike he craved, through to the glamour of sporting superstardom.
For a while it was all going so well, as Pantani defied the laws of gravity to push up the hills, overcome horrifying injury - in circumstances to put the shivers into road cyclists everywhere - all the way to historic double victory at The Tour de France and Giro D'Italia in 1998, and a hero's welcome in his home town.
Only a year later, the axe fell, with his disqualification in Italy over irregular blood readings. Although Pantani never tested positive for any drugs, his became one of cycling's many names to have a shadow over any places on the podium.
What the film doesn’t go into thoroughly enough is to what extent Pantani was culpable for these initial chapters in his demise. Witnesses at the time report him telling colleagues not to worry - "I'm sorted" - on the timing of drugs tests, with no one willing to answer the question that surely floats in the air here, did he mean sorted in a 'nothing to hide' sort of way or a 'my tracks are covered' sort of way?
Others speak of a conspiracy to force Pantani out of the sport for, apparently, winning too often - a feat which, we are fleetingly told, upsets the balance of the sport, relying as it does on sponsors all getting their adequate share of cameras landing on their riders' expensive logos. Again, there seems to be a whole film worthy of just exploring this contradiction alone.
What the film glosses over, too, is the exact circumstances of Pantani's last, unhappy days - culminating in a drug overdose in a Rimini hotel room. Where was his family? Cycling colleagues? The sporting bodies that had enjoyed his victories and then seemingly kicked him to the kerb?
With its title, the film really needs to be less nervous about exploring these topics, unwholesome as they are. It seems that the makers are too enamoured, understandably, of Il Pirata's achievements to want to dwell on these, eschewing Pantani's still mysterious lows in favour of his great, glorious highs.
'Pantani: Accidental Death of a Cyclist' is out now on Blu-Ray and DVD. Watch the trailer below...