Italy's leading cycling hero has died. The 34-year-old rider, Marco Pantani, became famous after winning both the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia. But in recent years he came to personify his sport's troubled relationship with performance-enhancing drugs.
Marco Pantani was found dead in a hotel room. It's still unclear what caused his death. Police say there were no signs of violence and no suicide note. Nicknamed "the pirate," Pantani was Italy's most popular cyclist.
In 1998 he won both the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia in the same season. But since then he had been plagued by accusations of doping and had been the target of a number of investigations into alleged drug taking.
In 1999 he was thrown out of the Giro d'Italia for failing a blood test. Since then he had been fighting to salvage his reputation. Last year he entered a health clinic specializing in the treatment of depression and drug addiction.
Present and former members of the cycling world were shocked at the news of his death. The coach of Italy's national cycling team said Pantani was "something so huge, it doesn't seem true." Fellow cyclist Mario Cipollini said he was devastated and called his colleague's death "a tragedy of enormous proportions for the entire cycling world."
Felice Gimondi, the first Italian to win the Tour de France, and the man who coached Pantani for two years, said Pantani had been in the eye of the cycling storm for years after being number one. After the drug charges, he said Pantani was left on his own and had withdrawn into himself.
For the past five days in the Adriatic resort town of Rimini the cyclist had had no contact with anyone except the staff in his hotel. Investigators have requested an autopsy to determine the cause of Pantani's death. The results are expected on Monday.