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 in a residence in Rimini, Italy on Saturday, colleagues and residence employees said.
Italy''s most popular cyclist was found in a room at the apartment-residence "Le Rose" in the seaside city, said receptionist Paolo Buccellato. He said hotel staff entered Pantani''s room sometime after 8 p.m. (1900gmt) after he hadn''t been seen all day.
Buccellato said he saw medicines strewn about Pantani''s room - on the bed and floor - and that Pantani was found lying on the ground, wearing just
trousers. The room, he said, was in disarray.
No explanation of death was provided, although news reports said it was not a violent death. Buccellato said there were no visible signs of injury.
Police were on the scene and a small crowd of onlookers gathered outside the five-story building where Pantani had been staying for four days - his first time at the residence, Buccellato said.
There was no answer at Pantani''s Mercatone Uno team or his management agency on 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.
Italian television broke into regular programming to announce the death and ran file footage of some of the bald cyclist''s more memorable victories.
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 beset by doping accusations, which he has long denied.
Last summer, the 34-year-old 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 he was dominating.
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
In one of his best performances since his sparkling 1998 season, Pantani finished 14th in last year''s Giro.
Pantani had not announced any plans for this season, sparking rumors of his retirement.
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 de France, when he rode wheel-to-wheel with