Problems force cyclist Marco Pantani to take a break

Marco Pantani is all for the proposed new EPO test  Credit: Graham Chadwick /Allsport
Marco Pantanis long and winding road back to winning ways has taken a turn down a dead end.

In an open letter to his director sportif, Giuseppe Martinelli, on March 21, Pantani said that he needed a break from cycling and couldnt quantify how long it would be before he would return to action.

In his statement, Pantani said: At the moment, even though I would be physically capable of competing, I am going through a difficult period because of too many inner problems that only I can overcome, despite the best efforts of those close to me.

Pantanis difficult period, of course, began last June 5 when he was disqualified from the Giro d'Italia on the penultimate stage, due to a failed hematocrit-level test; Pantani was romping to victory, making the expulsion all the more shocking.

Administered to all winning riders, hematocrit blood tests measure the level of oxygen-rich red blood cells a test above 50 may indicate the use of the performance-enhancing drug EP0. Pantanis June 5 test came in at 52.

Pantani has maintained his innocence, citing hard racing and altitude for his high hematocrit level.

His Mercetone Uno team has stood behind Pantani so far, allowing him free reign in deciding when to race.

This runs counter to measures take by other teams. France's Cofidis team, for example, promptly suspended their star Belgian rider, Francke Vandenbrouke, last year when he was implicated in a similar drug scandal.

A brilliant climber and hugely famous athlete in Italy, Pantani won the 1998 Tour de France and Giro d'Italia. His withdrawal from racing for now almost assuredly means he will miss this years 3,707-kilometer Giro d'Italia, scheduled to start May 13 in St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

Playing the lead role in an EPO-laced soap opera that has blared on high volume, The Pirate, as Pantani is known, at one point vowed to retire from racing.

After nine months of repeated fits and starts, he returned to action in last months Tour of Valencia, only to pull out in the third stage, citing tiredness.

His repeated no-shows from races this year have been the subject of much speculation.

Although Pantani has been cleared to race by the UCI, having long since served out his 15-day rest period after his test last June, it is clear that he is feeling nearly as much mental fatigue as physical, due in no small part to serious legal issues clouding his future.

Pantani has been charged with fraudulent behavior for professional athletes, a crime in Italy. The case stems from his accident in the 1995 Milano-Torino race. Pantanis hospital tests revealed a hemotacrit count of 60.1, as well as high levels of hemoglobin and iron levels, which point to the use of EPO.

The case has been hanging heavily over Pantani, who clearly would like to return to his happy days of sailing over mountain passes.

My world is cycling, but I want to return to it with sincerity and enthusiasm, he said in the letter. I need a rest and as things stand I can't say how long for."

Pantani hopes that this will be seen as a desire to start again from the beginning, this time on the right footing.

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