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Pantani believed he was persecuted

Pantani won both the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in 1998.
Pantani won both the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in 1998.

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ROME, Italy -- Former Tour de France winner Marco Pantani, found dead in a hotel room in Italy over the weekend, believed he was being persecuted for his doping record, reports said on Monday.

"They only want to punish me," the 34-year-old was reported to have written on note paper found in his Rimini hotel room, La Repubblica newspaper said.

He was also alleged to have written he was the victim of a conspiracy.

Pantani is thought to have died of a heart attack rather than suicide as first suspected. He was found with 10 packets of prescription sedatives.

An autopsy is due to be completed on Monday, with a coroner having indicated a cardio-circulatory arrest.

"I am excluding any idea of a suicide until such time as we have the full results of the autopsy," said local prosecutor Paolo Gengarelli.

Coroner Francesco Toni, who examined Pantani's body, believes the cyclist died of a heart attack, the cause of which is as yet unknown.

Gengarelli said he was awaiting the results of the autopsy to help him reconstruct the last hours before Pantani's death.

Newspapers reported Monday that Pantani was addicted to cocaine and had planned to go for treatment to a clinic in Bolivia run by his friend father Pierino Gelmini.

"He wanted to get away from the glare of publicity," said Gelmini, who also runs similar projects in Italy to help people hooked on drugs.

"Pantani refused to go to a clinic here. In Italy it would have created a media circus and he didn't want that. He was worried what the newspapers would say and he just wanted to be left in peace.

"The idea was to take him somewhere where nobody could see him or judge him."

Prescription drugs

Police told a news conference on Sunday the tranquilizers were prescription drugs, and that some of the packets were empty and some started.

Gengarelli added that Pantani had effectively secluded himself in the room for five days and left it only for breakfast.

Last year, Pantani checked into a clinic that specialized in depression and drug addiction.

A number of riders have spoken about how Pantani had been affected since his career was derailed by doping allegations in 1999.

Pantani's friend Moreno Argentina, a former cyclist, said: "The last time I saw him, he was extremely bitter, a changed man."

Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merck hit out at the Italian justice system.

"After his success in the Tour of Italy and Tour de France in the same year Pantani certainly made mistakes - but he was targeted by the Italian justice system who never let him go.

"I believe it was that destroyed him," said the five-time Tour de France winner.

Argentine foot balling legend Diego Maradona, who has himself battled against cocaine addiction, said Pantani was deserted at a time when he needed support the most to help him through a difficult period in his life.

"When Marco was the number one in the world he was surrounded by people, yet when he needed people he was left to die alone in alone in a hotel room," Maradona said.

"I felt great sadness when I heard the news. I feel everybody should feel guilty for what has happened."

In October, an Italian court cleared him of the charge of sporting fraud linked to the doping scandal that engulfed the 1999 Tour of Italy.

The flamboyant rider, who won both the Tour de France and the Tour of Italy in 1998, made an emotional comeback to cycling last year after years of wrangling with the authorities over alleged drug-taking.

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