Marco Pantani

Marco Pantani (Cesena, January 13, 1970February 14, 2004) was an Italian cyclist widely regarded as being one of the best climbers of his generation in professional road bicycle racing. The high point of his career was to win the Tour de France and the Giro d'Italia in 1998. The bandana he often wore and his attacking style of riding led to him being dubbed 'Il Pirata' (the pirate) by the adoring Italian "tifosi" - his fans. However, since 1999 his career was dogged by drug allegations, following his failing a blood test in the 1999 Giro.


The first victories

At 1.72 m and just 57 kg (5 ft 8 in, 126 lb/9 st), Pantani was a classically built mountain climber. In 1994, during his second participation to the Giro d'Italia, he became known after winning two mountain stages and finishing 2nd overall after Eugeni Berzin and before Miguel Induráin, who had won the last two editions of the Giro. He would probably have won that Giro if his team had not asked him to help their leader, Claudio Chiappucci, during the first mountain stages, where he lost a lot of time to Berzin. Pantani made his Tour de France debut in 1994 and he finished 3rd overall, but he could not win any stage even though he attacked Induráin (the Tour winner) during several stages. In 1995 he could not participate in the Giro because of an accident, but he was back in the Tour and he won two stages, at Guzet Neige and at Alpe d'Huez. He also finished third in 1995's world championship.

During the early years of Pantani's career he created a very big sensation with his unique style of climbing. Even though he often lost a lot of time during individual time trials, it looked like no one could resist him in the high mountains. He impressed the other cyclists so much that, during a stage in Tour de France one of them clapped his hands as he was overtaken by Pantani. His determination to win, which made him take big risks downhill and often arrive at the top of a mountain pass close to asphyxia, can be well explained by the way he answered to a journalist asking why he was so fast during a climb: "to make my suffering end sooner", he answered.

Pantani developed a unique climbing style in which he stayed on the drops the entire way, often while pedaling out of the saddle. He preferred this position so much that Bianchi built him a special bike with a very tall head-tube to accomodate a taller handlebar position. Just when he looked set to build on this success, Pantani was in a horrific collision during an Italian race near the end of the 1995 season. He broke his leg in two places and was left facing the end of his career.

The great years

Pantani returned to action in the Giro in 1997, but was felled by a black cat which ran out in front of him during one of the first stages, ending his race. Remarkably, he returned to action the same year in the Tour and mounted a strong challenge for the yellow jersey. Because of his slight build and unique ability, Pantani was virtually unmatchable in the high mountains of the Alps and Pyrenees and won two stages, establishing the record time for the climb of Alpe d'Huez, but the bulkier and more powerful Jan Ullrich showed his own determination and limited the amount of time he lost to Pantani during some titanic battles. Ullrich was then able to recover these losses and more in the individual time trials to which he was far more suited; thus, he ultimately claimed the yellow jersey, with Pantani finishing third overall after Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque.

The following year 1998 was the year of glory for Pantani. For the first time he won the Giro d'Italia, beating Pavel Tonkov and Alex Zulle. Then, in Tour de France, he was finally able to crack the resolute and hitherto indestructible Ullrich, who was wearing the yellow jersey, defeating him by almost nine minutes in one sensational mountain stage arriving at Deux Alpes, across Col du Galibier, under horrible weather conditions. Although Ullrich showed his character by going on the offensive during the next stage, Pantani followed him easily and went on to become the first Italian since Felice Gimondi (1965) to win the Tour. His achievement was all the more remarkable because for many years the Tour has been dominated by powerful time trial specialists such as Miguel Induráin and Jan Ullrich. Not since the days of Lucien van Impe (1976) had a 'pure' climber been victorious, and Pantani's triumph resurrected the legend of the specialist mountain man flying up the steepest of ascents as if made of air.

Unfortunately, because of the big doping scandal during 1998's Tour, the Tour that should have been remembered as Pantani's Tour, passed to history as the Tour of the Festina Affair, from the name of the Festina Team (its leader being Richard Virenque), a French team excluded from the Tour after one of its medical staff members was caught at the France-Belgium border with many illicit doping products hidden in his car. The scandal touched not only the Festina team, but all the cyclists: during the Tour there were perquisitions of numerous teams and many of them left voluntarly the Tour. There were two cyclists' strikes protesting the police atmosphere in which the Tour had fallen. Under those conditions, Pantani, who was not touched by the doping scandal, looked like a saviour for that Tour and for cycling in general.

The late years

Things turned bad for Pantani towards the end of the 1999 Giro. He was well on the way to winning, having already won four stages, with all his challengers far away in the classment and only one mountain stage left, when he was disqualified from the race (eventually won by Ivan Gotti) for a suspiciously high red blood cell count which suggested (although could not conclusively prove) use of the banned substance EPO. Pantani was banned of that Giro, and, being morally very proved, was far away from the races for all the year.

Despite the drug allegations, Pantani remained popular with many fans as something of a throwback to the great pure climbers of the past, explosively attacking in the mountains and making the race exciting, rather than grinding his rivals down. In (2000) he was back on the Giro, without having prepared it, and did not seem to be able to compete with the other racers: he lost a lot of time and could not place any attack until the last mountain stage arriving in Briancon, in which he helped a lot his teammate Stefano Garzelli to win the Giro and placed an attack without anyone being able to follow him, but he arrived only second of the stage because he could not catch a long-time attacker. Pantani did also participate at the 2000 Tour de France. Although well off the pace for much of the race, he showed a glimpse of his talent and determination when he matched the seemingly invincible Lance Armstrong pedal for pedal up the fearsome Mont Ventoux, leaving the rest of the field way behind. On the final stretch, Armstrong allowed Pantani to pull away, giving him the stage victory, a gesture that Pantani resented, causing bad blood between the two riders, exacerbated when Armstrong referred to his rival as Elefantino, a nickname Pantani hated. (The nickname was derived from Pantani's very prominent ears.) In that same Tour, up to Courchevel, he won another stage, attacking and leaving everyone behind him, even Armstrong.

This was the last race won by Pantani, who left that Tour before its end. After that he raced only sporadically in 2001 and 2002, still morally defeated from doping suspicions. He seemed to be back during the Giro of 2003, where he did not win any stage but proved to still be able to compete with the best racers, finishing well-placed in the mountain stages.

Pantani admitted himself into a clinic in northern Italy in June 2003, suffering from clinical depression and the chances of him once again challenging in major races looked slim.

The death

On 14 February 2004, Pantani died suddenly at a hotel in Rimini, Italy. An autopsy revealed he died of a cerebral edema and heart failure, and a later coroner's inquest revealed that this was brought on by acute cocaine poisoning. Reacting to his death, fellow Italian cyclist Mario Cipollini said "I am devastated. It's a tragedy of enormous proportions for everyone involved in cycling. I'm lost for words."

Twenty thousand mourners gathered at his funeral, during which his manager and close friend Manuela Ronchi read these final notes from his diary:

For four years I've been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice. All my colleagues have been humiliated, with TV cameras hidden in their hotel rooms to try and ruin families. How could you not hurt yourself after that?

Marco Pantani is buried in Cesenatico.

In 2004, to honour Pantani's memory, the time trial stage of Alpe d'Huez was dedicated to his memory.

Giro d'Italia's organizers decided to dedicate every year a mountain pass to Pantani's memory. In 2004, the first Cima Pantani was Passo del Mortirolo, a terrible mountain pass that played a key role in Pantani's history: it was inserted for the first time in the Giro in 1994 when Pantani attacked on it leaving everyone behind, to finally earn one of his best victories at Aprica; in 1999 Mortirolo waited for Pantani in vain since he was excluded from that Giro before the beginning of the stage.

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