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Part 5: Il Pirata

Herbie Sykes Tekst Herbie Sykes Gepubliceerd 05 May 2017

On the eve the 100th Giro d’Italia, Herbie Sykes takes us back in time to five decisive moments in the Giro’s rich history.

Aprica, 5 June 1994

Carmine Castellano, the new boss of the Giro, had his mind made up. Back in the day the race had been the equal of the Tour, and had even eclipsed it during the magical fifties. Then it had had more prize money, more prestige, more of just about everything. That was why the big stars had come, and why the world’s best had been breaking their necks to ride for Italian teams. Post-Merckx it had reverted to parochial Italian type. That had worked well with Francesco Moser and Beppe Saronni in their pomp, but those days had gone now. The race had been haemorrhaging audience share and sponsors, and Hein Verbruggen, the new broom at the UCI, had even suggested it be moved to September. That was plainly absurd, but from here on in things would be different. By hook or by crook the Giro, the greatest show on Earth, would make up the lost ground.

Castellano had persuaded Miguel Indurain to come in 1992, and that had been a bit of a coup. Indurain had been the reigning Tour de France winner, and he’d come to the Giro to win. He’d done that rather too easily (truth be told it had been not a little dull) but on balance his presence had been good for business.

You couldn’t actively dislike him, but the whole thing was just a bit, well… boring...

The Spaniard had enjoyed the Giro much more than the Vuelta. The Italian challenge hadn’t materialized, he hadn’t needed to go particularly deep, and he’d sealed the maglia rosa by thumping Bugno and Chiappucci at the time trial. He’d then won the Tour in metaphorical second gear, and replicated it all the following year. That, however, was where the problems had started…

Miguel was a sensational athlete, and everyone understood the theoretical value of his presence. He’d won four grand tours in succession, he was freakishly engineered physically, and he was a genuinely nice guy. That was kind of the point though, because time trials aside he never actually did anything, and he certainly never said anything. The two giri he’d won were consummate, but hardly riveting. You couldn’t actively dislike him, but the whole thing was just a bit, well… boring

Another three torpid weeks didn’t bear thinking about, but by the first Dolomite stage all seemed irredeemably lost. ‘Miguelon’, it transpired, was human after all but – horror of horrors – his tormentor was another foreigner. The Russian Evgeni Berzin was a terrific rider, but his talents merely confirmed the unpalatable truth. Bugno was passed it as a stage racer, and Chiappucci was never going to win the Giro d’Italia. The hosts’ cupboard had never seemed so bare.

And then, from nowhere, Italian cycling found its David.

He took the form of a skinny, big-eared, prematurely balding 24-year-old from the Adriatic seaboard. His name was Marco Pantani, and on the Saturday he attacked out of the GC group on the final climb. He caught the Swiss Pascal Richard, then shelled into Merano for a sensational win. It was a stupendous, inspirational ride but, it transpired, just the antipasto

And so the legend of Il Pirata was born…

The following afternoon he produced one of the most astonishing exploits in recent Giro history. First, in an attack worthy of the great climbers Coppi, Gaul and Fuente, he danced away on the terrible Mortirolo. Under orders from his DS he waited for Indurain on the descent, and the two of them rode bit-and-bit to the base of the final climb. There, on the Valico di Santa Cristina, Pantani turned up the wick. Both Indurain and Berzin capsized completely and by the finish in Aprica they (and everyone else) had cleaved upwards of three minutes. And so the legend of Il Pirata was born…

If the Mortirolo pyrotechnics were the end of the beginning of Marco Pantani, the 1995 Tour was the beginning of the end. A sublime performance there had the tifosi in raptures, but thereafter their idol’s life began to resemble a soap opera.

His duel with Pavel Tonkov at the 1998 Giro was wonderful sporting theatre, and the Tour de France win which followed almost defied belief. In achieving the double he became a genuine national hero but Pantani, for all his miraculous exploits in the mountains, ultimately had feet of clay. His expulsion from the 1999 Giro for elevated hematocrit presaged a shocking moral, spiritual and physical decline. Moreover, in the eyes of the Italian public he was cycling’s symbol, its standard-bearer, its everything. Thus his demise, and the perception that cycling was lousy with doping, pretty much decapitated the sport in his homeland.

Pantani – Image: Cor Vos