Part 2: The Maestro
I’ve always been rather ambivalent about Marco Pantani. When he was racing, and I was watching on television, I cheered for him. But only because he was an attacking sort of rider, a pure climber, and his flamboyant style was a relief after the Indurain years. After his death, along with the rest of the cycling world, I began a long process of reassessing my feelings about him. He seemed to be someone who possessed tremendous emotional and psychological strength, alongside deep vulnerabilities, a combination that can be very attractive.
The cloud of suspicion of doping that has always hung over Pantani makes it hard for me to revere him as much as some. Though he never tested positive, the weight of allegations, inferences and connections makes one wonder how many of his famous victories were fuelled by chemicals. It’s the sad revising of one’s memories that longstanding cycling fans have got used to.
Pantani’s turbulent life came to a premature end on Valentine’s Day 2004, but the beginning of the end had come nearly five years earlier, at the 1999 Giro d’Italia. With the Giro-Tour double already on his palmares, Pantani was the favourite for the race, and didn’t disappoint. He dominated the mountain stages, taking four stages, and by the penultimate mountain stage to Madonna Di Campiglio, a ski resort in the Dolomites, Pantani had a lead of over five minutes. The next morning he was tested by the UCI and found to have a haemocrit level of 52%, above the permitted level of 50%. He was expelled from the Giro and the cycling world went into a kind of toxic shock. Thereafter began a long and painful cycle of depression, alcohol and cocaine abuse for Pantani, accompanied by a withdrawal from people that ultimately led to his lonely end.
A few days before Pantani’s world came crashing down at Madonna Di Campiglio, came one of his most memorable victories. The 15th stage from Racconigi to Oropa ended on an 11km climb. Pantani, in the maglia rosa, was well-positioned coming into the climb but then disaster – his chain jammed in his derailleur and he had to stop at the roadside. For an agonizingly long time he wrestled with his bike while the race disappeared up the road. Ivan Gotti, Laurent Jalabert and Roberto Heras went on the attack. Remounted, Pantani executed a controlled and calm chase, gradually picking off riders as the kilometres ticked by. With three kilometres to go Jalabert, who was after a stage win, looked round to see Il Pirata coming back to him, cheered on by wild tifosi.
Jalabert later said he knew then his fate was sealed, that Pantani was just too strong. The man from Cesena swept past Jalabert and won alone by 21 seconds.
And yet even in triumph there was something sad about Marco Pantani. He always sprinted right up to the finishing line, often neglected to put his hands in the air, and rarely smiled. The crowds loved him because he went through hell for their entertainment. At the Giro he showed frequently soared, momentarily escaping his demons, but we all know what comes after an ascent.