| Looking more relaxed, with his new look, Marco Pantani sets off in 2003 to face his destiny. The "Pirate" will attempt, yet again a comeback to the big league. Training in Mallorca, Panatani spoke with Juan Gutierrez of AS about his plans and gave his opinions on matters ranging from Denis Zanette's death to who he thinks the best climber is. This is his last year to prove to himself, that he can return to the top, where he was not so long ago, and from where he tumbled down to the bottom of a steep climb. But as a climber, he knows the road will be tough and the rewards, bigger than before.
Ciao Marco. How is it going for you in Mallorca?
Marco Pantani: Good. For me it's a year different to others. It has been six months since I raced and I thought about leaving cycling, but I was a bit nostalgic. I didn't accept to leave in this manner, so I decided to continue and now I have been training for two months. I have had several offers, but they were not convincing. At the end, Mercatone Uno will continue with a team, and David Boifava will be the manager.
Why do you insist in competing?
M.P: I think that after all these years, with all the problems in my life, I couldn't get out of cycling in this way. It was not right, because behind it all, there's lots of fatigue, and lots of sacrifice. I want to retire feeling like a sportsman and nothing else.
Do you feel you have the necessary mental strenght to continue racing?
M.P: Yes. Mentally I never reached the bottom. This last year has helped me alot, it made me grow , and now I look forward to go out training each morning.
In an interview I did (Juan Gutierrez) to you eleven months ago in Cordoba, at the Vuelta a Andalucia, you said that if you didn't go well during the last season, you would retire definetely.
M.P: I felt like last year I could do it right, but in reality, my head was not as strong as I thought. Physically I got to the Giro more or less in good shape, but the head was not balanced, because of all the mess with the lawyers, magistrates. All that influenced me.
Are you dissapointed not able to race next to Cipollini this year?
M.P: No. It was a good idea that Cipollini and I raced together in the same team, but Mercatone Uno thought his (Cipollini) team was not serious. It wasn't clear and there was no agreement, but Mario continues to be my friend.
You shaved your goatee. Why the change of look?
M.P: There are times in life where one needs to look for encouragement. I face a new life, with a new image.
In your next project, and for the third year in a row, you have spaniard Clavero with you. Why?
M.P: He is upright, strong and very loyal. He knows to be close when he's needed. With Clavero, I have a friend and a great teammate.
What objectives do you have this year?
M.P: My idea was to start strong, but it depends on the verdict from TAS about my sanction. Whatever it's decided, I will race the Giro. If I see myself strong there, then I'll go to the Tour and if not, then the beach.
Do you continue to think about challenging Armstrong in a high mountain stage of the Tour?
M.P: I don't think only about a stage. My objective is the Tour. I can win it....I think.
How is your current relationship with Armstrong?
M.P: It's the same. Meaning, there's not a relationship. Armstrong is in Olympus (ed.note: place where the Greek gods live according to mythology) and I'm Pantani.
Will Armstrong win his fifth Tour?
M.P: He will be the favorite, without a doubt, but anything can happen. This year I predict more difficulties for him.
The latest news in Italian cycling is the death of Denis Zanette, and there's an investigation. What do you think about this?
M.P: I'm very upset with Italy, because they are killing this kid twice. To attack the family this way is a very strong thing. They should have waited for the results of the autopsy, before talking.
It's an unpleasant matter...
M.P: Very unpleasant!. Zanette's dad also died of a heart attach at 47, his grandfather died of similar circumstances. I think it's too much pressure from the magistartes and the press for the family that is suffering. They are accusing him of things that he can't defend himself. With that attitude, I'm saddened to be italian.
You have also lived in many occasions with that pressure.
M.P: Yes. They are very sad situations.
Now that you are awaiting the decision from TAS about the insuline syringe that was found at a hotel during the 2001 Giro, what do you expect?
M.P: Justice. Only justice.
After a blank season, Jan Ullrich returns to competition with a new team. Armstrong has criticezed him for signing with Coast. What's your opinion?
M.P: Ullrich is a great champion that has had a tough year, but now he has regained his confindence. It will be hard not seeing him wearing the Telekom jersey, but he has taken his director, Rudy Pevenange, with him and he will race in a german team. I'm convinced, even with Coast, he will be very strong again.
Last year I asked you who was the best climber and you answered, Panatani. And now?
M.P: I hope to continue being the one.
Who's such a good climber in the peloton?
M.P: I don't see anyone, really. Within the young guys, I don't find anyone.
Would Roberto Heras be that exceptional climber if he didn't sign for USPS?
M.P: Roberto Heras is very strong in the mountains, without a doubt. But I saw it as wierd, that after winning the Vuelta a Espana, he decided to sign for USPS as a domestique for Armstrong, when the logical step would have been to look for a team to compete against the american.
By the way, who's the best spaniard in the big tours?
M.P: This....El Nino....Ahh, yes!, Oscar Sevilla. Out of all the spaniards, I think he is the best.