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Remembering the Great Climber Pantani
 
By Staff
Date: 2/14/2004
Remembering the Great Climber Pantani
 

By Nick Bull

Unfortunately for people who have had problems in their life, they will be remembered for their low points and not the peaks. This seems to be the case with Marco Pantani, who was found dead in Italy yesterday. People will probably forget the brilliant climber, who won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in 1998. Nor will they remember his attacking style; he was truly a fantastic rider whose place amongst the great climbers of the cycling world should be secure.

Born in Cesena, Italy on January 13, 1970, Marco began cycling at an early age. From the beginning of his career his climbing potential was evident, and this put him in a good position to win several difficult races as an amateur. His best win before turning professional was taking the Overall Classification in the 1992 Baby Giro, the smaller version of the race in which he was to have many highs and lows in the future. This result showed off his talents in the mountains, and following the victory he was signed by the Carrera team.

It took Marco until 1994 to win his first race as a professional. He took the stage into Merano in that year's Giro, and he won again at Aprica (both stages were contested over hilly courses). Signs of development were shown to the World in 1995, where he won the legendary Alpe du Huez stage in the Tour de France, and in similar fashion to the Tour of Italy the year before, he won a second stage, this time at Guzet Niege. The year also saw Pantani coming third in the World Championship Road Race in Columbia; this was his best placing in this event.

However, things turned sour for the Pirate when he crashed during heavily on a descent in the Milan- Turin race, tangling with a car on the road. He suffered a compound fracture in his left leg, and lost the end of the 1995 and all of the 1996 season. During this period he endured a difficult rehabilitation, but was able to return to the bike in 1997, now with the Mercatone Uno team. Unfortunately, he crashed out of the race, but was in good form to that year's Tour de France.

On the stage up to the Alpe du Huez, I remember watching Marco pushing his pedals on the Bianchi bike of his. Climbing, many say, is the survival of the fittest, but on this certain day I saw an artform. His brilliant climbing style was in force again on the stage to Morzine, where he won his fourth stage of Le Tour.

Despite the promising first few months in 1999 in which he seemed to be eclipsing his previous season, 1998 was the Pirate’s peak. He was dominant in the mountains and, surprisingly, his Time Trialling had improved, this showing that, with hard training and a lot of effort, shorter riders can challenge their slightly taller and heavier counterparts in three-week Tours.

The ’98 Giro was an exciting race from very early on. The battle between Pantani and Festina’s Alex Zuelle was a joy to watch, although when the time gaps opened after what can only be called as dominance in the mountains, the overall victory seemed certain to go to the Italian. The tifosi knew it, and the image of them and their hero in the Dolomites is enduring. The only thing that can relatively close to it today is the Orange Hooligans, or Euskaltel Supporters, to put it mildly. Keeping with tradition, he took two stage wins in the race, but his best performances were against the clock, where he limited his losses. The springboard for success really stemmed from here.

Not content with winning just the Giro, Pantani and his team went to the 1998 Tour as a contender for the overall win, but this seemed unlikely as the previous year’s winner, Jan Ullrich, looked to be hungry for his second win in the race.

Disaster struck early on for “Il Pirata”- he lost several minutes on one of the stages in Ireland, and the chance for a victory now seemed to be remote. He was able to take nearly two minutes out of then overall leader Ullrich after the stage from Luchon to Plateau de Beille. The display in the baking sunshine was immense; noone came within 1m45 of him, but he was still three minutes behind the Maillot Jaune.

The weather conditions were a complete contrast on the 15th stage of the race: heavy showers and bitterly cold conditions hit the riders as the raced to the finish at Les Deux Alpes, passing over the Galibier and Telegraphe on the way.

It was on the Galibier that he attacked Ullrich. The German was visibly in trouble; he had little support and was uncomfortable. Pantani, whose lead ahead of the German on the road continued to gain, was awesome and looked strong and in control. The rain, it seemed, did not distract the Italian; the sight of him and his loyal bandana and earring in the rain as he rode along some of the hardest parts of the Tour’s course is one that never fails to enthrall me. By the end of the stage, he had put around 10 minutes into Ullrich, and lead by 3’53”. Bobby Julich was now in second place, Jan was in fourth.

The expected attacks from Ullrich came on the following day, a fairly difficult stage into Albertville. The German was crafty as he attacked the Italian whilst he was drinking, but once the pair were reunited shortly after, Ullrich could not remove Pantani from his wheel. He did beat the Pirate in the sprint, and now was in third place overall.

The only remaining obstacle for Pantani was the Time Trial, the penultimate stage. With a five minute gap over the second place man it seemed that the Italian would win the race with a large portion of his lead still intact. This was exactly what happened, thanks to a great effort by Pantani. He limited his losses on Ullrich (stage winner) to 2’35”, and won the race overall by 3 minutes and 21 seconds. In doing so he became the first Italian since Fausto Coppi (in 1952) to achieve the Giro-Tour double. Success also followed in a handful of post-Tour Criteriums.

He started of the 1999 Giro as favourite, and, after taking four stage wins and having a five and a half minute lead with two stages remaining, he looked certain to win the race again. He had been leading since Stage 8 of the race (the day he won his first stage in the 1999 Giro) and the additional wins at Oropa, Alpe de Pampeago and Madonna di Campaglio were, again, dominant displays by Pantani. To put it simply, he was untouchable in the mountains and, with Ullrich not riding, looked to be heading to another Tour de France win as well.

Then, disaster struck.

Pantani’s decline from Hero to Zero was far bigger than his rise to the top. Being kicked off the Giro for having a high haematocrit level was the first problem he had in his fall; he faced charges for sporting fraud for high Haematocrit levels in the 1999 Giro, although the case was dismissed on appeal after he received a three month suspended sentence. He was banned in 2002 for six months, the result of the Police raids in San Remo during the 2000 Giro, in which they found insulin traces in a syringe.

During this “downfall”, he did win two stages of the Tour de France, one of those at the Mont Ventoux in controversial circumstances. This sparked a war of words with Lance Armstrong, but this problem was, unlike many of the others he faced, sorted out before his tragic death.

Attempted comebacks in 2002 and 2003 were not successful, but he did manage to finish the 2003 Giro in 14th place. Not bad considering the recent past, but he was clearly a shade of his old self. The checking into a psychiatric clinic in June last year confirmed this. When he came out of the clinic he all but admitted his retirement, telling his fans that “Cycling is the last thing on my mind.” This was probably the case today, when he left this World in an apartment in Rimini.

There really is nothing more to say about Marco Pantani. The words “he was a brilliant climber” sum up my feelings about the Italian. However, like many people in this world, a bad event can lead to another, and this can result in a complete downfall from who you once were. Unfortunately, since 1999, Pantani’s life has been hit with controversy and problems, but, hopefully, people will remember Marco Pantani for the talents he gave to the sport we love.

In the interview in 2003 after checking out of the psychiatric clinic near Padova, he told the press that “You can forget about Pantani the athlete”. I doubt whether this will be the case following today’s sad event.

 
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