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Addio, Marco
By Staff
Date: 2/16/2004
Addio, Marco

By Charlie Melk

Tragically, as the 2004 season has finally sprung into action in earnest, we are faced with the loss of a figure very precious to our sport. However one may have felt about Marco Pantani during the peaks and valleys of his mercurial career, there is no doubt whatsoever that the death of this dynamic champion from Cesenatico, Italy, leaves a gap in understanding his struggles that can probably never be bridged. The finality of his time with us is difficult to fathom at the moment.

Rather than list Pantani’s accomplishments and travails both on and off the bike, we should look at what he meant to us personally. One could make too little of his 36 career victories, reasoning that many have had much greater success from a purely statistical viewpoint. One could make too much of his brilliant 1998 season, where he took the Giro-Tour double, reasoning that only the greatest of champions, like Coppi and Merckx, had ever accomplished this rare and distinguished feat before. One could bring up the fact that he was inconsistent just as often as the fact that when he was on his game he had no equal.

All three of these arguments hold some element of truth, but there was something Marco Pantani gave us that transcended results and records. He had that indefinable “something” that inspired millions all over the world. Because of this, he brought people into the sport who might never have even heard of professional cycling before.

His personal charisma elevated him beyond the rank and file of the peloton even more so than his, at times, inconceivable results. His courage on the bike lent itself to us vicariously, and we identified with this aspect of him as a projection of what we most sought to accomplish ourselves, but were unable to. Everybody loves a winner, especially one who defies the odds repeatedly, and Il Pirata became a living symbol of this defiant nature for cycling fans all over the world. But life can be very cruel, and sometimes there are mountains that can seem too steep to summit, even for a person who made a career of brilliantly conquering them.

The first time I remember seeing Marco Pantani in a race was the 1995 Tour de France. At the time I was getting sick and tired of the Miguel Indurain Era at the Tour de France—the race had become boring and predictable. Indurain was such a master of destroying the field in the time trials and holding his own in the mountains that he seemed unassailable . . . until a diminutive, unassuming, prematurely balding rider with big ears from the Carrera team dared to attack him repeatedly and to great effect.

I couldn’t believe my eyes—he made climbing the highest peaks against the best cyclists in the world look so uncommonly effortless—and watching the race on television with my friends, I remember how the energy of his performances at the Tour that year transfused us. A hero is someone who breaks new ground and opens up new possibilities for all of us, and after the ’95 Tour, where he won two stages in a ferociously attacking style, I believed in Marco Pantani.

Over the years, Marco went on to improve his ability against the clock, and he gained the complimentary consistency needed to win the grand tours, as his previous victory in the Baby Giro and high G.C. placings in the Giro and Tour suggested he might.

During this transformation of himself as a cyclist, his image was overhauled too. In a concerted effort to leave behind the annoying and insulting “Elephantino” moniker that he was saddled with by the Italian press, he shaved his head, grew a goatee, started wearing bandannas and earrings, and was promptly branded “Il Pirata.” Understanding the press’ need to create a caricature of him, Pantani took charge of his image himself and radiated a more powerful representation of his sporting self.

Just as this change in persona occurred, he also met with his greatest sporting accomplishments, winning the Giro-Tour double in the scandal-ridden season of 1998. He went head to head with Jan Ullrich and soundly beat the favored German into second—putting serious time into him in the mountains and, amazingly, holding his own in the time trials. This was to be the pinnacle of Marco’s career.

The troubles of 1999 had me questioning Pantani’s veracity. I didn’t know if I could trust the image of him that I had built up in my head. As fans, we can be very fickle. It is easy to confuse the person with the persona, and it is hard to tell what is going on behind the closed doors of a professional peloton brought under public scrutiny by the various drug scandals of 1998 and 1999. Heroes aren’t always created and destroyed directly by their actions; sometimes their fate is determined at a point much farther away from themselves than they would like it to be, and in this murky light of suspicion sometimes come confused perceptions. Be they false or true, they can, and do, take on the same power as truth, either damning or celebrating.

So in 1998 and 1999, when Lance Armstrong started rebuilding his own heroic legacy, I aligned myself with him immediately. I read the things that Pantani, who wasn’t invited to the Tour in 1999, said about him—and that, coupled with a confused distrust of his accused misdeeds, made me dislike him. I interpreted his words toward Lance, and Americans in general, as sour grapes, and my respect for him as a person diminished.

When they met during the Tour in 2000, I was disappointed that Lance couldn’t put Pantani away on Mt. Ventoux, and I was angered by Pantani’s spoiler, or as Lance called it, “Shit Starter,” attitude. Whereas I loved his attacking style versus Indurain, I was irrationally angry at him for his victories against Armstrong. When he abandoned the Tour soon after, I summarily labeled him an immature quitter. Looking back now, his and Armstrong’s conflict seems so cartoon-like—at that time, they truly brought out both the best and the worst in one another.

The feeling toward Pantani I built up during the 2000 Tour stayed with me over the years. Whenever I heard about another driving misadventure or another failed comeback, I insensitively chalked it up to Pantani merely flaking out again. Every report was met with another dismissive “I told you so” in the back of my head. Like so many others, I failed to take everything into account and I failed to give him credit where credit was due. It’s too easy to do that in life.

We become so desensitized by the apparent distance between our heroes and ourselves that we forget they are also human beings who feel the same pain we feel. And we also forget that their pain is magnified in direct proportion to the degree of their projected fame—not only by the media but also by we fans in our own hearts and minds. We assume that our heroes are beyond this type of pain, or worse, we selfishly fail to treat them as human beings who are capable of feeling pain at all. It is far too easy to use our heroes up and then throw them away. It is far too easy to build up our heroes and then revel in tearing them down.

It is often the case that we don’t appreciate what we have until it is gone—this seems to be a particularly pervasive, enduring, and unpleasant human characteristic—we always seem to learn too late. Sometimes it takes horrible events to clarify ones feelings, and sadly, this is the case in regards to my opinion of Marco Pantani.

Let’s not forget all of the extraordinary moments that this great champion gave us. Let’s not forget the debt of gratitude we owe him for his sacrifices, some of which we know of, but the lion’s share of which we probably have no idea whatsoever. We should honor the memory of his life by learning something from this great champion’s untimely death, and for me this lesson is best summed up by Claudio Chiappucci, who was Pantani’s friend and teammate on the Carrera team in the 1990’s:

"There's not a lot to say. Marco has gone away. The only thing that I don't like now is that his death will be sensationalized. A few hours ago, lots of people were pointing their fingers against him, but now everybody is saying he was a great cyclist. Pantani could have used more friends when he was alive."

Addio, Marco—for my part, I’m sorry, and I will miss you.

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