Gaul and Pantani
When Pantani attacked on the Galibier it seemed like a throwback to the days of Gaul on the Col du Luitel. A glimpse at the friendship between a Pirate and an Angel, their similarities, and who was the better rider?
Following his retirement from racing in 1965 Gaul soon withdrew to the Ardennes forests, living the life of the recluse. However, in 1989 when the Tour de France started in Luxembourg he emerged from his seclusion, remarried for a third time and started taking a passionate interest in cycling again.
He became the spiritual father and close friend of Marco Pantani. The Angel and the Pirate shared common racing experiences and became very close.
Charly Gaul saw Pantani for the first time in the 1994 Tour. Since emerging from his strange hermit existence Gaul was watching the race like any other roadside fan and as usual he had chosen to watch a mountain stage. He was electrified by Pantani’s performance and mentioned that he would like to meet him, and was astonished that the feeling was mutual.
On December 8th 1997 Gaul travelled to Italy to visit Pantani. A journalist asked him why he had not visited Italy for 35 years, in all sincerity Gaul answered, “Well, no one has invited me before.”
On that visit he made a prediction, “I admire him for his courage, one day he will win the Tour”, eight months later Pantani did indeed win the Tour de France.
On July 27, 1998, the mighty Galibier was a terrible place to be, cold, wind swept and rain washed. With five kilometres to go to the summit of the Galibier, several riders tried to break clear of the leading group, after an attack by Luc leBlanc, Pantani rose from his saddle and started his 50 kilomere rampage through the clouds and rain towards Les Deux Alpes. It was as if Charly Gaul’s famous climb up the Col du Luitel was being repeated on the TV, only this time in colour.
Gaul watched the stage, and said afterwards, "Thanks to him, I feel forty years younger."
It's thought that Charly Gaul last saw Pantani on stage 4 of the Giro d’Italia in Strasbourg 2002, and though Pantani was not in the best condition Gaul embraced his friend warmly and encouraged him.
The next time the Angel and the Pirate were linked together was in much more sorrowful circumstances, Gaul attended Pantani’s funeral in February 2004.
Gino Garoia, a family friend of Gaul remembered their time together “Charly was enchanted by Marco, he was thrilled by his exploits … and the curious thing is that when the two talked they realised they were the same height and weight and could have raced the same bicycle”. In fact Pantani was 1.72 m : 57 kg, Gaul slightly heavier 1,73 m : 64 kg.
Both riders had a similar style of climbing, when the road went up they came out of the saddle. Pino Cerami, who won Paris Roubaix in 1960 and raced against Gaul many times noticed the similarity between the two men. Talking to the Belgium Daily La Dernière Heure he said, “(Gaul climbed) with a smaller gear than everyone else, perched on his saddle a bit like Marco Pantani. He seemed to lack power, but in fact he was very strong. He climbed better than [Fausto] Coppi, who used a bigger gear and had to attack several times before getting clear.”
Both men had the small stature of pure climbers and a near perfect strength- to- weight ratio, small, slender and lightweight. Both men had the power to launch a devastating attack and, go again if their first effort had not proven fatal to their opponents. Both men preferred the small chain ring and used a high cadence with a smooth flow pedalling style that mesmerised TV audiences and, on occasion, the opposition.
As well as both being exceptional climbers and of similar physique, both shared common traits. Both men seemed almost fragile in appearance, and had morale which could swing from one extreme to the other, at times almost paranoid, yet with the ability to show an iron will against adversity. Both men were solitary, secret and shy; yet lived their sporting lives under the glare of spotlights and TV cameras.
Both riders became instantly recognisable to huge TV audiences, with their solo style of attacking giving them massive TV exposure. Both riders won races from seemingly impossible positions, Gaul coming back in both his Giro wins from behind and Pantani turning a 3 minute deficit into a 5’56’’ advantage in appalling conditions (just the sort that Gaul would have liked) on stage 15 of the 1998 Tour de France.
Both riders seemed to thrive when the conditions and odds were against them.
They were, in fact, a pair of paradoxes.
Similar Demons – for the love of a woman?
There is something about the mountains that will haunt those who dare to climb them quicker than anyone else. The tragedies start, and continue from the very dawn of cycling, René Pottier, René Vietto, José Maria Jimenez…
So no real surprise that both Gaul and Pantani found it difficult to adjust to the real world when they hung their bikes on the nail.
Pantani withdrew into an inner world torment of cocaine addiction which crushed the life from him. Gaul, disappeared into solitude in the Ardennes forests. The striking difference between the two men is that Gaul had chance to meet his true love, his third wife, who seemed to restore his faith in humanity.
A friend of Gaul’s remarked that after his marriage, “Charly once again had the face of an Angel”
So who was better?
With out a doubt Gaul.
In simple turns he won more races. Cycling Hall of Fame ranks Gaul at 23rd and Pantani at 46th in their excellent “All time Combined Overall rankings”.
Gaul as well as being an Angel on the Mountains was also very good against the clock.
That said, who would bet against a Pirate for an Angel on a cold snowy day in the mountains?