Fifteen years ago the cyclist Marco Pantani left us, but his legend will never die
“Marco, why are you running so fast uphill?”
“To shorten my agony.”
The legend of Marco Pantani is contained in this reply to a journalist after a stage of the Tour de France. His life and his career raced too fast and too hard, and Marco decided to shorten them on Valentine’s Day 2004 inside a hotel room in Rimini, after falling into a violent depression and battling cocaine addiction. According to the offical judicial version, the Italian road cyclist died because of cocaine intoxication.
The life of Marco Pantani was a struggle between good and evil, between good luck and bad luck, so much so that his sports career was as brief as it was intense, and full of strange twists and turns. Nicknamed “Il Pirata” because of his iconic hoop earrings and bandana covering his shaved head, Marco Pantani made headlines within road cycling in 1994, when he was just 24 years old. In fact, he finished second position overall at the Giro D’Italia, winning the 14th and 15th stages, the first in Merano (South Tyrol) with an explosive first step downhill, the second in Aprica (Lombardy) climbing the Mortirolo Pass, a hill of 12 kilometers with some areas at a grade up to 18 percent. Here, after passing road cyclist giants like Miguel Indurain and Evgenij Berzin, the whole world started to question who Marco Pantani was, and how far he could go. A month later Marco made his debut in the Tour de France, the “queen” of the bycicle races, coming in third overall, where the legendary Miguel Indurain took first place, and Pantani won the white jersey as the best young rider in the race.
The first date with ill fate happened in 1995, while Marco Pantani was training for the upcoming Giro d’Italia: he was hit by a car, damaging his knee. Nevertheless he competed in the Tour de France, winning two challenging stages and finishing thirteenth in the overall classification. His knee seemed entirely recovered in the 1995 UCI Road World Championships in Colombia, where he got the bronze medal. But a few days later, Marco Pantani faced a new misfortune, when he was run over by an off-road vehicle that was driving the wrong way during the popular Italian Milano-Torino race. He seriously injured his left tibia and fibula, risking stopping his career at an early age. But Marco was stronger than his adversaries, and after just five months and five days he jumped back on his bycicle, ready for the definitive glory.
In 1997 Il Pirata left the Giro d’Italia due to a new accident caused by a cat crossing the street during one stage. But in the following Tour de France he was competitive and brilliant, ranking third overall and winning two stages at Alpe d’Huez and Morzine. His climb at Alpe d’Huez was something quite exciting, and to this day, he holds the record time in the history of the Tour de France: 37 minutes and 35 seconds.
In 1998, Marco Pantani wrote sports history and entered the Italians’ hearts: he triumphed both at the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, getting a prestigious “double” achievement, which has only ever been earned by seven cyclists. The only other Italian to earn this besides Il Pirata was the legandary Fausto Coppi in 1952. In the Giro d’Italia Pantani got the pink jersey after a hard stage in the Dolomites, with five stages left to go, and in the following days he duelled with the Russian Pavel Tonkov, and then won the race. In the Tour de France Il Pirata had a bad start, accumulating almost five minutes of delay from the race’s current leader Jan Ullrich within the first seven stages. But Marco, right where the Italian national soccer team was eliminated a few weeks before by the home team in the World Cup, planted the Italian flag in Paris, recovering that delay and figuratively writing an unforgettable page in the history of road cycling. He took the yellow jersey in the 15th stage when, under pounding rain, he attacked the ascent of Les Deux Alpes, leaving behind an incredulous Jan Urllrich by eight minutes. The last Italian Tour de France winner before Marco Pantani was Felice Gimondi in 1965.
Destiny awaited Il Pirata a year later, in 1999. He started the Giro d’Italia as the front-runner and, after taking the leader’s jersey, in the 15th stage on the ascent of Oropa (Piedmont), his bike chain fell off shortly before the finish line. Marco Pantani was passed by 52 riders but his reaction was incredible: he surpassed the contenders one by one, without turning back to look, and came in first. Nothing could stop his final victory, but six days later, at the second-to-last stage in Madonna di Campiglio, after a “health check,” they found excessive amounts of red blood cells in his blood. His hematocrit was 2 percent over the limit set by UCI and therefore he was expelled from the race. Marco Pantani had performed the same blood test the night before Madonna di Campiglio and the same afternoon after his disqualification: his red blood cell counts were normal, under the limit. This likely means that somebody, interested in Marco’s defeat, changed the test tubes, conspiring against him.
Marco Pantani would never get over that, not even until his death in 2004. Several assumptions and judicial investigantions have also been made over his story, even involving the famed gangster Renato Vallanzasca who wrote a letter to Pantani’s mom, arguing that the blood test was rigged by Italian organized crime linked to illegal bets. Some interceptions would confirm the involvement of the Camorra clan in Naples, the Secondigliano Alliance. Also, Marco’s suicide occured under suspicious circumstances: his mother claims that her son was killed by the same people interested in covering up some secrets that Marco knew. We will never know the truth, but one thing is for sure: Marco Pantani’s legend will never die, but those who killed him will.