Marco Pantani was a legend; a climbing genius; an extraordinary and complicated character; a painfully shy and awkward individual whose extrovert riding style was inversely proportionate to his inability to relate to people; a doper; a cheat; and a victim.
In taking enough EPO to transform himself from an already gifted climber into a double Grand Tour winner during the late 1990s, Pantani’s moral compass was no more askew than a significant majority of the peloton. That his Tour de France win came during the infamous ‘Festina Tour’ — when the entire Festina team was thrown off the race when their soigneur was caught with doping products — only underlines how ethically bankrupt cycling had become.
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And Pantani paid the ultimate price for his sins. He spiralled into depression and drug addiction, and died a lonely and isolated death on Valentine’s Day 2004.
Pantani’s extreme personality was reflected in the dizzying highs of 1998, when he took the last Giro-Tour double. There is little doubt that he had chemical help in doing so — his haematocrit level was recorded at 60 per cent in 1995. But from a racing point of view, Pantani’s attacking, swashbuckling Grand Tour wins were a timely antidote to the Tours of the early ‘90s, when Miguel Indurain built a big lead early, then defended it. Pantani’s Giro and Tour were built by losing a shedload of time in the time trial, then attacking repeatedly in the mountains.Backing the underdog
Cycling fans rejoiced in Pantani’s Grand Tour wins, especially his dismantling of Germany’s Jan Ullrich in France. For once, the unpredictable attacking underdog was beating the conservative, defensive champion.
Pantani entered the Pyrenees at the Tour five minutes behind Ullrich. He chipped and chipped away at the lead, gaining time on both Pyrenean stages. Then he attacked in apocalyptic conditions on the Col du Galibier, gaining a couple of minutes by the summit. With a long shallow descent down the Col du Lautaret to the foot of Les Deux Alpes, Ullrich should have brought him back. Instead, Pantani gained time all the way to the finish, beating Ullrich by nine minutes.
Ullrich came back the next day by attacking on the Col de la Madeleine to win the stage, and won the final time trial at Le Creusot. And this was Pantani’s most eyebrow-raising performance of all. How could a tiny climber, who’d lost well over four minutes in the first time trial of the race, come third in the final test? Sadly, we now know the answer.
GRAND TOUR CLASSICS – 4 KEY STAGES
1) 1998 Giro d’Italia stage 17, Asiago-Selva Val Gardena
Pantani begins the day almost four minutes behind leader Alex Zülle. With a time trial on the penultimate stage, a discipline that favours Zülle, Pantani has three days in the mountains to put time into his rival. He attacks Zülle on the Marmolada climb, and the Swiss rider has no response. In a single day, Pantani gains 4-37, and goes into pink, by 30 seconds.
2) 1998 Giro d’Italia stage 19, Cavalese-Monte Campione
Pantani’s lead is cut to 27 seconds by Pavel Tonkov, before the final mountain stage. Pantani needs a bigger cushion, so he attacks Tonkov repeatedly on the final climb. Tonkov sticks to him like glue, but he falters at three kilometres to go. Pantani sees, and attacks hard, a final time. By the finish he is a further minute ahead of his rival, enough time to win the Giro.
3) 1998 Tour de France Stage 11, Luchon-Plateau de Beille
Pantani starts the second day in the Pyrenees almost five minutes behind the big race favourite, Jan Ullrich. When he attacks on the final climb to Plateau de Beille, and gains only 1-40 on Ullrich, it looks like he will have to be happy merely with some stage wins. But he now lurks only 3-01 back from the yellow jersey.
4) 1998 Tour de France Stage 15, Grenoble-Les Deux Alpes
Pantani’s best ever day on a bike happily coincides with Jan Ullrich’s worst one. He attacks on the Col du Galibier, then maintains the pressure on the climb up to Les Deux Alpes. Ullrich takes a battering in the terrible weather, and loses close to nine minutes by the finish. Pantani has overturned the Tour in a single day.
From the archives: Stage 17: Asiago-Selva Val Gardena
This was what the Italians call the tappone — the big stage. And in the final 50 kilometres, Italy’s favourite, Marco Pantani, duly delivered, putting in one of his finest mountain performances. He took the pink jersey for the first time as Alex Zülle finally wilted.
Pantani put the boot in on the Marmolada. On the one-in-10 slopes, Zülle had only Wladimir Belli at his side. 1996 Giro winner Pavel Tonkov was the first to move, and Pantani was quick to chase his wheel with eventual stage winner Giuseppe Guerini of Polti. But where was Zülle?
The Swiss was completely unable to answer, so Pantani went again, brushing off Tonkov as if he wasn’t there, and charging up the slopes with Guerini clinging on. Tonkov slipped further and further back, while Zülle simply rode at his own pace, with his desperate expression and wobbling head betraying his struggle.
After tackling the one-in-eight slopes through the snowdrifts at the summit, Pantani and Guerini were 3-08 ahead of Zülle. “I’ve never ridden up a climb like this before,” he admitted when he made it to the finish.
Later, Pantani said that he had saved his strength on the Marmolada to put the maximum amount of time into Tonkov and Zülle on the Sella.
He sprinted up the foot of the pass as if it were a railway bridge, then unshipped his chain as he flicked from the big ring to the little ring. His companions promptly attacked, and Pantani overtook them all again.
Only Guerini was able to hold his wheel, and he didn’t put in a single turn until the top of the pass.
On the descent, some intense conversation took place between Pantani and Guerini, and you did not need to be a mind-reader to see that it concerned who was going to take the stage win. Guerini duly sprinted up the final slope to the finish line, while Pantani cruised in, preparing to savour one of the high points of his career.