Written by Colin O’Brien, an Irish cycling writer based in Rome and deeply embedded in the Italian pro-cycling scene, Giro d’Italia is the story of a race even more demanding and unpredictable than the Tour de France. Heroism, suffering, feuds and betrayals, tradition under threat from modernity, all play out against a landscape of extremes in this highly entertaining read.
In more recent times the story of the spectacularly gifted yet self-destructive Italian, Marco Pantani, has been described as ‘perhaps the greatest cycling story ever told’. Here you can read a little about this competitor who ‘thrilled the racing world in an era in which everyone in it was quietly ok with doping, until suddenly they weren’t’.
Extract from Chapter 13 of Giro d’Italia
Marco was almost back to his best, and his bronze at the World Championships that autumn convinced him that it was worth trying his luck at Italy’s final one-day events of the season, and he planned to ride the Milano–Torino on 18 October to fine-tune his form before the year’s last Monument, the Giro di Lombardia. He should have stayed home. Confusion between race officials and local police meant that a car was able to slip onto the race route on the Corso Chieri, in the suburb of Reaglie, just outside Turin. On the twisting, narrow road, there was no way for the driver or the riders to see one another in time, and when they met, Marco was flung skyward, along with Davide Dall’Olio and Francesco Secchiari. His Carrera bike was in pieces, but worse damage had been done to Pantani. There were breaks to his shin and in the ankle and knee of his left leg. Fragments of bone protruded from his calf. A difficult operation left him with an external splint holding his leg together, with five bolts screwed through his skin. It also left one leg seven millimetres shorter than the other, and cast huge doubts over the future of his career. The splint would stay in place until February 1996, and the scars, both physical and mental, remained for the rest of his life. It wasn’t enough that he had to fight his rivals and the mountains, now Marco was fighting his maimed body, too.
He was a different man when he returned to racing a year later. As a younger rider, his nickname had been L’Elefantino, the Little Elephant, because of his big ears. Understandably, he wasn’t a big fan. In 1997, however, his diamond earring, goatee, gaunt features and the bandana he wore to cover his bald head lent him another kind of appearance. That of a pirate. Il Pirata was a different rider: still capable of brilliance, but wounded, and wracked with self-doubt.
Another crash caused him to abandon the 80th edition of the Giro, but his immense talent finally delivered the following year. After taking the Maglia Rosa on the seventeenth stage, Marco looked in control, but his performance lacked the panache to which his fans had become accustomed. They didn’t have to wait long. Stage 19 was classic Pantani, a rabid assault on the race that left no doubts about what they were witnessing: this was history in the making. Alex Zulle, the two- time Vuelta a Espana champion who would later become mired in the Festina doping scandal at the 1998 Tour, had led the GC early on but was a spent force by the time the race reached its final week. Pantani’s other main rival, the Russian champion of the 1996 Giro, Pavel Tonkov, had won the day before on a short stage from Selva to the Passo di Pampeago in Trentino. He was better on the flat than Pantani, and could look forward to making time on the Italian in the penultimate day’s time trial. Once the Mapei rider limited his loses to Il Pirata in the high mountains, the Giro would be his.
If Marco wanted to keep his Maglia Rosa, he had to risk it all on that year’s final climb to Montecampione. But try as he might, he couldn’t shake the Russian all day. With less than three kilometres to go, it was the final roll of the dice for Pantani, who launched one of the most memorable and mesmerising attacks in recent cycling history. Marco tossed his bandana to the road, his signal that this was do or die. Next went the glasses, and his water bottles. He always told reporters that he did this in order to shed as much weight as possible, but there was a touch of theatre to it, too. And before his final eruption of defiant, expressive energy, he threw his diamond nose stud into the bushes. Later he’d say that he could feel the weight of it pulling him down, and that he’d had a vision of his late grandfather, urging him to get rid of everything he didn’t need. There was no way back from all this. His genius was always characterised by irrevocable gambit. Trying desperately to hold on, to survive Pantani’s onslaught, Tonkov looked like a beaten prizefighter, battered and blind, grasping for the ropes. If this had been boxing, the referee would have stopped it, but in the high Alps of Lombardy, the Russian found no respite. The gradient increased, and with it, Marco’s ferocity. He needed a statement win, and to take at least half a minute from Tonkov, who could still count on his superior ability in the TT to claw something back. By the summit, he had 57 seconds, and as he crossed the line, time seemed to slow down. He held his arms out, as if on a crucifix, with his exhausted expression and his closed eyes turned to the sky, in what is now one of the Giro’s most iconic images. This was Marco’s masterpiece, expressionistic and in vibrant colour. In the end, he even beat Tonkov in the TT. Superb form and imperious confidence would carry him to glory later that summer in the Tour, and it was as if Marco was riding the crest of a wave of endless possibility. And no-one could have known how soon that wave would break. Or how hard.
Though it seems wretchedly unfair, Pantani is probably most famous for what came after his outstanding Giro-Tour couplet. A career that should have delivered so much more joy disintegrated into sorrow and squalor and, eventually, death.
The 1999 Giro was all but decided when Marco’s life was thrown into turmoil. By the time the race reached Madonna di Campiglio, Pantani already had one eye on the Tour. His lead over Paolo Savoldelli was five minutes and 38 seconds – and had been growing by the day. By the morning of Saturday 5 June, however, that lead, and Marco’s life, had been undone. Tests after his victory on the previous stage had revealed a 52 per cent haematocrit level in a blood sample, 2 per cent more than the safe limit that he himself had helped the UCI set. He was removed from competition for safety reasons. It wasn’t a ban. It wasn’t even an indictment. But to Marco, it was a death blow. The two-week suspension would rob him of his second Giro title, but he was free to start the Tour’s prologue in Le Puy du Fou on 3 July. Marco chose not to.
What happened afterwards is the stuff of soap opera. Immediately after the news broke, Marco went to ground as a media storm threatened to consume him. Debates about clean sport aside, the final GC of the 81st Giro is laughable when you look at the riders allowed to continue. If he was dirty, he couldn’t have been any more grimy than those around him. The entire top 10 have since been caught up in doping scandals of one form or another; in fact, the start list was a who’s who of EPO users, for it was the debut Giro for a young Danilo Di Luca, Italy’s doper par excellence. His samples have since gone miss- ing. Other tests from the same race seemed to contradict the UCI’s findings at Madonna di Campiglio. Years later, a mafia enforcer turned informant claimed that the Camorra crime syndicate in Naples had rigged the whole thing as part of a betting scandal – something that sounds outlandish until you see how deeply they were able to affect other sports. A football betting scandal in 2012 was estimated to have made the crime syndicate more than €2 billion, according to Italian police, and in 2016, the Gazzetta revealed fresh allegations about wide- spread match-fixing in Serie B and the country’s lower leagues.
After that Giro, depression got the best of Pantani. There were truncated attempts at a return, but his heart was no longer in it. He felt that he’d been singled out, and as he succumbed to drug addiction, anger and self-pity snuffed out whatever fight was left in Cesenatico’s little pirate. Marco died a little less than five years later of an apparent overdose, after a cocaine- fuelled binge had left him all but unrecognisable and alone, in a grubby hotel room up the coast from his family and friends, in a dark corner of glittering Rimini. He was 34, and it was St Valentine’s Day.
Writing his obituary, the always eloquent Gianni Mura said: ‘Marco Pantani began to die that morning of ’99, on Madonna di Campiglio. He did not accept the positive, he did not accept anything of what happened to him. Many other riders, caught up in doping affairs, stopped and restarted. Not him. He, the King of the climbs, also specialised in the descents. Down into Hell, into the artificial paradises, into hiding from public opinion, journalists, judges. He became more and more isolated, his solo attacks became rarer. And every so often, in this or that newspaper, on this or that TV show, they’d cry out: Marco come back. They were right to appeal, because cycling without Pantani was, and is, a soup with absolutely no flavour. It’s a stage without a leading man, full of actors willing but unable to give a jolt to the heart of the public. Pantani was able to do that very well, it was his great specialty. Pantani on the climbs was the equivalent of an acrobat without a net. A ritual, with almost mystical rhythms. He was like a samurai. Leaving the others destroyed.’
This is an edited extract from Giro d’Italia: The story of the world’s most beautiful bike race by Colin O’Brien, published by Profile Books, RRP $39.99, on sale now.
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