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VeloPress Book selection: Marco Pantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion

  • By VeloNews.com
  • Published Mar. 31, 2005

By VeloPress

At age 14, Marco rode his red Vicini racing bike to his very first victory.

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He lived the frenetic life of a celebrated sports icon. He died the solitarydeath of a drug-dependent depressive.

Marco Pantani’s ending faithfully reflected his star-crossed life andtimes. The quirky, pugnacious Italian climber was frequently alone at theend of punishing mountain stages in cycling’s greatest races, minutes aheadof the opposition. And he was alone again, tragically so, when he diedin the fifthstory room of a hotel called Le Rose in the afternoonof a somber St. Valentine’s Day in February 2004. Outside his window, lifestill bustled in the streets of Rimini, while waves continued to foam ontothe beach of this Adriatic resort.

Pantani was 34.

VeloNews.comis pleased to offer a selection from the recently published MarcoPantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion, which chronicles the highsand lows of Pantani’s life and cycling career. Over 60 black-and-whiteand color photographs throughout, 16-page photo section.


Chapter 2
The Kid from the Coast
On certain days in the winter, Cesenatico seems like a city of the Great White North. It’s so cold that you can feel comfortable only in a small bar with a cappuccino and a pastry. Snowflakes as big as butterflies can appear in the frozen and humid air.

It was on such a day that Marco Pantani, while walking along the portcanal, was trying to put together the pieces of his past as a kid fromthe coast. Now he was king of the mountains, an enigmatic paradox fromthat wonderful and contradictory region that is Romagna, an enigmatic miraclefrom that little seaside town that at Christmas seems like a big village,and on August 15, in the middle of the Italian holiday season, seems togrow eight times in size.

A renowned and wealthy champion, Pantani was the manifestation of acomplex personality. He was a man with a fierce desire to succeed, butwho was also shy in a tender and disarming way. There was something specialabout him, unique, something that made him a celebrity as well as a champion.

Pantani belonged to that category of people who make life an art form.Had he not possessed that curse of a talent on a bike, he could have beena superstar of rock ’n’ roll, the arts, or cuisine. He would have brought to any undertaking the quality that money can’t buy even over the Internet: charisma.

*
Marco is born on one of those cold winter days, January 13, 1970, in Bufalini de Cesena, just inland from Cesenatico. His father, Ferdinando, is a plumber. His typical Italian family—father, mother (Tonina), and two children (Laura and Marco)—live a dignified life, without luxuries. Papà is often away from home for work, and little Marco spends much of his time with Grandpa Sotero, who teaches him to recognize the subtleties in life and the secrets of the sea.

The family apartment on via dei Mille 3, between Boschetto and the beach,is too small to contain Marco’s energy. Though short, shabby, and frail,this boy from Cesenatico is a born leader. He’s the leader of the gangin Boschetto. When there’s a game or group event to organize, or when there’sa fight, Marco is always in the middle of things. School doesn’t interesthim. He’s smart enough to get by, but studies don’t figure into his lifestyle.

But sports do interest him, particularly soccer. Agile and quick, heplays on the right flank for Cesenatico. He doesn’t tolerate even the thoughtof sitting on the bench. But the squad is too large and the constant turnovermakes it too impersonal. So, as soon as the “gang of troublemakers” oershim an alternative, he doesn’t let it pass him by.

The alternative is called the Fausto Coppi School of Cycling. One dayMarco is passing by the Bar del Corso, headquarters of the cycling club,and sees that orange soda and pastries are being served. Inside are hiswildest friends: Battistini, Balsassare, Agostini, Budini, and Lombardi.Pantani has already ridden with these guys on a training ride toward Savignano.His friends had impeccable bikes, while he, the little guy, had his father’sbasic one. Marco was wearing himself out, but he didn’t give up. In theend, after the customary loop of about 50 kilometers, he was exhaustedbut happy.

Cycling is his sport, he decides. Pantani enters the Bar del Corso anddoesn’t need to be convinced; he already knows. Along with a white-and-bluecycling jersey, they lend him a silver Vicini bike, like the ones providedby the Italian Cycling Federation. Papà Paolo and Mamma Tonina needonly to buy cycling shoes in place of soccer cleats. Nicola Amaducci, thesoul of the Fausto Coppi School, welcomes him with open arms and puts himwith a compelling group of very young boys born in 1970.

Marco is seduced by bike racing, which little by little overshadowsall of his other interests. A year later he receives his very own Vicinibicycle as a gift—in bright red. It’s Grandpa Sotero’s idea. Of the 280,000-lire (roughly $200) price tag, he pays 160,000 of it. Papà Pantani covers the rest. Marco’s cycling experience is very different with the new red machine; he will never love another bike as intensely. After every training ride, he takes it into the house to wash it in the bathtub with soap and bigsponges.

Soon he’s racing with the novices. On April 22, 1984, he has his firstwin at a race in Case Missiroli near Cesena—a solo breakaway. The ballis rolling; several victories follow in rapid succession in Serravcalle,Pieve di Quinto, and Pieve di Noce.

In 1985, Pantani moves up to the junior category, still with the FaustoCoppi club, but he’s now in a group directed by Vittorio Savini, who willone day become president of Marco’s major fan club. Savini often recallsthe cockiness and lucidity of his pupil. In races with climbs, Marco iscommonly found at the back of the group. The direttore sportivo yells andcomplains, but Pantani then passes everyone and wins or is the first overthe summit. He does it that way on purpose. He enjoys feeling omnipotentin the mountains. He likes the fact that it is his exclusive domain ofconquest. But he does have a challenger who pushes him to the limits ofpain and beyond: himself.

Pantani tries to get a diploma. He registers at the Istituto Agrario,then switches to a three-year course in electronics. He postpones the lastyear of English classes and then doesn’t pass the make-up exam. He hasonly bike racing on his mind.

*
Marco joins the Rinascita Ravenna cycling squad to race with the amateursbefore moving to the Gaicobazzi di Nonantola, the most prestigious under-23team in Emilia-Romagna. There he finds Giuseppe Roncucci, the trainer Marcowill always remember as one who played a decisive role in taking his cyclingto the next level. Marco wins the mountain time trials up the Futa Passand the Piccolo Emilia. In 1990, at age 20, he finishes third at the amateurs’Giro d’Italia behind Wladimir Belli and Ivan Gotti. In the following year’sedition, he wins the stage at Agordo and finishes second overall behindFrancesco Casagrande. Marco also earns his first azure-blue Italian nationalteam jersey for the Settimana Bergamasca, a race that is won by a certainLance Armstrong.

Pantani’s hair was still thick when he won the amateurs’ Giro d’Italia at age 22.

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Beppe Martinelli, a talent scout for the Carrera pro team, is alreadyon Pantani’s trail. In 1992, Marco’s graduation to the pros is assuredwhen he finally wins the amateur Giro d’Italia by blowing the race apartin the Dolomites, thanks to stage wins at Cavalese and Alleghe. He returnsto Cesenatico the happiest man in the world. But he is told that GrandpaSotero is in the hospital: He will die the next day, and Marco loses asource of guidance in his emerging life.

The door to the pro peloton opens on August 5, 1992, at the Gran Premiodi Camaiore race. The kid from Cesenatico makes his debut in the Carrerateam jersey. He preferred it to other, more lucrative offers because it’sa team led by Italian star Claudio Chiappucci and one that enabled IrishmanStephen Roche to take victories at the Giro and Tour de France in 1987.So Carrera has an international flavor and qualifies for the grand tours.

Marco debuts with a solid 12th place at Camaiore in a race won by DavideCassani. A month later, he takes third place at the Gastone Nencini Memorialhill climb. He is adapting well to the new challenge. Marco starts hisfirst full pro season in 1993. In mid-May, he comes in fifth at the diicultGiro del Trentino and is ready to help his team leader, Chiappucci, challengethe Spaniard Miguel Induráin in his first Giro d’Italia. But Marcodevelops tendinitis, and he is forced to abandon with four stages leftwhen he finishes 18th in the general classification. Like anyone else inhis or her early years, he has to learn by experience.

In 1994 it is a different story. He takes fourth place at the Trentinoand then fourth at the Tour of Tuscany. Those performances confirm hissteady progress, but in the Giro that follows just afterward, two daysin the Dolomites, stages 14 and 15, turn Marco’s life upside down and proclaimthe birth of a new phenomenon.

The 24-year-old Pantani is supposed to be at Chiappucci’s side, butat a certain point he is given the green light by his sports director.Going into the 235-kilometer stage between Lienz in Austria and Meranoin the Italian Dolomites, over five mountain passes, Pantani is situated10th overall more than six minutes behind the race leader, Russia’s EvgueniBerzin. Little attention is paid to the small, balding rider on the Carrerateam when he takes off from the main group in search of a breakaway groupwho has been up the road for most of the long day.

Pantani overtakes all but one of the breakaways on the last climb, theMonte Giovo; then on the wet, slick descent, he catches up to and passesthe solo leader, Pascal Richard of Switzerland. Pantani wins the stageby 40 seconds over Gianni Bugno and Chiappucci, and moves up to sixth overall.It is Marco’s first victory as a professional. He doesn’t have much timeto pat himself on the back. The next day, there are another seven hoursin the saddle on a wet, cold stage when Giro race director Carmine Castellano’s menu includes the legendary Stelvio and Mortirolo passes.

For many the 12-kilometer, 10 percent Mortirolo is the mother of allclimbs. Pantani attacks right at its base, splitting the race apart. Berzin,in the maglia rosa, tries to respond, but falls back. Two-time defendingchampion Induráin resists with sheer grit. Bugno is dropped. Marcogrinds away through the switchbacks and continues his charge. He summitsalone and becomes the hero of the Mortirolo, devouring it in 43:53, a whopping2:07 faster than Franco Chioccioli’s hill-climb record of 1991.

Induráin, Belli, Chiappucci, and the Colombian Nelson Rodriguezcatch up to Marco on the descent. No problem. On the Santa Cristina, assoon as the route begins to climb again with some 15 percent pitches, Pantanibegins to torture his bike again. He opens a gap. At the finish in Apricahe is first, putting 2:52 on Chiappucci and 3:37 on Belli. Induráinarrives 3:30 behind, Berzin at 4:06, and Bugno and Pavel Tonkov at 5:50.Marco climbs to second place overall, on the heels of Berzin, another kidborn in 1970.

“On the summits, I could feel the breath of the fans, I could feel myhair stand on end,” Pantani says.

“Pantani, you’re a legend,” reads the headline on the front page ofthe Gazzetta dello Sport, paraphrasing the smash hit of the Italian popgroup 883. The legend of Marco Pantani is indeed born on the Mortirolo,the mountain that would await his arrival in pink in 1999, but then neversee him again. At the end of the 1994 Giro, he is second, one step on thepodium lower than Berzin and one above Induráin. Riding the waveof enthusiasm, the kid from Cesenatico goes to the Tour de France “to makelife hard for Miguel.”

The tall rider from Navarre is a man of few words but of great pride,and he has yet to swallow his Aprica defeat. That kid who attacked rightin front of him on the Mortirolo and then on the Santa Cristina needs tobe taught a lesson. At this time, Induráin is the king of the Tour,an enlightened monarch.

All he has to do is win the time trials and then keep his adversariesin check in the mountains. He systematically leaves the stage wins to his“friends.”

Like the day at Hautacam: on the mountain that rises above Lourdes,Pantani is the strongest, but Induráin clears the way for a Frenchman,Luc Leblanc, to win the stage. The Pirate finishes only third, 18 seconds back. In the Alps, Marco could have won at Val Thorens, but he crashes on a flat section of the Glandon climb and bangs his right knee. For a few very long moments, there is fear he will abandon. Injured and angry, Marco climbs back on his bike and catches up to the small group of leaders.

He again drops Induráin, but he’s not able to catch up to Rodriguezand Piotr Ugrumov, who had already broken away. Again, he finishes third,as he does on the podium on the Champs-Élysées in Paris,behind Induráin and Ugrumov.

Second at the Giro and third at the Tour, Italy has a new man for thestage races. National coach Alfredo Martini recruits Pantani onto the Italianteam for the world championships in Agrigento, but as an alternate—a bigdisappointment for someone who has always hated sitting on the bench. Pantanispends the winter of 1994–1995 cultivating his dreams, focusing above allon the Giro. But destiny sees otherwise…..


MarcoPantani: The Legend of a Tragic Champion, is available at VeloGear.com

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