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4. Marco Pantani

He was doping. He was artificially enhanced. He was not unique in that regard among his peers in the peloton. And though drugs may have coursed through his veins, nothing he could have taken would have created potential, flamboyance, and panache in the quantities that Pantani displayed.

At the 1994 Giro, as a neo-pro climbing specialist, he did what any 125-pound climbing specialist would hope to do on the world’s stage: he attacked with fury. He rode away from the pink jersey-clad Evgeni Berzin, Claudio Chiappucci, and the seemingly invincible Miguel Indurain, among others, to claim the first monster mountain stage that year. It was a just a hint of things to come.

The next and biggest mountain stage included the 48 hairpins of the Stelvio, the ultra-steep Mortirolo, and a final grind up Valico di San Cristina. It would be a seven-hour day in the saddle. Pantani would cruise from the Mortirolo all the way to the line. He clawed to second on GC, ahead of Indurain, and remained there through the finish in Milan.

At his first Tour, he claimed he was there “only for familiarity.” But you didn’t keep a mountain goat from champing at the bit. He attacked on the first big climb in the Pyrénées, nearly taking the stage; he was outdone by an on-form Indurain. So, he attacked the very next day, taking three minutes on the Spaniard. A few days later, L’Alpe d’Huez loomed, and Pantani pounced, taking even more time. It wasn’t until the next year, however, that “Il Pirata” took his first of eight career stage wins at the Tour.

Pantani was called a tragic hero, a genius even. He would win the Giro-Tour double in 1998. The following year, he was embroiled in EPO controversy. His audacity in the mountains from then on came in fits and spurts, but he never could return to the summit of the cycling world.

His climb to the top was swift; his death due to cocaine overdose in a hotel, alone, at 34, was even swifter. Photo: Patrick Kovarik | AFP