On February 15th 2004 my friend Drew and I rolled out on a solemn bike ride. We were sporting black armbands, strips of cotton cut from an old t-shirt — a shabby yet honest tribute. Our conversation came in fits and starts, interspersed by long moments of silent gloom. We were in shock, saddened and more than a little angry: the man of our shared sporting inspiration had died the previous day of a cocaine overdose.
The aforementioned Drew, my Breakaway travelling partner, had been inspired to get into cycling by Eurosport’s coverage of the 1998 Tour. He had never seen an athlete, in any sport, quite like Marco. It was the guts, the determination, the panache and the daring (attacking on the rain-soaked Galibier ascent, solo and so far from the finish). For Drew it was love at first sight. By the end of that summer he was riding around Edinburgh on a Mercatone Uno replica Bianchi, sporting the matching kit, bandanna and all.
To me, Marco was a breath of fresh air at the end of the Indurain era’s half-decade-long drag. There was no rumbling diesel-powered steady tempo (= dull); Marco was nimble, petrol-engined, fuel-injected unpredictabile (= exciting). He eschewed heart-rate monitors and the scientific approach, riding instead on instinct and feel. He was a climber and I had grown up admiring and mimicking climbers as most of my peers had footballers. Marco was an artist, mountain roads the canvasses for his brightest brushstrokes. I revered Laurent Fignon and Robert Millar. Pantani felt to me like a man made from a similar mould.
Many of the climbs we attempted in The Breakaway were those we had seen Pantani tackle (and defeat — if any man can defeat a mountain). I found huge meaning and motivation in the knowledge that I was riding roads upon which the Il Pirata legend had been created. For whatever reason (you’ll have to read the book) Drew’s reaction was less positive. During one low moment he near-gleefully declared that his former hero had been little more than a drug cheat who had killed himself with coke.
And there you have the two sides (or at least, the two most well-known) to Pantani’s story. He was a cycling god, the climber of his generation, perhaps the greatest ever, and, yes, he doped and took drugs. A breath of fresh air?
Ten years on from his death and fifteen from his Tour victory, and I prefer to remember the positive: those incendiary attacks, down in the drops, as if his right hand was gripped around a moto throttle. That ride on Ventoux, when he rose from being dropped to almost dropping Armstrong. The grinta, the defiance of his actions and words. He gave so much and had so much taken from him that surely everything else can be forgiven (if not forgotten)? That’s my desire for romance showing through.
Cycling fans have excused the misdemeanours of many famous riders — some of whom have never once uttered a word of confession or apology. Pantani isn’t privileged to be in a position to do either.
Perhaps one day I’ll have the joy of watching another cyclist like Marco, not for the tainted records, more for the attitude, the willful abandon. Imagine a skinny young climber taking on the robotic might of the Sky team (cue Nairo, Thibaut and Romain) and, now and again, winning. Until then imagining is all I have, that and remembering.
Want to know more about Marco? Check out the Pantani special edition Invent Podcast:
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