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Peloton loses the eternal smile of Scarponi

I didn’t know Michele Scarponi personally, but every time I made contact with him working as a journalist, one thing always stayed with me: his smile.

Scarponi was always quick with a grin and a quip for the press corps, even when the questions always weren’t so savory. And though his rapid-fire Italian sometimes made it tricky to understand everything he was saying, there was no hiding Scarponi’s authentic joy of life.

The peloton lost one of its true characters Saturday morning in a tragic accident that reminds everyone of the dangers that every cyclist faces when they’re out on the open roads.

Italian media reported that a van struck Scarponi at an intersection during a training ride Saturday morning near his hometown of Filottrano in Italy’s Marche region. Emergency officials evacuated him by helicopter, but he died from trauma injuries while en route to a hospital. He was 37 years old, and leaves behind a wife and two twin sons.

Nicknamed “Scarpa,” the popular rider among his peers had just returned home overnight from the Tour of the Alps, where he won the opening stage in his first victory in nearly four years and finished fourth overall.

He posted a photo on his Twitter account Friday night, with his sons mounted on his back.

The sudden loss was too much for his friends and colleagues to accept.

“This is a tragedy too big to be written,” Astana officials wrote in a press release. “We left a great champion and a special guy, always smiling in every situation.”

It’s that grin, and joy of racing is what everyone will remember. Rain or shine, in victory or loss, Scarponi was always radiant.

This past week, the cycling world witnessed the best of Scarponi during the Tour of the Alps. He was ecstatic with what was his first victory in nearly four years when he won the opening stage, collapsing with tears of joy into the arms of his soigneurs and teammates.

He later dedicated the victory to his compatriots in his native Abruzzi region who have suffered through a string of devastating earthquakes. And he was the first to congratulate Geraint Thomas when the Sky rider attacked to take away the race leader’s from his shoulders for good. Scarponi had no pretensions, just good intentions.

A fifteen-year professional, Scarponi was a one-of-a-kind, and was known just as much for his hijinks and sense of humor off the bike as he was for his exploits in the peloton. According to Belgian pro Sep Vanmarcke, Scarponi would occasionally break out into song during a race. I never personally witnessed that, but I am sure every pro that did will remember it forever.

Scarponi lived the highs and lows that came with being a professional cyclist, but he never lost his contagious smile and sense of humor. Even when linked to the “Operación Puerto” doping scandal that blew up in 2006, he didn’t complain about being one of the few who actually ended up serving a ban (Scarponi was banned for 15 months), he simply asked that he didn’t get stuck with the label as a career-long doper.

After his ban, Scarponi got a lifeline from Gianni Savio, and paid back the favor by winning the 2009 Tirreno-Adriatico and, the following year, won a stage during the 2010 Giro d’Italia won by Ivan Basso (who also was entangled in the Puerto affair).

The next season, he was the only rider able to even stay close to Contador during the 2011 Giro, yet after the Spaniard was disqualified for his ongoing legal challenge for a clenbuterol positive during the 2010 Tour de France, Scarponi was declared the winner. Again, Scarponi revealed his class, and didn’t parade around like he was a big champion, but added discreetly that he would have liked to win the Giro in another manner.

Scarponi’s third act came when he joined the Astana outfit in 2014 and emerged as one of the peloton’s most effective workers. He provided key help in Vincenzo Nibali’s 2014 Tour de France as well as last year at the Giro. On Saturday, Nibali (who tried to bring Scarponi with him to Bahrain-Merida) said he was at a loss for words to express his sense of loss.

Scarponi’s accomplishments on the bike were often dwarfed by his bigger-than-life personality. He was simply a very funny guy. Like many, I was often in guffaws over Scarponi and his newfound feathered friend, Frankje the macaw. Scarponi posted several video clips of the blue-and-green macaw following along during his training rides near his home.

Last fall, I called him up to get the real story. In a 20-minute conversation that was pure Scarponi — full of laughs and energy, and all at full-speed — he explained that Frankje wasn’t his pet, but that of a neighbor in a nearby village who allowed the big macaw to fly freely from house to house. One morning, Scarponi pedaled past, he suddenly found himself the center of attention of the parrot, and he feared the big bird was going to attack him. Scarponi recounted how he eventually befriended the big bird, and would call out every time he pedaled past.

“I don’t know if Frankje thinks he’s a cyclist, or he thinks I’m a macaw,” Scarponi explained with a laugh. “Perhaps he thinks we belong to the same team, because the color of my Astana jersey is similar to his feathers!”

On one foggy morning, Scarponi recounted how he pedaled past and called out, but he spied Frankje watching from inside a window, unable to tag along for the ride, squawking in despair at missing out on the fun.

After Saturday’s tragic news, Frankje won’t be the only one  missing Scarponi.

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