“Il Pirata, per sempre.” The Pirate, forever.

Visit Italy during this year’s Giro d’Italia and you’ll see those words painted on the asphalt or scrawled onto makeshift banners alongside the road. From the Dolomites to the Apennines, Italy’s passionate tifosi remain faithful to their fallen hero, Marco Pantani.

More than a decade after his tragic death, cycling’s self-styled “pirata,” who raced in a bandana and earrings in swashbuckling flair, lives on in the hearts and minds of Italian fans.

“I always remember how much he moved people,” says Giro d’Italia race director Mauro Vegni. “He was a big champion and very charismatic, but he was also deeply troubled. I was in a position where I could see both sides of his character.”

It is perhaps Pantani’s contradictions — the public hero versus the suffering, tortured private man — that fuels today’s adulation. By paying tribute to his memory, Italy’s rabid fans remember their hero, while turning a blind eye to his dreadful history with performance-enhancing drugs and his lonely, cocaine-fueled death. The strange cultural attachment stands in stark contrast to how other cycling nations view their disgraced heroes. No major American race has honored Lance Armstrong since his doping admission in 2012, for example. Jan Ulrich, who retired after his 2006 doping ban, only recently stepped back into the German cycling world after living in seclusion in Spain.

Pantani’s reputation, by contrast, is perhaps stronger today than it was a decade ago. Since Pantani’s death in 2004, the Giro race organization has paid homage to the fallen star with the “Montagne Pantani,” a climb singled out during each route where Pantani uncorked one of his famous exploits. It’s not the Giro’s highest point (that’s the Cima Coppi) or even the most decisive mountain, but rather a climb where Pantani struck a chord and delivered some magic. This year’s “Montagne Pantani” is located at the Santuario di Oropa, where Pantani made an incredible counter-attack in the 1999 Giro d’Italia after suffering a mechanical at the climb’s base. This was just days before his life-changing violation for an elevated hematocrit at Madonna di Campiglio.

That Giro homage was the first of what’s become a steady stream of books, CDs, and movies that have recounted and recalculated Pantani’s legacy, oftentimes downplaying his personal and professional flaws, and emphasizing his accomplishments and victories. In death, Pantani lives on as a hero in the collective memory of Italian fans and media. It’s a phenomenon that is, in many ways, uniquely Italian.

“His ears stuck out and he was bald, but he was the best rider in the world and the best mountain climber that has ever existed.”
– Alessandra de Stefano, RAI TV commentator

“He was impetuous, unpredictable, always able to do something magical,” Vegni continues. “My best memory was in 1999 at Oropa, when he had problems at the bottom, and passed half the peloton to win the stage. He was also fragile and not very talkative, and when he came back from his troubles, he was never the same.”

Many foreign observers only remember Pantani through the lens of his scandalous downfall. To the Italians, Pantani was bigger than life. In the 1990s, he reigned as one of Italy’s top sporting stars, eclipsing cycling to stand alongside skiing legend Alberto Tomba and soccer’s top players of the day. His rise from humble beginnings to a conquering hero of the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France mirrored a renewed confidence of a modern Italy. Fans still revel in his famous attacks on the Mortirolo or over the rainy Galibier to secure the 1998 yellow jersey. At his peak, there was even a hit pop song about him.

“Pantani represented so many things for so many people. He was the ugly duckling who became a god,” RAI TV commentator Alessandra de Stefano told CyclingNews.com in 2014, on the 10th anniversary of his death. “His ears stuck out and he was bald, but he was the best rider in the world and the best mountain climber that has ever existed.”

Pantani was undoubtedly one of cycling’s best climbers, but his public image rarely lined up with his true character. Pantani was at once arrogant and aloof, vulnerable and introverted, a rider who was capable of facing down Lance Armstrong, yet at the same time, incapable of handling the burden of fame and the eventual shame that came with doping allegations.

There is no question that Pantani was adored — legions of his fans wore and still wear his trademark pirate’s bandana — but he was never comfortable in the limelight, and promoted his pirate alter ego. Socially awkward, Pantani was a quiet, reclusive person forced to live a very public life. According to those close to him, he was never comfortable with his early hair loss (much more of a stigma 25 years ago than it is today) or protruding ears. Armstrong once chided his look during their infamous clash in the 2000 Tour de France, calling him “Elefantino” in a rest-day press conference after gifting him a stage victory at Mont Ventoux. Pantani was so self-conscious that he later underwent plastic surgery on his ears.

“Pantani suffered more because all of the scandal came out during his career, and Pantani struggled with that, and it could be said that it eventually destroyed him,” explains Matt Rendell, author of the acclaimed biography, The Death of Marco Pantani. “It didn’t happen that way for Armstrong. All of his scandal came out after he retired, after he became fabulously wealthy. Who paid the higher price? Pantani lost everything, including his life.”

Unlike his flamboyant compatriot Mario Cipollini, Pantani never sought the spotlight that followed him everywhere he went. He had the odd habit of referring to himself in the third person when conducting press conferences and interviews, as if he was somehow separating the public Pantani from the private Marco. He was often uncomfortable under the media glare and rarely spoke to journalists beyond required press obligations at races. This article’s author once interviewed Pantani at the Vuelta a Murcia in the 1990s, where the Italian refused to leave the team camper. The exchange was conducted through a screened window outside the team bus, with only the silhouette of Pantani’s shaved head and protruding ears as proof that it was really him doing the talking.

To fully understand Pantani’s hold over Italy’s collective imagination, you must remember how high he flew, and how hard he crashed back to earth. The image of Pantani being led away by the Italian carabinieri in 1999 was a humiliation he could never overcome. Pantani went from the absolute top — winning the rare Giro-Tour double in 1998 — to rock bottom when he tested for high hematocrit levels just days short of winning the 1999 Giro. That public disgrace eventually sent Pantani into a slow downward spiral that ended with his death alone in a hotel on Valentine’s Day, 2004 from an apparent cocaine-induced heart attack at age 34. His death roiled a nation. The headline the next morning in La Gazzetta dello Sport read, “Lost Hero, We Adored You.”

Pantani’s pain and inner torment was revealed in what some say was a suicide note scrawled on nine pages of his passport that was found next to his body. It read, in part, “I was humiliated for nothing and I was in the courts for four years. The sport of cycling paid and lost. I’m suffering with this letter,” Pantani wrote. “If I made mistakes, I’d like to know that there is proof, but when my sporting life and above all my private life was violated, I lost a lot. What is left? Just a lot of anger and sadness for the violence of the judicial system.”

In the more than 10 years since his death, the media have stoked the legend of Pantani the Pirate, not Marco the Man. A cynic would say that it’s in their collective interest. La Gazzetta dello Sport owns the Giro d’Italia race (as well as the TV rights), so Pantani “the legend” is still good for the bottom line via sales of newspapers, CDs, videos, and books.

As years go by, however, there is a growing disconnect between the facts surrounding Pantani’s life and death, and a mythology that has grown up around him. Rather than being seen as a drug-abuser, or as Rendell insists, someone who might have been suffering from depression, a new mythology is being born: Pantani was a victim, or even a martyr to dark, unseen forces. There are far-flung theories that Pantani was a fall guy for a corrupt sport, or even a victim of a murder plot organized by the Naples-based Camorra mafia that was going to lose millions of dollars if Pantani won the 1999 Giro.

There is overwhelming proof of Pantani’s link to doping throughout his career. Police documents, Olympic files, and other sources reveal habitual use and abuse of doping products, starting in his U23 days and continuing through the end of his racing career. He was later linked to the Operación Puerto blood-doping ring in 2006, and was pegged for EPO use in a review of samples from the 1998 Tour by the French Senate.

Despite this, there has been an unofficial campaign within Italy to dismiss and downplay this part of the story, and reaffirm and reconstitute the image of Pantani the hero. There is another parallel movement to award Pantani victory for the 1999 Giro, even though Pantani did not finish the race — something that even eventual winner Ivan Gotti agrees with, according to Italian media reports.

Provoked by the media and Pantani’s family, formal investigations into the aftermath of Pantani’s death have been re-opened. At his funeral, his mother Tonina reportedly shouted out, “They killed him!” Yet despite fresh inquiries, no significant evidence has emerged to counter the conclusion that his death in 2004 was fueled by a cocaine overdose. Lost in despair, Pantani locked himself inside a hotel room in Rimini. According to police reports, he bought up to 20 grams of cocaine, and was discovered dead in his bed after hotel employees realized he had not left his room in days.

These unsubstantiated stories persist in part because of what Rendell explains is a deep-seated hostility and mistrust of Italian institutions of government, police, and bureaucracy.

“People would ask, ‘Why not go after the corrupt politicians and officials, instead of targeting this small, vulnerable, sometimes tongue-tied cyclist?’” Rendell says. “There’s always been a deep-rooted affection for the bandit and the outlier in Italian culture, and that’s what Pantani represented to the larger public.”

Of course, Pantani the martyr is an easier character to forgive than if he were still alive today. There also seems to be something more complex about the Italian ethos: Is it more merciful than the sterner Anglo culture? Perhaps it’s part of the Catholic tradition of forgiveness working in concert with a sense of collective guilt among the media, the sport of cycling, and those close to Pantani at having witnessed his inevitable ruin.

“The Italians are far more educated and aware of cycling history and culture, so perhaps they are more forgiving,” Rendell says. “Italy is not consumed with this western ideal of Olympic purity. And there is deeply ingrained suspicion of power, so many view Pantani as a victim of a corrupt system.”

Throughout this Giro d’Italia, it will be the all-conquering, flamboyant yet tragic hero who will be remembered, celebrated, and, to a certain degree, exploited. Pantani’s life remains a cautionary tale of the dangers of excess; his exploits on the bike will live forever.

For Italians, Pantani strode tall among the pantheon of cycling gods. Only Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali loom as large.