We celebrate all things Italian this week as the country begins to open its doors again after over two months in lockdown due to the coronavirus crisis. Businesses have been closed and bike races been canceled, we are celebrating Italy’s rich cycling heritage and culture in a series of special features this week. Today we go down memory lane with Mario Chiesa, a respected team rider and sports director, who dusts off some old photographs and recalls his friendship with climbing legend Marco Pantani.
There is something about the photographic snapshot that sets it apart from any other forms of picture taking. Often quickly composed, with the simple pretension of capturing a certain moment in time between family and friends, the photographic snapshot records such moments with a sincerity and authenticity that can be evasive of more polished and sophisticated forms of picture taking. And in a world where filters and retouching are the rule, there is something uniquely moving when viewing old snapshots.
As a bike racer, Italian Mario Chiesa only won three races. But in the 1990s he was considered one of the world’s best road captains. A central figure on the Carrera team, Chiesa shouldered the likes of team stars Claudio Chiappuci, Rolf Sorensen, and Stephen Roche. And he played a pivotal role in the formative years of a certain Marco Pantani. Like most Italians, Chiesa has spent the springtime in lockdown, as his country was one of the hardest hit by the Coronavirus crisis. But the time at home gave him the opportunity to look back at the images of his professional career. And for Chiesa, some of those that resonated most, were of he and Marco, when Pantani was just a young professional.
“We spent about five years all together I think, from 1992 when he turned professional until the team split in 1997,” Chiesa recalls. “I saw him come into the team as a stagiaire mid-way through the 1992 season. I think the first race we did was the Coppa Placci. But I really saw him develop into one of the world’s best.”
The Pantani that Chiesa knew was a young neo-professional who was just coming into his own, as a cyclist and an individual. And in the handful of images that Chiesa unearthed, a young Pantani appears reserved, rarely the center of attention. There is a certain fragility in these images of Pantani, a Pantani that had yet to shave his head, wear bandanas and earrings, a Pantani who was not yet known around the world as Il Pirata.
“When Marco first came to the team he was really timid, really quiet,” Chiesa recalls. “Perhaps he lacked a bit of confidence or just didn’t know how good he was in the professional ranks. And don’t forget, when he turned professional, Carrera was really one of the world’s best teams, with leaders like Claudio Chiappucci, Stephen Roche and Guido Bontempi, big riders with big personalities. Marco barely said anything. He just looked and listened. Sure he was a huge talent, but he was still finding his place.”
Pantani of course was one of the most celebrated neo-pros of his generation, after finishing third, second and first in the three previous editions of the Baby Giro. “He was just a natural-born climber,” Chiesa remembers. “And in all my years as a racer or team director, I can honestly say that I never saw anyone climb like Marco.”
Chiesa soon took Pantani under his wing. They often shared a room during the three-week grand tours like the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. And on several occasions they vacationed together. Looking over the snapshots Chiesa is reminded of two vacations they took to the Caribbean in the off-season. “We were invited by a French race organizer to come to Guadaloupe for a criterium, and we had time to hang out,” says Chiesa. “We did a lot of snorkeling together and I think that is when I realized just how much potential he had. I’ll never forget, but Marco could stay underwater for three minutes, even three and a half minutes! Marco just loved the water. He grew up in Cesenatico on the Adriatic Sea. He grew up in the water.”
Be it on vacation or at the races, Chiesa and Pantani spent countless hours in hotels. “Back then, there were barely any portable telephones or internet. So we would hang out a lot together. Today the riders are always on their phones, but back then, we talked,” Chiesa says.
It was in those hours together that Chiesa saw a side of Pantani that few others did. “Marco could be really timid, but once he was in the confidence of friends he could really break out. Anytime there was a game at the hotel, Marco would be there. He was always very competitive!” he says with a laugh. “Back then karaoké was really popular, and he just loved that. He would take the microphone and really sing and play it up. Once he gained confidence and had a better sense of who he was, he could really be the center of attention. He had a really strong personality.”
And in the races, Chiesa also saw Pantani transition from neo-pro to team leader. “I saw a real change in 1994. That year he won two stages in the Giro d’Italia and finished second in the Giro and third in the Tour de France. From that point he started saying ‘me’ more. ‘Me, I would like this,’ for example. He wasn’t arrogant, but he knew what he wanted. He wanted to have more responsibility on the team and have more support from the team, to have a group of riders really devoted to him. And I was one of those riders. I’ll never forget in the 1994 Tour on stage to Alpe d’Huez. We let a big break get up the road and that really frustrated me, so I just went to the front and started pulling because, well, I just felt that when you had a talent like Pantani, you didn’t waste a chance to win a stage like Alpe d’Huez. Just on the climb up to Alpe d’Huez alone, Pantani took over two minutes out of Miguel Indurain.”
“We rode most of 1995 together. And by then he had really gained confidence,” Chiesa continues. “He was the one that dictated the racing within the team. And sometimes we really had to improvise with him. We may have discussed a certain strategy in the race, but then Marco would just go on the attack. He would observe his adversaries a lot. And if he sensed that someone was struggling, well, he could just go on the attack at any moment. But we didn’t have race radios back then. We improvised a lot more.”
What Chiesa did not know at the time was that the 1995 season would essentially be their last together. At the end of the year, after finishing third in the world championships in Duitama, Colombia, Pantani suffered a career-threatening crash that saw him shatter his tibia (shin) and fibula. The accident cost him much of the 1996 season and then the Carrera team folded. And while Pantani went on to build the Mercatone-Uno team, Chiesa moved to the Asics team. And while they remained friends, they would never be teammates again.
But Chiesa still remembers Pantani’s formative years with fondness. “When I think back on Marco, two seemingly different things resonate the most over time. “When he was concentrated in a race or around a race, he was always so focused. But then, as soon as the season was over, he was completely changed. He just loved to have a good time. When he was in a race he wanted to be the best. And when he was singing kaorké he wanted to be the best!”