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Throwback Thursday: Marco Pantani and his place in history

Saint or sinner? Marco Pantani and his controversial legacy continue to resonate in professional racing.

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VeloNews editors Andrew Hood and James Startt have been covering European cycling since the 1990s. In this new weekly series, they will be dipping into the memory bank to explore some of the biggest names and most dramatic moments during the past few decades. This week, we look at the sometimes-tragic yet inspirational figure of Marco Pantani.

What was your standout moment during your coverage of Marco Pantani?

James Startt: As a photographer, certain riders inspire better images than others, and Pantani was definitely on the A-List in that category. Pantani was such an emotional rider, capable of digging so deep that he was literally screaming in pain. And when he got out of the saddle in the middle of a climb, he simply appeared to be sprinting.

I will never forget the stage on the Alpe d’Huez in 1997, the scene of his second triumph on this mythic mountain. I remember walking down the climb near the two-kilometer to go mark. There were no barriers yet in place and I positioned myself right by the entry sign of Alpe d’Huez. Italian fans had congregated here and at least one of the fans managed to get television reception and I, like a dozen others, huddled around his car as we watched the peloton climb up the 21 hairpin turns.

Needless to say, the Italians were hysterical once they realized that their hero was once again on the attack and soloing to victory. As Pantani approached, I crossed the road. Back in the day, cameras were not nearly as fast, so you really had to time your shot perfectly. I waited.

Working with a wide-angle lens, I knew that Pantani would be only four or five feet in front of me, and in such situations, it is easy to miscalculate and shoot too soon. I caught a glimpse of him and then the police escort opened the road, moments before he passed.

As he powered by, I crouched down and panned my camera, only shooting when his profile passed directly in front of me. But I got the shot I hoped for, with the Alpe d’Huez sign, the crazed fans, and, of course, Pantani doing what he did best.

Andrew Hood: As far as epic stages go, stage 15 in the 1998 Tour de France stands out as one of the most amazing I’ve ever covered.

Racing in absolutely horrific conditions, Pantani uncorked perhaps his most famous coup, with a long-range sortie over the Col du Galibier nearly 50km from the finish line. Pantani attacked through rain, cold, and wind to convert a three-minute deficit into a winning, six-minute advantage.

I remember waiting at the finish line at Les Deux-Alpes, where the emaciated and shivering riders came across the line in dribs and drabs of misery. Ullrich’s eyes were so swollen from the extreme effort it almost appeared as if someone had punched him in the face.

Pantani delivered the knockout blow in the most dramatic way possible and remains the last rider to achieve the Giro-Tour double in the same season. Ullrich never recovered, and never won another Tour. Neither did Pantani.

Do you have a personal story or anecdote from an interaction with Pantani?

Marco Pantani and Bobby Julich ride ahead of the Jan Ullrich in the 16th stage of the Tour de France on July 28, 1998.
Photo: Gero Breloer/Picture Alliance / Getty Images

Andrew: Back in the day, getting an interview with Pantani was akin to a private audience with the Pope. The Italian media hounded his every move, and every cycling journalist in the world wanted an exclusive.

Before the web and social media really took off, an interview still meant something, and I only managed to speak to him once. It came during the early days of his rivalry with Lance Armstrong, and it was arranged that I could get in a few words with him at an early-season race in Spain. The press officer said I could speak to him through the window of the old Mercatone Uno camper van while he dressed for the stage.

All I remember is seeing the silhouette of his shaved head, and the odd way he spoke about himself in the third person.

I asked Pantani about derisive comments Armstrong had made about him following the infamous clash on Mont Ventoux, when Armstrong “gifted” the stage to Pantani, and later called him “Elefantino” due to his ears. Though they were bitter enemies on the road, Pantani had nothing bad to say about the Texan, adding acidly that he preferred to let his legs do the talking.

James: I met Marco a couple of times, but I will never forget the first time. It was the 1994 Tour de France, his first, and one of mine as well, as I had just started stringing for VeloNews.

One night I found myself in his team hotel. While Pantani was very much considered one of the most promising riders of his generation, 1994 was his first Tour de France. He was not yet a mega-star, and as far as the English-speaking press went, there were not a ton of stories about him. So I decided to try my luck.

There were no press officers yet, so I simply went up to his hotel room and knocked on his door. Media access was certainly more generous back in the day, but I was not yet well versed in the protocol that did exist. And I was pushing the boundaries, to say the least. I only understood this when Marco opened the door and I saw his face, surprised, and even confused by my presence.

He politely declined my interview request at the moment but agreed to meet the morning after the finish in Paris at the Meridian Hotel where all of the teams stayed. I waited for him patiently that morning and when he came down, he kept his word, sitting down with me and patiently listening to my broken Italian. It was not my greatest interview, but it was a Marco moment I will never forget.

Pantani’s legacy is both tragic and controversial; how should today’s fans look back at his career?

James: Indeed Pantani’s career mirrored one of the most complex periods in the sport, and he himself was caught up in doping.

But the mark he left on the sport is simply undeniable. I am astounded by the passion he still inspires. And I was reminded again of it during the recent world championships where his name could be seen written on the roads around Imola. No doping scandal can erase that.

His uncalculated, attacking style was unique, as was the special relationship he had with his tifosi.

Reading the countless obituaries of soccer player Diego Maradona this month, I am floored by the similarities. Both Diego and Marco came from poor families and both were tragic yet brilliant players of their game. You cannot ignore their flaws, but it is difficult to ignore their genius as well.

Andrew: Like any rider in the EPO Era, Pantani’s palmarès will always carry an asterisk, even if he never officially failed a doping control (remember, there wasn’t an anti-doping control to test for EPO until 2000).

His exclusion from the 1999 Giro for high hematocrit levels, which strongly indicated the presence of the banned blood-booster EPO, sent him in a tailspin that eventually led to the tragic conclusion alone inside a shady Italian hotel room. Pantani arguably was the best climber of his generation, and he became a national hero for his daring attacks and dashing public image.

Yet he was an incredibly complex person, faced with difficult choices in a highly tainted era, whose demons eventually consumed him.

Some have lionized Pantani in death as a victim of a corrupt system, others chastise him as being a knowing participant in the doping culture. No matter through what lens that you consider his legacy, he is modern cycling’s most tragic figure,  a champion who soared to god-like heights yet paid the ultimate price for the sport’s collective sins.