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Viva l’Italia! Phillipe Brunel on cycling’s one-of-a-kind, Marco Pantani

Part two of a conversation with the legendary French journalist on the last 40 years of the Giro d'Italia.

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Viva l’Italia! 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. And while the Giro d’Italia has been postponed, we will celebrate Italy’s rich cycling heritage and culture in a series of special features this week.

We continue our conversation with legendary French journalist Philippe Brunel as he looks back on 40 years of the Giro d’Italia.

RELATED: Philippe Brunel looks back on the Giro (part 1)

Brunel has long stood out as one of the best writers in cycling, combining a refined literary sense of description with a sharp journalistic eye for detail, history, and fact. He commands respect among both the journalists and cyclists, and he is nothing less than a towering figure in the sport.

Brunel has long been preparing to bring his career to a close, and this year he was planning to cover his final Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, two of his favorite races. While Brunel has spent his entire career with the French sports daily L’Equipe, he is a connoisseur of Italian cycling. But the COVID-19 crisis has suspended the international cycling calendar, and it is uncertain that Brunel will return to either race. It would be an unfitting end to a great career, to say the least, and somehow it is simply unimaginable.

VeloNews caught up with Brunel from his Paris apartment as the Frenchman looked back over his years covering the Giro, which was originally due to start on May 9th.

Brunel wrote the book The Life and Death of Marco Pantani. Photo: James Startt

VeloNews: Philippe, in part one of our conversation, you spoke a lot about historic champions like Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, and Gino Bartali. Who is the rider that has left the biggest impression on you in the Tour of Italy in the last 40 years?

Philippe Brunel:  Well, Hinault was huge, and he rode during a time where we didn’t question performance. We had confidence in the idea of a champion, but with doping we stopped using the term “champion” because we were no longer sure what it meant. There were so many false champions, not just in the Giro d’Italia, but in the sport. And that changed our working method. It really complicated the story we were writing.

VN: Did Hinault leave his mark on the Giro more than say Marco Pantani? He was one of the most complicated modern champions. Yet despite everything, you were a great admirer of Pantani. You followed him closely during his career and wrote the book The Life and Death of Marco Pantani.

PB: Pantani was enormous. Pantani reinstalled the myth of Fausto Coppi! And in a period where cycling was getting complicated, Pantani reinstalled the symbol of the long breakaway in the mountains. The sport of cycling is not always a team sport, and in its purest sense, it is a personal adventure. It is when we hit the mountains that the riders are alone. Teamwork doesn’t play as big of a role. And Pantani brought back this myth of Coppi and the idea that the champion is mythical. And like Coppi, Pantani was mysterious.

Coppi also doped don’t forget! When he was asked if he raced on mineral water he responded, “Are you crazy? I take ‘la bomba.’ And when asked what “la bomba” was he said simply, “It is something explosive. And I take it every day if needed.” The difference is that when Coppi said that, there were no controls, and hence, there was no sense of morality. But once the doping controls started, there was a different sense of morality.

In addition, Pantani reinstalled a dialogue with the people. He would wear a different colored bandana on some days depending on his mood. And the public knew that if he wore, for example, a yellow bandana, he was going to ride relaxed. But if he wore a black or dark blue bandana, they knew that he was going to attack. It was a way that he communicated with the public. And there were his earrings. People know that when he would unclip them and throw them on the ground in the mountains, that he was going to attack. The tifosi understood these gestures.

Pantani was very timid in some ways, but he reinvented a way to communicate with the public and that gave him a sort of mystic status. He had a personal rapport with the Italians and was just adored. I think today in Italy, he is as big as Coppi. Sure there were others at the same time. Mario Cipollini was a huge star in the Giro. But what really captured the imagination was this image of a rider alone in the mountains. And then of course there was the fact that he went on to win the Tour de France, where he dropped Jan Ullrich by eight minutes on one stage.

In addition, Pantani understood cycling history. He was a great fan of Charly Gaul [the Luxembourg climber who won the 1958 Tour de France as well as the Giro d’Italia in 1956 and 1959], and one day when he was a young professional, drove up to Luxembourg to find Gaul. And by doing so, he installed himself in history. It was a way of saying, I am of the same vein, the same race as you.

Like I said early, in cycling, the same story is written and rewritten, something that allows us to place riders from different generations in perspective.

VN: Well despite his own complicated history, you clearly held great admiration for Pantani.

PB: Oh for sure. Already, on a human level we were close in spirit. When he came to Paris we would go out, and I visited him at his home. And when he died, I wanted to write the book to defend his memory, which was so far removed from the image of a junkie who died in a hotel room.

VN: And the Pantani that you knew that the greater public did not necessarily see, who was he?

PB: Well you had to understand that he understood that he was part of a much bigger system and that above him were a set of enormous commercial interests. But Marco prided himself on being free, on being a free thinker. He always wanted to be free to say what he wanted and be who he was. He was always searching for a certain spirit of independence in a world that did not allow him to be independent.

There was a certain affinity between Pantani to the Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, who denounced the poisons of society. Pantani was like that. He spoke frankly. “Virenque is not a climber. Climbers attack at the hardest part of a climb,” he said. “Armstrong is not a cyclist,” he said. “He is the son of the man who went to the moon (i.e. referencing Neil Armstrong).” It was his way of saying, don’t take his performances at face value.

He was amazing to follow. He was immensely popular, but he would also tell you about the solitude of being a champion. That’s what I loved about Pantani. He was a free thinker and there was a certain poetry in what he said.