The Giro d’Italia arrives in Cesenatico this Thursday, a stage that is steeped in memories. Officially, it honors the 50th anniversary of the Grand Fondo Nove Colli, one of the world’s most celebrated gran fondos. And stage 12 of this year’s Giro follows the gran fondo route.
But the stage loops around this town, situated in the shadows of Venice on the Adriatic Sea, will also honor the town’s greatest hero, Marco Pantani, who like the fondo, would have turned 50 this year.
“You cannot say Cesenatico without saying Marco Pantani,” said Andrea Agostini, Pantani’s lifelong friend and longtime collaborator. “It’s going to be a very emotional day.”
Agostini is a familiar face in professional cycling. A longtime press officer, today he is the chief operating officer of UAE Team Emirates, in addition to being a member of the Cesenatico organizational committee for this year’s Giro stage. But while he will be a busy man on Thursday, memories of Pantani will never be far.
“The first time we met was actually in a fight when we were eight years old,” Agostini remembers with a smile while overlooking the Adriatic Sea. “But then we were best friends. We were blood. We were in the same school and we did the same afternoon ride for almost 15 years. My youth is just intrinsically linked [with] Marco. We did everything together. We discovered life together. From 10 until 22 [years], when I stopped racing myself, we were just always together.”
But even after Agostini stopped racing, the two remained close. And as Pantani moved up the professional ranks, he asked Agostini to be his spokesperson and press officer, long before such positions were commonplace in cycling. “Things changed a bit. Marco became Pantani. And our relationship became more professional. But even during his career, when we were alone in his room, or perhaps behind a podium after a victory, he was just Marco again. And that’s what I miss the most about him.”
Pantani, of course, was one of the most charismatic yet complicated figures in the sport. He fostered a certain aura of mystery and detachment, and he had a penchant for referring to himself in the third person. It fit perfectly with his acquired nickname “Il Pirata,” or ‘The Pirate’. But he had a unique rapport with his fans, who could predict his attacks by the color of bandana he wore on a given day. In addition, his explosive climbing style was so effortless and incisive that it calls to mind Mohammed Ali’s famous phrase, “Float like a butterfly. Sting like a bee.” While his career ended in tragedy, his legend is one of the most resonant in the sport, his fans remain deeply devoted to him.
But Agostini insists, “The Marco I knew was full of life. He was always smiling, always playing around. And he was always making a bet with friends. If we were in a sauna, it was who can stay in the sauna longest. If we were on the beach it was who is going to build the best sandcastle. If we were in a restaurant, it was who can eat the most pasta. And who would always win? Marco would win. And we saw that same competitiveness on the bike, with his ability to take big risks with long attacks. Marco never used a power monitor or even a computer on the bike. Sure, for sponsors he would put a computer on the bike, but he didn’t use it. He raced with feeling, instinct.”
And that’s what the fans loved.
Listening to Agostini, one senses that Pantani fostered a certain work-hard-play-hard mentality early on. “At every level we raced at, Marco was completely focused on cycling. But only until June. After that, we trained sometimes, but it was all about the beach, and the beach without a biker’s tan. On the beach, he just loved life. To be honest, we spent more time on the beach than on the bike. Marco just loved the beach, hanging out, playing games, whatever. Even after he became professional, after the Giro d’Italia, or later, after the Tour de France, he wanted to be on the beach.”
But while Agostini still swims in the sea of memories of their life together, he still struggles to come to terms with Pantani’s tragic demise. As his press officer, he was with Pantani on June 5, 1999, when, with the Maglia Rosa on his shoulders, he was expelled from the Giro after producing an adverse hematocrit level. It proved to be an abrupt beginning to Pantani’s decline, one that finished less than five years later, when he died of a cocaine overdose on February 14, 2004.
“He lost himself at a certain point,” Agostini says. “After June 5, 1999, something just broke that day. In the beginning, we tried to talk with him. But he didn’t want to listen to anyone.”
Their relationship quickly soured and the team management even not renewed him the contract at the end of the 1999 season. “The management of the team decided not renew the contract to everyone on the team that was close to him. And in the last three years of our life, we were separated. He took a road, a dangerous road, that nobody wanted to take with him.”
Agostini did see Pantani again, barely a month before he died. “I remember that day well. We got into a fight because he just wasn’t clear. He was in a bad way. And I remember saying to him, ‘You are going to complain about everybody else, but look at yourself first. Look at how you are.’ He was bad. And that day, I understood that he wasn’t going to live for long. He was completely lost.”
But as Agostini participates in the many activities around the much-anticipated stage through the back hills of Cenastico, he will not focus on Pantani’s troubled final years, but instead the countless memories he has of his friend Marco, riding around the same hills or hanging out on the beach.
And while he cherishes his time with Pantani, he is very much focused on professional today, especially with his UAE Emirates team. Once again this year, he found himself on the Champs-Elysées with a Tour de France winner. It was another deeply emotional day. And he cannot help but see a little bit of his friend Marco in Tadej Pogačar. “Tadej has that same instinct, that same ability to just go out and attack. Like Marco, he really races with balls.”