Storm clouds loomed in Grenoble on Monday, July 27. And for once, on this Tour, they were literal rather than metaphorical. They hung low in the valley, obscuring the mountains. It was gloomy and bitterly cold—53°F in the valley, 39°F at the summits of the four mountains on the itinerary: the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier, and Les Deux Alpes. Hard enough without the cold and the rain.
It was the first of three days in the Alps, the second and final summit finish of this Tour. Marco Pantani’s last chance. Il Pirata was still a distant fourth, three minutes behind Jan Ullrich, with Laurent Jalabert and Bobby Julich equal second, just over a minute down. But today would not be Pantani’s day, as far as Julich was concerned—it would be his. “I had a battle plan. I definitely looked on that day as my opportunity. I was so close to that jersey for two weeks and never got to touch it. This was the day I thought I had it.”
It was miserable in Grenoble and would be treacherous in the mountains. The riders were reluctant to leave the team buses, and when they appeared they wore arm warmers, rain jackets, and gloves, with more layers stuffed in pockets. In a subdued mood, they got under way, Rodolfo Massi leading over the top of the Croix de Fer after 30 km of climbing. By now conditions were deteriorating. The temperature plummeted and the rain turned to hail as they climbed toward 2,000 m (6,500 feet). And there was a crash, Daniele Nardello tumbling off the road, taking Pantani down with him—but he was quickly back up. Julich tried to use the climb as a launch pad for a long-range attack, believing that it was worth a tentative jab. Ullrich and his team might not regard him as a serious rival, and let him go. But Ullrich seemed nervous; at his instruction, his Telekom teammates brought Julich back. When Julich was caught, his Cofidis teammate Christophe Rinero countered. He got away and was joined by Massi, Marcos-Antonio Serrano, and José María Jiménez.
Behind, Ullrich’s Telekom team rode hard to control the race in the valley between the Croix de Fer and the Télégraphe, which acted as a first step to the monstrous Galibier. When the road began to climb again, Luc Leblanc became aggressive. And Ullrich seemed worried, reacting to his accelerations with nervous urgency. It was ominous. The final climb was still to come, yet here was the yellow jersey riding hard to chase down the 31-year-old former world champion, whose best days were behind him.
Clearly Ullrich was anxious. He was also now isolated, his teammates having paid for their riding in the valley.
As Ullrich chased down Leblanc, Julich came up more steadily, followed by Pantani and the rest. There was a regrouping; eight riders bunched together, as though for shelter. It was a brief lull. The next to dart off the front was the Spaniard Fernando Escartín. No reaction; the Ullrich group was still catching its breath after Leblanc’s attack. They fanned across the road as more riders came up from behind to swell their numbers, including reinforcements for Ullrich and Julich in Bjarne Riis and Kevin Livingston.
The climb eased. “It was almost a false flat, but definitely still climbing—a bit of respite,” says Julich. “And I remember Kevin, once he came back up to the group, going straight to the front. He started to go hard; instead of smoothly bringing it up, he kind of attacked. And I yelled at him, ‘Slow down!’ And he looked back at me; he was in full race mode. He was kind of pissed at me.”
Leblanc went again, pressing hard on the front, stringing it out. Ullrich marked the move; Pantani tucked in behind. It was as close as Pantani had been to the front; he had been riding unusually conservatively until now.
Then he goes. With the muck and grime from the road clinging to his pale Mercatone Uno team clothing, Pantani looks like a little chimney sweep, with his goatee beard, a bandanna knotted at the back of his head, and a small diamond-encrusted gold hoop in his ear. It was a carefully cultivated look, a disguise, a mask, amounting to an effort by Pantani to overcome years of self-consciousness about his appearance. His hair had started falling out when he was 15 and he was conspicuously bald by his early twenties. His ears also stuck out, inspiring unkind nicknames, including “Elephantino.” Eventually, he would resort to surgery and have his ears pinned back. But for now the bandanna did the job.
He has this... smile on his face. I’ll never forget it.
Implausibly, on this gloomiest of days, Il Pirata is wearing dark glasses with yellow frames, matching the flashes of yellow on his Bianchi bike and clothing, and his all-yellow shoes and tires.
“He makes this jump,” says Julich. “It’s, like, come on! What? Here I am telling my teammate to slow down and he just blasts past. He goes about 15 pedal strokes and then he turns around and looks back and he has this… smile on his face. I’ll never forget it. This smile. And I thought, now he’s going to slow up.”
Julich was wrong. Out of the saddle, hands on the drops, Pantani, having watched Ullrich use his strength to chase down Leblanc, sprints hard.
He would use a single bullet, not a scatter gun: one devastating acceleration rather than a flurry of attacks. Eight seconds later he glanced back while still pedaling. Two seconds later he paused, freewheeled, stood on the pedals, twisted his body to the right, angling his head back down the road—a long, lingering glance. He wasn’t slowing down. He was surveying the wreckage. No wonder he was smiling.
Luc Leblanc tried to go after him. He almost made it. But there was no catching Pantani. Once on his own, Il Pirata removed his dark glasses and rolled down his arm warmers. He was going to work. The loose ends of his bandanna flapped at the back of his head as he sprinted up the climb, hands in the hooks of the handlebars. There were 5.5 km to the top of the 2,645-meter Galibier. “Up there, I could see the weather setting in,” says Julich, “and I thought, this is going to be nuts.”
Even in mild weather, the Galibier was fearsome. Jaksche had been given some advice by his team leader, Leblanc. “Luc helped me a lot,” says Jaksche, “and on the Galibier I came up to that front group before Pantani took off. Luc said, ‘Never look to the left or the right; just look at the road.’ I said, ‘Why?’ Then I looked. ‘Ah, I see.’”
The five riders ahead of Pantani—Escartín on his own, and ahead of him the four-man break of Rinero, Massi, Serrano, and Jiménez—were his prey. Their labored efforts reflected the dismal conditions while Pontoon’s defied them. Rain spattered the lens of the TV camera, distorting the image, turning the road slick and black, but Pantani appeared to be gliding up it. Behind, meanwhile, Ullrich sat at the front and looked around for help. Julich pulled alongside but offered none. Up front, Pantani caught and passed Escartín. Then Ullrich’s team car accelerated to the front of the chasing group, warning the rider in yellow not to do too much work; there was still a long way to go, and the cold sapped strength and energy as effectively as the gradient.
Ahead, Pantani went through the breakaway like a hot knife through butter. Jiménez, the handsome and enigmatic Spanish climber known as “El Chava,” clung to his rear wheel. The image of this pair together on the upper slopes of this rain-lashed mountain is poignant because, these days, they are often mentioned in the same breath, as tragic icons of the destructive power of drugs. Like Pantani, Jiménez would enter a downward spiral of despair and depression. He died two months before Pantani, in December 2003. He was 32, Pantani 34.
Toward the summit of the Galibier, Jiménez was dropped by Pantani, who then caught Rinero. Then El Chava got his second wind and sprinted back up to Pantani’s rear wheel, the effort visible in his heaving rib cage. But Pantani rose out of the saddle once more and crossed the summit of the Galibier alone, grabbing a rain jacket from one of his directeurs sportifs, Orlando Maini, who had jumped out of the car and was waiting for him. He tried to put it on, on the move, but couldn’t. He stopped, allowing Jiménez to pass him; they would team up again on the descent.
He looked absolutely frozen.
Julich crested the summit at the head of the chasing group, two minutes behind Pantani, knowing that the long descent would be more crucial than in normal conditions. “Climbing the Galibier in that lead group, we were all just kinda stuck in mud. There were none of us who could do anything. Pantani was gone. We were just chopping wood trying to get up that climb.
“But I knew the descent was going to be important. And from the limited experience I had, I knew I had to get my rain jacket on before we started the descent. I had my Gore-Tex jacket in my back pocket; I had gone back and got it from the team car on the Télégraphe, before we started on the Galibier. I remember thinking to myself, OK, Bobby, if you have to stop at the top to put on your rain jacket then do it; and zip it up, make sure it’s on.
“But I got caught up in the moment because guys were taking bottles and feeds, and we crested the top so quickly and you start the descent. So I thought, oh no, I’m not going to stop, I’ll get this on while I’m riding.” That was easier said than done; Julich’s hands were numb from the cold.
He couldn’t operate the zipper, nor could he react quickly when he realized he was heading too fast into the first hairpin bend. Ahead of him was a camper van. He careened off the road. “I almost ended up smashing into that camper van. I went round the front of it. I had my hands off the bars, and when I went to hit the brakes, in that weather the brake pads weren’t working very well.
“I had meant to stop anyway, so I thought, I’ll stop here and put it on. But then the guy who had the camper van, he jumped up and pushed me back on my bike before I was ready! I hadn’t got my jacket on; I was still trying to zip it up. That made me panic a bit. Once I got going, finally I got it zipped up, and then I remember catching the group and looking over at Jan.” Ullrich, almost alone among the overall contenders, opted not to put on a rain jacket. “He had these arm warmers on,” says Julich, “and this vest, and he had a bottle in his mouth; he was holding it with his teeth. I looked over at him and he looked absolutely frozen. I was freezing even with my jacket on. You couldn’t go round the turns because you were shaking so bad.”
Now, says Julich, it was no longer a bike race. It was a game of self-preservation. A game that Ullrich was evidently losing. His upper body was locked, rigid. His face was puffy. Huge bags began to appear under his eyes.
Jörg Jaksche recalls, “It was not really a race anymore. It was just about trying to survive.” He says that his countryman Ullrich suffered even more in the cold because—ironically, given the attention paid to his weight—he was so skinny. But Jaksche has another theory about why Ullrich struggled so badly that day. “It sounds silly, but the Italians didn’t have only Power Bars for race food. This is a crucial moment,” says Jaksche. “And Ullrich’s team, Telekom, they had all this technical race food—the Power Bars. But they are shit when it’s cold. You can’t eat them. They turn into bricks.
“On the Italian teams, we ate small paninis with marmalade or honey or Nutella. Not so sophisticated, maybe, but better in those conditions. And I think this is one reason why Jan had such a bad time.”
Pantani rode most of the descent with Jiménez, though El Chava struggled for much of it with his rain jacket, trying to close the zipper. Pantani urged him through as they plummeted together. Pantani drank from his bottle and ate his paninis from his pocket: coal on the fire for later. He slipped his dark glasses back on. Further down they were joined by some of the other survivors from the break: Serrano, Rinero, Massi, and also Escartín. Strength in numbers. They were companions for Pantani to the base of the final climb, to the ski station at Les Deux Alpes. The gap opened to three minutes; it made Pantani maillot jaune virtuel, the yellow jersey on the road.
I gave everything and risked everything.
Julich recalls, “When you get to the bottom, there’s a long valley with the tunnels before you get to Les Deux Alpes. By that time I started to get pretty warm; I had the jacket zipped up. And I was like, OK, it’s on, here’s the last climb, here we go. I was trying to get the guys to work but everyone was just frozen solid. I was with Jalabert in a little group at the base of the climb, and all of a sudden I saw him ripping off all his clothes, and I thought, I’m gonna do the same thing. It was like a garage sale at the bottom of that climb. Gloves, arm warmers, my Gore-Tex jacket, which had just saved my life. All on the side of the road.”
All except Ullrich, who had nothing to remove. Then, as if things couldn’t get worse for him, he punctured. He pulled to the right side of the road, stuck his hand in the air, and his team car pulled up behind him. He was alone. There were no teammates in his group. The timing was terrible. They were about to start climbing again. A similar thing had happened to Ullrich on the approach to Plateau de Beille, over a week earlier, and he had ridden hard to regain the group and move to its head—overdoing it, and paying for the effort later when Pantani rode away. Now, though, frozen to the core, teeth clamped shut to prevent shivering, it was impossible for him even to rejoin the group. He got back into the convoy of vehicles following Julich’s group, but couldn’t make contact. Later, he was joined by a couple of teammates, Bolts and Riis. But he struggled to stay with them. He ripped off the yellow vest he had put on as token resistance to the cold, throwing it angrily to the road, then tried to hold the wheels of his teammates. The camera zoomed in on him, showing his puffy face, the bulging bags under his eyes.
Julich didn’t know Ullrich had punctured. All he knew was that he had gone. Last he heard, Pantani was a couple of minutes up the road. Now the yellow jersey was his for the taking. “Right away, I went. At the foot of the climb. I knew the climb. We had done it in a recon camp before the Tour. I knew it wasn’t a very steep climb, that it was good for me. A minute later I took off my helmet, gave it to the motorcycle guy, the Mavic support motorbike. It’s funny, my dad always told me to wear my helmet. Then I was just going in full time trial mode, just hoping Jan didn’t come around me. I had no idea where he was.
“I was so cold, I could only push a massive gear. I couldn’t spin, couldn’t turn my legs fast, but it was just one of those times you felt mind over matter. Mentally, it was, come on, all the way to the line, all the way to the line.” Julich felt that he was closing the gap on Pantani—or rather, that he must be, because he was feeling so strong. He was more concerned with the whereabouts of Ullrich than Pantani. “I was thinking of Jan, because he was in yellow.
“No one passed me the entire climb, and I felt like I was going, really going. I dropped everyone apart from [Michael] Boogerd, who came across and stayed on my wheel. I was thinking, holy cow. And when I came across the line, I thought I’d taken the jersey. I assumed I’d taken the jersey.”
Pantani had dropped his companions as soon as the road began to rise.
They were blown away as he sprinted up the climb, hands on the drops, out of the saddle almost the entire way. Pantani appeared to flatten the gradient, going so fast into hairpins that he needed all the road. He reached the finish in five hours, 43 minutes, 45 seconds, sprinting all the way until just before the line, when he sat up, threw his head back, closed his eyes, and spread his arms. He had crucified his opponents. But watching it now, this glimpse of Pantani in his Jesus-on-the-Cross pose is chilling. It is the defining image of Pantani, the one that, a few short years later, would be on the cover of the posthumous biography, The Death of Marco Pantani.
“When I attacked, I gave everything and risked everything,” said Pantani after the stage. “It was incredibly hard. It’s terrible to think afterward about how much you suffer in an attack like that.”
He dedicated his win to Luciano Pezzi, his mentor, who had died, at age 77, just days before the Tour began in Dublin. The highlight of Pezzi’s relatively modest racing career was a stage win at the 1955 Tour de France. Like Pantani at Les Deux Alpes, his success had also come on the 15th stage.
Adapted from Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore with permission of VeloPress.