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Italy mourns Pantani

Italian cycling fans are mourning the death of the man whom many will consider the greatest Italian bike rider since the legendary Fausto Coppi, who alongside rival Gino Bartali ruled the peloton in the 1950s. However while Coppi died in mitigating circumstances after contracting a mystery illness in Africa, Marco Pantani's untimely death on Saturday, at the age of 34, may come as little surprise to many who followed the Tour de France and Giro d'Italia winner closely. Pantani began his professional career in 1995 after showing his climbing prowess by winning the 1992 “baby Giro,” a

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By Justin Davis-Copyright AFP2004

Before the fall: Pantani leads the '99 Giro

Before the fall: Pantani leads the ’99 Giro

Photo: AFP (file photo)

Italian cycling fans are mourning the death of the man whom many will consider the greatest Italian bike rider since the legendary Fausto Coppi, who alongside rival Gino Bartali ruled the peloton in the 1950s.

However while Coppi died in mitigating circumstances after contracting a mystery illness in Africa, Marco Pantani’s untimely death on Saturday, at the age of 34, may come as little surprise to many who followed the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia winner closely.

Pantani began his professional career in 1995 after showing his climbing prowess by winning the 1992 “baby Giro,” a national tour open only to riders under the age of 26.

Quickly, the flamboyant rider from Cesena became the toast of Italy’s tifosi, the enthusiastic fans that follow their idols along the routes of many of the world’s great bike races.

Pantani, the rider, had the perfect capacities for the world’s toughest races and it was his Tour and the Giro successes in 1998 which endeared him to fans.

Pantani the person, however, was often fragile – and his descent from fame to virtual anonymity in recent years did little for his ego and his mental state. His admission to a clinic for depression last summer was the first sign that things were going wrong. Pantani’s Giro and Tour double was the first by an Italian since Coppi became the first man to do it in 1949.

However Pantani’s victory in 1998 came amid trying times for the sport. Having won the Giro in June, the Italian led a weakened Tour de France field of just 96 riders into Paris as the race felt the full force of the Festina drug scandal.

In 1999, Pantani was only 36 hours away from claiming a second straight Maglia rosa when he was unceremoniously thrown off the Giro.

The Italian’s hematocrit (red blood cell) count – which race officials test for the possible use of EPO – was over the permitted level of 50 percent.

To many insiders his disqualification was justified. In 2000 he was charged by Italian authorities with sporting fraud in relation to the 1999 tests and hematocrit readings taken after a devastating crash in 1995.

As Pantani – backed by his fans – fought a public battle to clear his name, it was revealed that his hematocrit level had been recorded as high as 60.1 percent immediately after that leg-breaking crash in the 1995 edition of Milan-Turin.

Sidelined from major competition, Pantani missed the 1999 Tour de France, the year Lance Armstrong returned to the sport from a near fatal bout of cancer to win his first yellow jersey.

The Italian’s ego began to fray as Armstrong took hold of the race.

In 2000 Pantani returned to the Tour to win two stages – however Armstrong was only just beginning his domination of the race. It was at Courchevel, in 2000, that Pantani claimed his last major cycling victory.

Armstrong’s rise and Pantani’s downfall left the Italian feeling bitter, as he criticized the apparently arrogant American.

“I admired him before he was sick,” Pantani said of Armstrong referring to his fight with cancer and placing doubt on the American’s successes. “It’s amazing how easy he gets results. Really, by now I’m tired of believing in fairy tales.”

The comments created an unbridgeable rift between the two.

At the 2001 Giro Pantani faced more bad news after a syringe containing insulin was found in his room. For that he was banned for eight months in June 2002 by the Italian federation but he later won a successful appeal due to a lack of proof that the syringe belonged to him.

He was said to be “crushed” a year later when his team was not invited to the 2002 Tour de France.

After years of battling with the authorities and trying to get back to his former best, Pantani made an emotional comeback in the Settimana Coppi-Bartali race last March, then went on to finish 14th in the 2003 Giro.

However after his team was not invited to the centenary Tour de France last year, Pantani entered a clinic known to treat psychological and substance abuse problems.

Since ending his two-week stay the former cycling hero admitted he had virtually given up all hope of cycling competitively.

“You can forget about Pantani the athlete,” he said. “I still ride my bike, just to turn my legs, but cycling is the last thing on my mind. I haven’t been to the gym for months. I’ve gained 15 kilos (33 pounds) and I have the physique of a little bull.”
(Copyright AFP2004)


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