By VeloNews Interactive Wire Services, Copyright AFP 2001
Former Giro winner and mountains specialist Marco Pantani on Tuesday blamed flu for his lack of progress in the mountains stages of the Giro d’Italia where he has unceremoniously dropped out podium contention.
Pantani also opened his heart on his team’s exclusion from this year’s Tour de France, saying he would love to return to the showpiece event of international cycling next year, but he first explained why this year he failed to come into his own in the Italian mountains where he dropped to 17th place overall.
“I had flu,” the 1998 Giro d’Italia and Tour de France winner said on the only rest day of the three-week race. “For the past few days I felt it coming on. On the day of the Pordoi stage (Friday), I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t making any progress. But later on I was diagnosed with flu. Several riders in the (Mercatone Uno) team have contracted it and, as we practically live together, we passed it from one to the other.”
Pantani said that flu and his poor form had made him think about retiring from the race, a decision that has been avoided for the moment. However, for the man who many fans — including the fanatical Italian ‘tifosi’ — believe is the world’s best climber, this year’s Giro has been a huge disappointment.
“In Monday’s stage (Parma) I even thought about abandoning, but now I want to see if I make any improvement from here until the end of the Giro,” Pantani said. “I’ll know Wednesday if I can make my mark in the big Sant’Anna di Vinadio stage. I came here with the idea of winning. It’s difficult for me now to be on the other side of things, to see other riders battling for victory.
“Fortunately the tifosi are still there to support me. When I see how the other riders tackled the mountain stages I told myself that I could have been up there with them, not beat them but at least be with them.”
Pantani says he intends to make his return to next year’s Tour de France, from which he was excluded along with Mercatone Uno this year for what race director Jean-Marie Leblanc said was Pantani’s lack of fitness. But it is believed that Leblanc’s real reasoning was to edge out the old guard and bring in the younger generation.
A former cyclist and journalist with L’Equipe newspaper, Leblanc issued five and not the usual four wildcards because Tour organizers wanted to aid French cycling — the two French teams being BigMat-Auber 93 and La Francaise des Jeux — which has not welcomed home a winner of the Tour since Bernard Hinault won in 1985.
The hurt of exclusion, says Pantani, still stings. But the veteran Italian rider is determined to return to the “Grande Boucle” with renewed vitality with his Italian team next year.
“I would love to compete in the Tour de France, but I see little chance of that happening. I have little hope in the organizers changing their mind,” Pantani said. “For next year I would like to join a big team so that I don’t find myself in the same position again.”
Asked whether that meant he would still be with Mercatone Uno, Pantani said: “It won’t be my decision. In principle, when I join a team it means that I feel good in it. I would have great pleasure in continuing to work with them.”
Copyright AFP 2001