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Pantani pilgrimage to Cesenatico

Reflecting on the life and legend that was Marco Pantani.

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I underestimated Marco Pantani, I must admit. Pantani turned pro 30 years ago in 1992, the same year I moved to Europe to cover the sport of bicycle racing. As a reasonable amateur racer, I prided myself on estimating a rider’s true potential accurately. And very quickly, I saw Pantani as a pure climber who was immensely talented in the high mountains but limited in time trialing. Like Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes, Julio Jiménez and a long list of climbers before him, I predicted that Pantani would struggle to win the three-week grand tours.

In this I was not completely wrong. But I did underestimate the persona, the mysterious but magical figure that captured the hearts of thousands, whose legend has only grown since his death in 2004. As a young journalist, I perhaps lacked the historical perspective to understand that the most enduring cyclists built their reputation not only on their list of victories but in the way they raced and the connection they had with their fans. In this regard, Pantani goes down as one of the all-time greats.

In the years that followed the calculated, almost mechanical grand tour victories of Miguel Induráin, Pantani could turn the tables on the most dominant champions with long solo attacks in the mountains that called to mind legends like Fausto Coppi. Pantani’s irreverence for the established order of his day, be it Induráin, Ullrich or Armstrong, quickly endeared him to his fans, the tifosi in Italy and around the world. And while Pantani could often be evasive with the media, he always had a place for his fans, some of whom insisted they could estimate Il Pirata’s mood for attacking on a given day by the color bandana he wore.

I only met Pantani on two occasions really. The first was at the 1994 Tour de France, when as a stringer for VeloNews, I was looking for features on up-and-coming riders. Pantani, best young rider at that year’s Tour, was a perfect candidate. And when I noticed that his Carrera team was staying in the same hotel as me one night, I threw all protocol aside and knocked on his door after dinner in hopes of gaining an interview. The hallway was dark and when Pantani answered he was understandably confused. Politely, he refused my request for an interview on the spot. In my broken Italian I nevertheless insisted, and he agreed to meet with me at his hotel on the Monday morning after the Tour finished in Paris.

This time, I waited in the hotel lobby. And while he perhaps would have preferred to walk on by, when he saw me, he took the time to sit down for a short interview. I recount this anecdote not to hail my journalistic prowess, which was a blunder at best, but instead to highlight Pantani’s patience and graciousness despite my professional faux-pas. It was a telling moment, and one that helped me understand the enormous impact he had on his fans later.

Pantani’s career path would be volatile at best, marked by moments of brilliance, only too often followed by setbacks and long periods of mediocrity. And when he was expelled from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for failing a drug test (a too-high hematocrit level), his career started its long spiraling descent.

Like many. I remember where I was sitting when I learned of his death on Valentine’s Day in 2004. I happened to be on a ski weekend at Chamrousse in the French Alps—not far from where Pantani displaced Jan Ullrich from the Tour yellow jersey with a long, solo breakaway in 1998. Yet while Pantani’s death was tragic, it was somehow unsurprising as no news concerning him in his final year was good.

But I was unprepared for the renaissance to follow. At first, in the years after the ’98 Tour’s Festina doping scandal, Pantani seemed like just another 1990s athlete who’d built his career on drugs. And like so many fallen cyclists from those years, it was difficult for me to estimate their true value, let alone something as elusive as their legacy.

It took me years really to understand that while Pantani was greatly flawed he had also touched cycling fans around the world like few others. His exploits inspired many, but seemingly even more so; and his failings only endeared him more profoundly to his public. Sure, Pantani was exceptional, but he was also fragile. In that regard, he was simply human. And today, nearly two decades after his passing, he remains in some ways more popular than he was in life.

Aware that I misunderstood Pantani as a racer, two recent trips to his hometown of Cesenatico have allowed me to better understand his legacy. The first came in 2020 when the Giro d’Italia visited Cesenatico. And while the stage looped around the backcountry hills where he often trained, I visited the Spazio Pantani, a museum dedicated to him housed in an old train station on the edge of town.

Elaborately adorned with memorabilia, the 3,200 square foot Spazio Pantani displays bikes from his entire career. There is his very first racing bike, a Vicini, made by a local frame builder. Equipped with junior gearing, the seat is set extremely low as the bike was likely too big for the teenage Pantani. More memorable ones, like his exquisite blue-and-white Carrera to the Bianchi he used to win the 1998 Tour de France, are all on display—as is virtually every racing jersey he ever pinned a number on.

Elaborate volumes of newspaper clippings recount his sporting glories, while rare videos demonstrate the immensely talented amateur rider who simply rode away from his competition race after race, making it clear that, despite his troubled career, Pantani was one of the most gifted riders of his generation.

Then, this past winter, I was in the area once again. And when Italian pro Daniel Oss reminded me that Pantani’s tomb was also in Cesenatico, I knew another visit was needed. “It’s right off the main road,” Oss explained. “You can just walk right in.”

Getting up early on a December morning, I ventured over. And indeed, the cemetery was open and Pantani’s grave was easy to locate; it is even identified on Google Maps. Here, Pantani’s body rests in a large tomb with Famiglia Pantani written above the door. Inside is a simple white tombstone that’s inscribed with just Pantani’s name and dates of birth and death, while a bronze bust sits on top, surrounded by pictures and flowers.

Photos hanging on the wall highlight certain moments in his career, racing as an amateur or professional, as well as meeting the Pope. Other photographs lay atop the tombstone, gifts from friends and fans who had recently passed by. Most were small and carried personal meanings to those that left them. But then, Pantani was like that. He had a way of touching people, a gift that only belongs to some champions.

It was a quiet moment in the cemetery, void of any apparent visitors. A perfect moment to reflect once more on the life and legend that was Marco Pantani.

An American in France

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