By Associated Press
Italian newspapers devoted their entire front pages Sunday to the sudden death of Marco Pantani and fans walked the streets of the cyclist’s hometown in a day of mourning for one of Italy’s biggest and most troubled sports stars, the Associated Press reported.
The Italian Cycling Federation instituted a moment of silence in every cycling event in Italy on Sunday as athletes and fans alike awoke to the news that one of the sport’s greatest climbers had died.
“This is terrible and shocking news,” said five-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong. “My thoughts and condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans. Regardless of our battles on/off the bike, I had a deep respect for Marco. Cycling has indeed lost a great champion and a great personality.”
The Gazzetta dello Sport ran a banner headline reading “He’s gone” across its front-page. The country’s most respected sports newspaper is the organizer of the Giro d’Italia race that Pantani won in his magical 1998 season, when he also captured the Tour de France.
Former Gazzetta editor Candido Cannavo entitled his front-page editorial, “Lost hero: we adored you.”
Dragged down by doping accusations in recent seasons, the 34-year-old Pantani was found dead late Saturday in an apartment-hotel in the seaside resort of Rimini where he had been staying for a few days.
Known as the “pirate” for the trademark bandanna covering his bald head and the earring he wore, Pantani’s popularity here rivaled that of the country’s biggest soccer stars.
In his Gazzetta piece, Cannavo said Pantani had harmed his own career over the years.
“He killed himself before the news of his death,” Cannavo wrote, comparing the tragedy to two of the other saddest days in the history of Italian sports: the deadly crash of a plane carrying the entire Torino soccer club in 1949 and the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, when rampaging Liverpool fans were held responsible for the deaths of 39 Juventus fans.
Another sports daily, the Rome-based Corriere dello Sport, called the death “a tragedy that shocks cycling and the entire sports world.”
The mass-circulation Corriere della Sera ran a front-page editorial titled “The hero that wanted to beat himself.” La Repubblica, another mainstream daily, referred to “the champion that said ‘I win everything and I feel alone.”‘
TV stations devoted the first half of their Sunday afternoon newscasts to the story, running footage of his victories, interviews with fellow cyclists and fans and speculation about the possible cause of death.
Last summer, Pantani spent several weeks in a health clinic specializing in treatment for depression and drug addiction. Prosecutors say they are looking into whether medicines found in his hotel room might have played a role in the death.
In Pantani’s hometown of Cesenatico, fans filled the Bar del Corso and the Bar dei Pini, locales where they used to congregate to talk about the diminutive climber’s many mountain victories.
“It’s an extremely tough blow, nobody expected this tragic ending,” Arrigo Vanzolini, president of the local cycling club in which Pantani first rode, was quoted as saying by the ANSA news agency.
“We were all aware of his problems, but we hoped that he could finish with professionalism.”
Tour de France director Jean-Marie Leblanc told France Info radio that Pantani “marked the history of cycling by being the last great climber of the generations of climbers that we’ve known over the past ten years.”
Pantani’s death was also big news throughout the rest of Europe.
The RTBF TV network in cycling-crazy Belgium devoted more than 10 minutes to the story on its main lunchtime TV bulletin.
“He certainly made some errors … He fell in with a bad crowd, it’s very sad,” said Belgian cycling legend Eddy Merckx. “When the career is over, we can feel very alone. You’re left to your own devices.”