In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Ten Years Gone

In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Ten Years Gone

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I don’t know if its because I see something of myself in them or if it awakens some kind of nurturing instinct, but I always seem to find myself drawn to tragically flawed figures.

Layne Staley and Marco Pantani strike me as two halves of the same whole; incredibly talented yet tortured with mortally addictive personalities, both set loose into a world of over-indulgence. Everyone – including themselves – saw the writing on the wall in the months or even years leading up to their deaths, but everyone seemed helpless to stop the inevitable: a lonely death. To hear Staley sing is to watch Pantani climb; beauty is to witness an artist pouring their anguish into their trade.

I’ve been watching the 1998 Tour and Giro during my morning turbo sessions, and even with the lens through which we now view those rides, his talent was undeniable, but so was his fragile psyche. You can almost taste his self-doubt even as he flies up the mountains like a soaring eagle.

Today, St. Valentines Day, marks the tenth anniversary of Marco’s death, and with that we dive into the archives for a Kermis on Brett’s look at our fallen hero. See also a previous year’s Valentines Day Memorial.

May you go with Merckx, Marco.

It’s always a let down for a fan to realise his or her idol is not all that they were held up to be. And while I was somewhat a fan of Marco Pantani, it was neither a surprise nor a let-down to read about his troubled life, and his subsequent sad, lonely death.

It wasn’t a surprise, or a let-down, to read that possibly his whole career was fueled by a dependence on recombinant EPO, among other performance enhancers. I knew it while watching him win the Tour in 98, I knew it when I watched him vainly struggle to hold the wheel of a super-charged Armstrong in the 2000 Tour, and I knew it when I saw him valiantly try to re-capture his former climbing prowess against the lesser gifted, yet somehow superior Simoni and Garzelli et al in the 2003 Giro, his ultimate swansong as it would eventually transpire.

Did I care that he was loaded? No. All his contemporaries were, it was no secret. Did I get an invigorating thrill from watching him fly up iconic mountain passes while holding the bars in the drops, sitting, standing, always accelerating, striving to get to the summit as quickly as possible, to shorten the suffering as he often stated? Hell yes. He was an entertainer. He was a craftsman. An aesthete. And he was a loner, foregoing any real support from a team that lacked talent and panache, something that probably pleased him as he loved to be the centre of attention.

And just as he rode alone, he lived alone. Although he was surrounded by an entourage who all claimed to be doing their best for him, ultimately he was neglected by them, and left to die a lonely, depressed, paranoid and disturbed man.

The Death of Marco Pantani doesn’t try to dispel the notion that his career was based on deception, nor does it try to glorify it. It is a stark assessment of the facts, and only the staunchest of tifosi could argue against those facts. But it still hits hard to read of such a spectacular fall from grace, the downward spiral from the pinnacle of the sport, and indeed from the pinnacle of celebrity, to a demise that one would normally associate with that of a rock star or actor. Maybe that’s how he saw himself, and how he thought it would be befitting for him to be remembered, like an Elvis, a Jim Morrison or even a James Dean.

Just as we still listen to The Doors, and watch Viva Las Vegas or Rebel Without a Cause and take pleasure from the experience, so too will we remember Les Duex Alpes in 98, or l’Alpe d’Huez in 95 and 97, not because we were watching a flawed individual, but because we were being entertained by a consumate showman, a master of his craft at the height of his profession.

And for that I can only be appreciative. RIP Marco.

// In Memoriam // Kermis // Look Pro // Nostalgia // Reverent

  1. Reading the various “was he a victim/was he just a doper not deserving of sympathy” discussions reminds me of something Frank wrote here a long time ago (And forgive me if I’m paraphrasing) – we are here because we are Fans; being a fan doesn’t mean you have to apply logic to your opinion, if anything to be a fan you MUST go beyond logic.

    My one abiding memory of the ’98 Tour is switching on the shitty tv in a London hotel room and seeing the day’s summary, the first I’d been able to see in something remotely approaching the same time zone. And the one thing I can remember from that coverage is Pantani, clmibing like a homesick angel….

  2. @DavidI

    Reading the various “was he a victim/was he just a doper not deserving of sympathy” discussions reminds me of something Frank wrote here a long time ago (And forgive me if I’m paraphrasing) – we are here because we are Fans; being a fan doesn’t mean you have to apply logic to your opinion, if anything to be a fan you MUST go beyond logic.

    My one abiding memory of the ’98 Tour is switching on the shitty tv in a London hotel room and seeing the day’s summary, the first I’d been able to see in something remotely approaching the same time zone. And the one thing I can remember from that coverage is Pantani, clmibing like a homesick angel….

    This.

    It doesnt make it wrong or right.

    It just makes it !

  3. Personally, I find it easier to revere Pantani as a romantic tortured soul than I do junkie pop stars. At least some of the drugs he took actually enhanced his performance.

    Maybe we glorify the live-fast-die-young-leave-a-beautiful-corpus* because we don’t have to watch them age, slow, falter and remind us of our mortality.

    *I doubt Straley or Pantani were particularly beautiful corpses, but they left corpora (bodies of work).

  4. MP in pink jersey – Giro d’Italia 1998

  5. Panache is in the eye of the beholder. The panachyest (look it up) thing I have ever seen in a race was Landis’ comeback stage win in 06. That doesn’t seem to get mentioned too often these days – interestingly, O’Grady was in the break that day and Landis passed him like he was on a motorbike and Ole Stuey expressed immediate incredulity at the performance.  Turns out he would know.

    So to all those saying what Marco was or wasn’t, you are all correct. They are your opinions.

  6. @ChrissyOne

    @Angling Saxon

    Terrific story about Il Pirata, but who the phoque is “Layne Staley”?

    …aaand I’m old. :/

    I’m 47. How old are you?

    @Wondering

    “Panache”? Sounds like you’re infatuated with the European Legend vs Loud American. “Oh, but Marco rode with panache, style, flare and was only riding doped because he was just a victim of the cycling culture of the time.” Give me a break. Time to take off those rose coloured glasses. If the victim excuse is good for Marco, then why not for Lance. I think they’re both drugged up cheats, so don’t think I’m siding with Armstrong.

    (to several of the posters here) If you want to glorify a troubled soul with a tragic fall from grace, then go right ahead, I’ll back you on that. But if you’re going to celebrate his drugged up cycling achievements and say they inspired you back then (and now) then don’t be placing Marco on a pedestal and Lance in the gutter. Again, I’m no fan of Lance, but his achievements dominated cycling for many years, even dominated Marco when Marco was at his peak.

  7. Ooops, quote malfunction. Didn’t mean to quote the two paragraphs starting with “panache.”

  8. Pure …

    Ullrich and Pantani in the 1998 Tour de France

  9. @Wondering

    (to several of the posters here) If you want to glorify a troubled soul with a tragic fall from grace, then go right ahead, I’ll back you on that. But if you’re going to celebrate his drugged up cycling achievements and say they inspired you back then (and now) then don’t be placing Marco on a pedestal and Lance in the gutter. Again, I’m no fan of Lance, but his achievements dominated cycling for many years, even dominated Marco when Marco was at his peak.

    The difference you’re overlooking is that Pantani seemed to me personally a likeable character, like someone I could have a beer with under the right circumstances. Lance just seemed like a dick. Its as simple as that; its not fair or objective, its just the nature of being a fan.

    Also, at the time, the races Pantani made happen were simply exciting to watch, while Armstrong’s felt like foregone conclusions; how much fun you have watching the races at the time has a lasting impact on how you feel about the athletes after the fact.

  10. Pantani’s Bianchi Mega Pro XL that Pantani is totally awesome. I want to get one some day. I will get one some day. I’m a soldier in the celeste army.

  11. I have a Bianchi but it’s goddamn silver. Fuck. Oh well, I could put some Celeste tape on the bars.

    Pedale – we’ll have to take your word for it! (great photo, of course!)

    If you think not knowing who Layne Staley was, the VMH asked me a few weeks ago who Richard Pryor was. I told her I wouldn’t divorce her, but that I would never get over being angry about that question.

  12. @Marcus

    Panache is in the eye of the beholder. The panachyest (look it up) thing I have ever seen in a race was Landis’ comeback stage win in 06. That doesn’t seem to get mentioned too often these days – interestingly, O’Grady was in the break that day and Landis passed him like he was on a motorbike and Ole Stuey expressed immediate incredulity at the performance. Turns out he would know.

    So to all those saying what Marco was or wasn’t, you are all correct. They are your opinions.

    I think it doesn’t get mentioned so much because the bitter taste came in too quickly after the feat to allow it to pass into true nostalgia.

    But we watched it live on French television, after missing the previous day; we were confused and lost as to why he would be so far behind. Amazingly fun day. The ITT a few days later as well.

    Anyway, I for one still have the L’Equipe front page hanging in my workshop.

    @Pedale.Forchetta

    MP in pink jersey – Giro d’Italia 1998

    That might be the most abstractly beautiful shot you’ve ever posted!

  13. Was he another rider? I’ve never heard the name. Don’t make me google names I don’t know.

  14. @frank I remember talking to my brother (who doesn’t follow cycling but is a doctor) about Landis, describing that effort and finishing with, “and you know what, he did it all on a hip bone that is dying which he is getting replaced straight after the Tour”.

    His response, “A young professional athlete with necrosis of the hip? Am guessing he has been taking shit he shouldn’t have been. Bet he is a doper.”

  15. @Pedale.Forchetta

    MP in pink jersey – Giro d’Italia 1998

    That, right there, is an awesome shot.  Pictures are supposed to tell stories, this one speaks volumes.

    Excellent

  16. @frank

    @Wondering

    (to several of the posters here) If you want to glorify a troubled soul with a tragic fall from grace, then go right ahead, I’ll back you on that. But if you’re going to celebrate his drugged up cycling achievements and say they inspired you back then (and now) then don’t be placing Marco on a pedestal and Lance in the gutter. Again, I’m no fan of Lance, but his achievements dominated cycling for many years, even dominated Marco when Marco was at his peak.

    The difference you’re overlooking is that Pantani seemed to me personally a likeable character, like someone I could have a beer with under the right circumstances. Lance just seemed like a dick. Its as simple as that; its not fair or objective, its just the nature of being a fan.

    Also, at the time, the races Pantani made happen were simply exciting to watch, while Armstrong’s felt like foregone conclusions; how much fun you have watching the races at the time has a lasting impact on how you feel about the athletes after the fact.

    I agree completely. An unspoken aspect too is the fact he died, as this leads to the forgiveness of many sins.

    Unless you’re a douche. Ricco could have succeeded in offing himself with his dumbass blood transfusion but we still would think he is a prick, fantastic climber or not.

  17. @ped

    Pure …

    Ullrich and Pantani in the 1998 Tour de France

    What a fantastic shot, what a bike! That Bianchi’s not bad either, Jan’s Pinarello stunning, Jan? Fuck he’s he’s crushing it with Birthday boy, No Fucking Hands!

  18. “As much artist as athlete…….”

  19. @piwakawaka

    @ped

    Pure …

    Ullrich and Pantani in the 1998 Tour de France

    What a fantastic shot, what a bike! That Bianchi’s not bad either, Jan’s Pinarello stunning, Jan? Fuck he’s he’s crushing it with Birthday boy, No Fucking Hands!

    Surprising fact about Ullrich that everyone overlooks: he rode without blood boosters of blood doping from 1998 – 2002. The whole Festina Affair scared the shit out of him and he didn’t want to risk it. It wasn’t until 2003 that he started it back up again, after having had enough of getting creamed by Pharmy for so many years.

    That, to me, is amazing. Its also amazing that he really hasn’t spoken up about that.

  20. @frank

    @Wondering

    (to several of the posters here) If you want to glorify a troubled soul with a tragic fall from grace, then go right ahead, I’ll back you on that. But if you’re going to celebrate his drugged up cycling achievements and say they inspired you back then (and now) then don’t be placing Marco on a pedestal and Lance in the gutter. Again, I’m no fan of Lance, but his achievements dominated cycling for many years, even dominated Marco when Marco was at his peak.

    The difference you’re overlooking is that Pantani seemed to me personally a likeable character, like someone I could have a beer with under the right circumstances. Lance just seemed like a dick. Its as simple as that; its not fair or objective, its just the nature of being a fan.

    Also, at the time, the races Pantani made happen were simply exciting to watch, while Armstrong’s felt like foregone conclusions; how much fun you have watching the races at the time has a lasting impact on how you feel about the athletes after the fact.

    Several good points in this exchange.  May I add:

    This is the shirt for the Pantani fan, in Giro pink.


    This is me on the upper slopes of Alpe d’Huez  ,2013 Tour , wearing the above shirt ( the clip is from the World Cycling dvd, snapped it off the tv). I have worked the french folks up into quite a lather, and as you can see we are really “engaging” Froome and Sky as they go by.

    How can I wear a Pantani shirt and boo Froome? I guess the feeling of likeability comes into play. I think your feeling that people are coming down on Lance, the person, is correct. But honestly, the thing that bothers me most about the whole doping catastrophe is the inequality of justice and punishment.

    Rendell references the Conconi trial file that clearly shows that Claudio Chiapucci and Stephen Roche were EPO users at Carrera (at this point they didn’t want to spend the money on good dope for an unproven Pantani). Both are still public darlings. Richard Virenque? Don’t get me started.

  21. @frank

    Surprising fact about Ullrich that everyone overlooks: he rode without blood boosters of blood doping from 1998 – 2002. The whole Festina Affair scared the shit out of him and he didn’t want to risk it. It wasn’t until 2003 that he started it back up again, after having had enough of getting creamed by Pharmy for so many years.

    That, to me, is amazing. Its also amazing that he really hasn’t spoken up about that.

    Sample tests from Ullrich in 1998 did show EPO. Wouldn’t surprise me if they had samples from the next few years then they too would be positive.

  22. @fignons barber

    Richard Virenque? Don’t get me started.

    I can’t stand the way Eurosport give this guy a platform in the summer.

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