Il Pirata’s 1998 Bianchi: The Elusive Stallion

Il Pirata’s 1998 Bianchi: The Elusive Stallion

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In 1998, Marco Pantani staged one of the most prestigious coups of cycling by winning the Giro-Tour double. He made this run aboard what I believe to be the most beautiful bike in history, a Celeste steed with a yellow section of frame starting at the seat collar and spreading out down the tops of the seatstays, top tube, and seat tube.

Very little is actually known about this bike; it was a one-off creation made especially for Il Pirata by the Bianchi Reparto Corse division which makes all the top-end bikes for the company.  Some say the frame is aluminum, others claim it was boron. The frame undeniably used a compact geometry (this is commonplace now, but it was unique in '98), but whether the top tube sloped up or down seems to be a point of contention: did the top but slope up to give a longer head tube to bring his bars up to accommodate his unique in-the-drops climbing style or was the top tube sloped down towards the seat tube in order to reduce the weight of the frame and increase the stiffness of the rear triangle?

The bike has captured my imagination for a long time. I love the way the saddle and tires match the portion of the frame where they intersect in what I call the “Yellow Cluster”; the vision of Pantani climbing out of the saddle on the Col du Galibier with those flashes of yellow swaying back and forth as he danced up the mountain remains one of the coolest images of cycling. I studied his bike extensively when I was building my Bianchi XL EV2 and I mimicked it's setup, choosing a yellow Flite saddle and solid yellow tires. To this day I love the looks of that bike, and Pantani's setup has even influenced one or two of The Rules.

I've searched the net over for information on his bike, hoping that at some point someone would find and catalog it for the world. Occasionally, there will be an article posted somewhere that covers the bike, but each of these has ended up a disappointment as upon closer inspection, it is revealed that the bike is not in fact his tour-winning bike.

I did, however, find one article on Campy Only which appears to showcase the real deal. It comes from an account by a fan at a post-tour criterium in 1998 where Pantani made an appearance:

Here you have the pictures of Pantani's bike. Note that he is using tubulars on his Electron wheels, even for this small race. He seems to love this bike. In the Giro he used the normal team bike on the flat stages, but since the mountains he has not been apart from this ultralight “hillclimber” (except for time trials). I think the weight is about 7 kilos, but is is of course a very small bike.

The use of a downtube lever and the modified Ergo lever is a funny detail. It is very unusual these days to see homemade stuff like this on a pro's bike, and he even won the two major tours on it–it's a classic bike, this one!


Recently on, they did a Retro Bike review of Pantani's 1998 ride, reportedly stored at the Bianchi museum. I was thrilled and dove into the photos, looking for answers to questions I probably didn't know I had. Unfortunately, closer inspection revealed a host of problems with the bike; I am sad to report that this is not in fact Pantani's bike, and in all likelihood did not even exist in 1998. It appears to be nothing more than the Bianchi team replica frame clumsily loaded with a 1999 Campy Record 9-speed groupo. The items that give this fact away are: non-compact geometry, carbon Ergo levers, no front down tube shifter (and accompanying left-side Ergo lever with guts removed), black and yellow tires (instead of his solid yellow tubulars), and silver Time mag pedals (he rode red ones in 1999). This could possibly be a late-season racer or a 1999 trainer, but in any case, it is not his 1998 Giro-Tour winning magical steed. Since it appears his real bike eludes even the Bianchi museum, my only hope is that he kept it for himself and it resides somewhere in the Pantani estate.


// Accessories and Gear // Folklore // Nostalgia // Racing // The Rules // Tradition

  1. Update:

    I started a thread on the CyclingNews forum on this topic, and James Huang, the author of the article, had this to say in response:

    Hi all,

    First off, thanks to all of you for the information-laden posts. After looking at some race photos from the ’98 season, it does appear that some of the parts may have been changed from their original spec but the frame geometry does match up with the drawing supplied to us from Bianchi so I’m rather confident this isn’t just some replica with a Pantani sticker on it.

    Nevertheless, we’re going to look into this further and will update as needed. While I think this *was* Pantani’s bike, it’s possible it was his spare machine or something and perhaps not his primary rig. But again, we’ll delve deeper and figure things out. Thanks again for the posts.
    James Huang
    Technical Editor

    Personally, I think that from looking at the pictures of the bike ridden by Pantani and the ones in the CN article, it is obvious that the frame Pantani is aboard has a more dramatically sloping top tube, but I suppose we’ll have a hard time knowing for sure until we see those drawings from Bianchi. I have asked James for the drawings because they would be so totally awesome to see, but there appears to be some question as to whether he is allowed to distribute.

  2. @frank

    Not only does the geometry seem distinctly different, look at the yellow paint on the seat tube. In the above “giro bike” photo the yellow goes all the way down to almost the end of the letter C. The other bike, the yellow paint stops in the N. Plus the stickers on the forks are a different color, the above yellow, the below blue. It’s a different bike. No doubt in my mind.

  3. Who’s read, or shall I say, who hasn’t read The Death of Marco Pantani by Matt Rendell? Good read.

  4. @Marko
    Sharp eye, my droogie, sharp eye! And, in the photos of him riding, he definitely has the yellow stickers on the fork. With every detail I notice, I am more convinced it’s not his bike.

  5. @Marko
    Is it a good read? I’ve been very tempted to, but I’m afraid to find out things I don’t want to know. Kind of like going to work in the kitchen of your favorite restaurant.

  6. @frank

    I liked it. It followed his career really well and was a good bio. However, if you have him on some kind of pedestal this book will throw that into question for you. That said though, like any good bio, it speaks well of his angels and demons and in the end, puts him in a human light and treats him fairly. It’s not a trash Marco Pantani book by any stretch, just honest, at least from what I could tell.

  7. @Marko
    Yeah, I don’t know. I may have to pick it up, I’ve always been interested.

    He’s on a pedestal only in the sense that he was so much fun to watch race; when he was on, it was brilliant. When he was off, it was agony to watch.

    I’m not fooling myself to think he was pure as the driven snow, but I think that given the era, he wasn’t doing anything anyone else wasn’t doing. If you look back at those races in the late 90’s onward and remove the riders from the results who have fallen under the cloud of doping, there isn’t a lot left…

  8. If you look back at those races in the late 90’s onward and remove the riders from the results who have fallen under the cloud of doping, there isn’t a lot left…

    Yeah, it would only leave Armstrong…

  9. Pantani looked awesome in that era – style plus. Amazing rider and colorful personality as well. Too bad it all ended the way it did.

    I need to check out that book you guys mentioned.

    Great post.

  10. @frank
    Wow…nice work Frank. You have written a fine post on Marco’s favorite sweet steed. It’s good you’ve made contact with James Huang on this. In my opinion James is the single best thing about CyclingNews, no one does a more fiendish job of reporting on the pro peloton’s rides so I hope he looks into this more.

    Regarding racing results in the late 90’s, yeah, but it sure was great to watch Marco get medieval on everyone.

  11. @Dan O

    I really can’t think of a cooler-looking rider than him in 1998. The bandanna, the Brikos, goatee, the bike, the kit, the whole package was just so cool. And, to top it off, the Yellow Jersey looked like it was custom-made to match his kit. I’m all for black shorts, but that look was just too damn cool.

  12. @john
    Yeah, James is a rock star, and he’s been super cool about the feedback. That’s the way it should be; no one is right all the time, but being open to getting info and feeback is what makes it feel like they care about their readers. He mentioned he’s working on another retro-bike write-up. Can’t wait.

    I agree regarding the results; at this point, I don’t care if it was all jet-fueled. It was a level playing field and there was really no more exciting racing than in 1998. From the classics to the Giro to the Tour and onwards, it was just awesome.

  13. Huang is a muppet. And that post on the alleged Pantani bike just confirms it. If you could spot all those indiscrepancies Frank, then he should’ve too.

    His ‘reviews’ are nothing but cliche-riddled re-hashs of manufacturers press releases.

    If he was a “rock star”, he’d be in Nickelback or Creed…

  14. Having said that, writing reviews is fucking tedious and difficult to make sound interesting.

    I just reviewed a bike and had to tone down my criticisms, because the companies pay for advertising, and advertising pays for the mags/websites. So that’s why reviews generally pander to the manufacturers; plus how many ways can you re-word “vertically compliant, laterally stiff”?

  15. @brett
    Where do I start? These two comments are worth their own post.

    “How many ways can you re-word “vertically compliant, laterally stiff?”. Brilliant. How about, “Comfortable and doesn’t suck”? Incidentally, in a tangential relationship back to this post, my EV2 was obviously designed for a 125 pound Italian climber, and not a big fat Dutchman. Although I love that bike, it climbs like a pile of spaghetti under my immense weight and formidable power.

    Nickelback or Creed. Jesus, I haven’t thought of those idiots in a long time. I believe it was Marko that pointed out to me that Creed was just a Christian Rock band. I had never noticed that until that day.

    In Huang’s defense, as retro bike geeks, we go right to the pictures and just reference the article to fill in whatever gaps the pictures leave; his ability to write is irrelevant. When’s the last time you read the article and then looked at the pictures? Retro Bike articles are like Playboy.

  16. @frank and Brett

    Dave Groll’s imitation of Scott Stapp’s Arms Wide Open is worth a listen. Very funny.

  17. @brett
    A muppet? That can’t be good. I’ll leave it alone. What I like about “the Muppet” is when he is inspecting the bikes with camera before, say, Paris-Roubaix and putting out great detailed photos and text of bike set-ups. I don’t read his reviews much as I can’t afford all the expensive shiet he is reviewing.

    Now I can’t wait to call someone a muppet…

  18. Don’t get me wrong John, I love looking at the cool stuff as much if not more than anyone, and would love to be able to get where he does to see that stuff. But his reviews are full of what we call “Huang-isms”, cliches and bleedin obvious statements that tell us nothing. As I said though, it’s not easy writing that stuff, and I’m glad it’s him and not me trying to come up with fresh Huang-isms every article.

  19. @brett

    His reviews are full of what we call “Huang-isms”, cliches and bleedin obvious statements that tell us nothing.

    Beautiful. I’m learning something every day. Can I work that into my vocabulary? I will endeavor to.

  20. @all
    OK, lets identify the “Huangisms”:

    I’ll start.

    “it’s become increasingly common to see cracked parts and broken bikes”
    “the fasteners are no longer the weak link like they used to be”
    “close approximation of reality”

  21. “lighter, stiffer, often stronger”

  22. The only downside to Pantani’s reign, was the signature Selle Italia (?) saddle of his. That damn embroidered caricature was humiliating. As a fan, I though I wanted one for my own, that is until a friend made a comment along the lines of “butt-pirate” in reference to that saddle. I would take one today, but would hang it on the wall in my shop instead.

  23. When I first got my RB-1 it had downtube shifters. Shimano had just come out with STI shiters and I contemplated running one (R) STI and one (L) downtube shifter because I heard that the Euro pros were doing it that way but I cheezed up and installed both STI’s.

  24. @Cyclops
    I have an rb-1 AND a 1999 reparto corse Pantani frame. However, I’m looking to build another bike and want to find geometry figures for the bianchi. Does anyone know where such figures can be found? I don’t know whether I’ll find this board again so of anyone knows where geometry figures can be found, please email

  25. @Frank
    This is as good a place as any – just FYI, here is the scanned geo for our TSX Bianchis. This is straight from my 1997 catalogue.

  26. Whoops, if I had my thinking brain on I would have put it the TSX thread. Hey, you can’t be this pretty and smart…

  27. Just to get the hat-trick here’s a scan of the top steel model for the year, the EL/OS. Lovely frame, but I’m not so sure about the DA or the Syncros parts…

  28. I just came across this article with giddy joy. This bike was the stuff of dreams for me, and to read that @frank lists this as his favorite bike of all time, as I do, makes me happy to share the sentiment.

  29. It’s possible that the only thing Bianchi about Pantani’s bicycle was the stickers.
    Many pro’s back then had custom made frames from small builders rebadged to suit the sposnsor. This may be why Bianchi’s “Pantani” bike is different than what Marco rode.

  30. Frank,

    just like Waxbytes comment, perhaps researching custom frame builders is the key to your mystery!

    Inputting Dario Pegoretti and Marco in the search engine might provide some clues (but I’m not sure about time frames of dario’s bulds and the Giro overlapping). Believe there may be a cardboard box full of geometry spec charts for pantani located around the Caldonazzo region. hope this helps

  31. Hi

    I know I’m very very very late to this thread but I have one question only.

    Does anyone know what type of computer Pantani used? I love the look of that little red thing atop his bars and it clearly has some white lettering on the anterior aspect. Too early for a specially colored Ergobrain Im guessing so possible an Avocet model?

    Any help much appreciated….thanks

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