In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Broken-Hearted Saviour

In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Broken-Hearted Saviour

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There’s an air of Shakespearean tragedy to the death of Marco Pantani on Saint Valentine’s Day in 2004. Once the most famous cyclist in the world, he died alone in a hotel room on a day devoted to love.

But his love – Cycling – had betrayed him. Once a fixture of the Nineties European road racing scene, he was part and parcel of the culture and spirit that embodied that era. Sensationally, as he was about to win the Giro d’Italia for the second time in 1999, he was thrown from the race after a failed hematocrit test on the morning of the penultimate stage. At a time when doping was rampant throughout the peloton and, as we are beginning to understand now, secretly supported by both the teams and governing bodies, Pantani was torn from the world he knew like a puppy from a warm house and abandoned in the winter cold. He was singled out, vilified, made example of. Confused and betrayed, he would never recover.

A rider defined by brilliant highs and devastating lows, he fit the mold of “enigmatic climber” so well it almost feels cliché to point it out. He won atop nearly all the most famous climbs in cycling and still holds the record for the fastest ride up Alpe d’Huez. But on days that his mind and motivation failed him, he would trail in long after the favorites arrived home.

He was also monumentally unlucky. He was almost crippled after hitting a car head-on during Milano-Torino, after it was mistakenly allowed onto the course in 1995. In 1997, he was forced to abandon the Giro when a black cat crossed his path and caused him to crash. 1998 saw him reach the pinnacle of our sport with the Giro-Tour double before 1999 saw him become the first super-star to be singled out for the (suspected) use of EPO during the jet-fueled late Nineties.

Pantani was more than a cyclist for us. 1998 was the year my VMH and I met, and we built our relationship in part as we shared in the excitement as our favorite rider won first the Giro and then the Tour.  (Early in our relationship, she hosted a party at her apartment; when I walked in, she had Star Wars, A New Hope playing on the television.  Later that night I learned her favorite rider was Pantani. Needless to say, I’ve never looked at another woman since.) The ’98 Tour remains my favorite, with the stage to Les Deux Alpes the high point.

He inspired me – a big, tall, oafish flatlander – to become obsessed with climbing, an obsession I maintain to this day (or, at least I did until January 28). His climbing epitomized the angelic grace of le grimpeur. Climbing in the drops with his face a picture of focus and determination, his climbing could not be described as effortless, but powerful. A sight to behold. Everything about him oozed cool. I modeled my first dream bike after the gloriously beautiful steed he rode in 1998. My VMH, the same weight and height as Marco, modeled her position and climbing style after his.

My heart aches when I think of how this man, who was part of a system which, however full of flaws, he understood. I imagine that he was not a unintelligent nor an ignorant man, but that he was not prepared for the cruelty of the world outside cycling. I can scarcely fathom his sense of confusion and betrayal that the very system and players who taught him Le Metier would so readily cast him aside and leave him on his own. I don’t believe it’s a stretch to compare the scars he received from this experience to those of a victim of abuse. He would never trust his surroundings again.

Several times, he returned to the only world he knew, the professional peloton. But he wasn’t the same. He was bullied, he was teased. Occasionally, he rose above it all to show signs of his former self. Then, he would recede.

2003 was an exciting season as he returned to form and it appeared as though he was finding his own again. Imagine our excitement when, as we planned to visit the Tour for the month of July, rumors broke that he was leaving Mercatone Uno to join another team in order to race the Tour. We were foaming at the mouth at the thought of Ullrich and Pantani shelling Pharmstrong out the back as they partied like it was 1998.

It wasn’t to be. The team transfer didn’t materialize, and Pantani disappeared. The next time we were to hear from him would be the solemn announcement of his death on CyclingNews. I called my VMH and asked if she was sitting down before I told her what happened. It was as if I had given her the news of her brother’s death.

I truly believe he died of a broken heart.

// In Memoriam // Nostalgia // Tradition

  1. @Marcus
    Can you get a photo of the b-board? Would love to see it. And whereabouts? If in Chch I’ll go looking for it – will make my day to see that one.

  2. @G’phant, @lonewheel
    free Symbol Pack to whomever posts a picture of that board. If you already have a symbol pack, we’ll work something else out. Hi resolution photo please. I’ll want to print off a poster size copy.

  3. @lonewheel
    Wellington – SH2, half way between Wgtn and Petone (on Western side, facing North – so only see it when driving South).

    @frank
    Am trying to persuade Tui Breweries that they should send me a proof to post on velominati.com. You don’t ask you don’t get …

  4. @G’phant
    Strong work. But a photo of the board will do as well. But, I am happy to see you go for the jugular. As my Oma (that’s Dutch for Grandmother, to all of you whose language sucks) – Merckx bless her soul – used to say, “A ‘No’ you already have. But you can still get a ‘Yes'”. She kicked ass.

  5. Excellent. Thanks

    I can see a new headline too…

    “SPANISH BEEF SCARE: CONTADOR TESTS POSITIVE FOR BULL SHIT”

  6. @Oli Brooke-White
    SO GOOD!! Except, it’s sevens TOURS de France. I’ll take that as evidence that their beer sucks, but I love their Schweddy balls!!

  7. @Oli Brooke-White
    Kudos for (i) getting the photo and (ii) posting it notwithstanding your views on Big Tex.

    @lonewheel
    If this was Twitfacebooker I’d say “Like”. It isn’t, thankfully. But I still like. Strong work.

  8. frank :
    @Oli Brooke-WhiteSO GOOD!! Except, it’s sevens TOURS de France. I’ll take that as evidence that their beer sucks, but I love their Schweddy balls!!

    Actually it’s seven (singular) tours (plural) de France (singular). “Sevens” is different. It’s a type of rugby. And this is a cycling and weight-anxiety site.

  9. @mightyninja
    No. I rather think it shouldn’t be. I can almost hear Frank’s brain exploding from here.

  10. frank:
    As my Oma (that’s Dutch for Grandmother, to all of you whose language sucks) – Merckx bless her soul – used to say, “A ‘No’ you already have. But you can still get a ‘Yes'”. She kicked ass.

    Brilliant Frank! Your Oma wasn’t a sales manager, was she? That’s one of my favorite maxims for salespeople (although I put it a little differently)

    Delenda est Alberto

  11. @frank

    speaking of symbol packs, how often do those ship out?

  12. @razmaspaz
    They are generally all hand-made (of the finest Belgian vinyl) by our disciple in Colorado, so it varies a little bit. I just checked and they were completed and went in the mail Monday, so you should have them any day.

  13. Oh how the thread of this ode unraveled, did it cause the retirement (re-retirement?) announcement of a certain former Tour winner today?

  14. @sgt
    OK – I’ve tried Google translate, I’ve tried Babelfish, and none of them assist. What’s “delenda”?

  15. @frank
    I know cross-sporting analogies rarely fly on these pages, but I’ve always likened Pantani to Mike Tyson or Diego Maradona: profoundly””uniquely””gifted athletes in their respective métiers, misunderstood, isolated, mistreated, and abandoned. All were grossly taken advantage of and hard done by.

  16. Ciao G’phant!
    It’s Latin, and more or less stands for: Alberto has to be destroyed.

  17. Pedale.Forchetta :
    Ciao G’phant!It’s Latin, and more or less stands for: Alberto has to be destroyed.

    Ahhh, Latin. I always wanted to take Latin but my small high school only had French and Spanish. And even with 8 years of French (through sophomore year in college), and living in France for a bit, I STILL cannot even speak that language. Probably a good thing my high school did not offer Latin!

  18. Pedale.Forchetta:
    Ciao G’phant!
    It’s Latin, and more or less stands for: Alberto has to be destroyed.

    Correct!

    It comes from Signore Forchetta’s forbearer Cicero, who used to end every speech in the Roman Senate with the words “Delenda est Cartago” or “Carthage must be Destroyed”. In Cicero’s time, Carthage was the greatest threat to the Roman Empire, yet many people were willing to overlook the threat, and spend their coin on bread and circuses.

    Sound familiar?

    Delenda est Alberto

  19. Correction: Cato the Elder, not Cicero. My bad.

    Delenda est Alberto

  20. Fellow Velominati:

    For sure, the Spanish just killed any relevance for the Vuelta (not that there was much left). They also got their tits stuck in a wringer if they wanted to host a World Championships anytime in the next 20 years.

    VeloNews is falling all over itself to get out as many L____ articles as humanly possible. VeloNews’s parent company is far more concerned with triathlons and marathons, and they are betting on the tri-fiends and runners as well as the standard chamois sniffers to come through with eyeballs for ad revenue. Do your best to avert your eyes. I sacrificed mine for your benefit. FYI-I did not read any of the L____ articles.

    Piss water or not, if I can find Tui in Houston, I’m buying a 6-pack.

    Happy 2nd Retirement. Please don’t run for Governor in Texas. In fact, feel free to stay in Colorado, or perhaps move to Los Angeles.

  21. Or to Pluto. Please can he fuck off to Pluto? Can we set up a fund? Can’t cost more than a few billion, but it will be worth it. And he can take One Shotador.

  22. @Jeff in PetroMetro
    Man, I hear you. I cross checked the Velonews site yesterday and had to avert my eyes as quickly as possible as it was a L____Love-In going on. So painful.

  23. @Pedale.Forchetta @sgt
    Grazie mille.

    What’s Latin for ‘like’ ?

  24. @Steampunk: Do you think Mike Tyson was “misunderstood” when he raped and assaulted women or when he bit Evander Holyfield’s ear off?

  25. @sgt
    I think a far more appropriate Latin phrase which SHOULD have been used in the Clenbutador case is the legal principle, res ipso loquitor, “the thing speaks for itself”.

    Basically this principle is applied to a set of circumstances that lead to only one conclusion. In this case, Bertie went positive, ergo he is a drug cheat. And that is that.

    And Steampunk, to compare Tyson (woman beater, biter and all round psycho – albeit one of the most spectacular heavyweights of all time) to Pantani and Maradona (two sublimely talented sportsmen who also happen(ed) to be cokeheads) is a very long bow indeed…

  26. @Oli Brooke-White @Marcus

    I think my bigger point was that each lacked the support structure that provided good guidance, while they had hangers-on who benefited from their supreme gifts. I don’t mean to forgive or justify their actions; while each was iconic in action, their lives away from their sport was a train wreck.

  27. @Steampunk
    In Tyson’s case it was the death of his long time trainer Cus D’Amato and subsequent attachment to the wrecking ball of humanity that is Don King that really got him permanently sideways… I loved watching the young Tyson fight, and have always wondered what if Cus had stuck around long enough. Would anything be different? Unknowable.

    FYI, just finished “The Rider”, and started reading “TourMen” on the Kindle, book report to follow soon.

    Delenda est Alberto

  28. @Steampunk, @Oli Brooke-White, @Marcus
    I’m with @Steampunk. It’s very easy to let the magnitude of the offense cloud the challenge the individual struggled with. Empathy doesn’t excuse the action, but to suggest that these individuals, who were all brilliant in their own right, were il-equipped to deal with the world that (first) they encountered due to their success and (second) they encountered after the world they were surrounded by left them en-mass is a massive understatement.

    The support network was missing, beginning with their families and ending with their professional network. It’s tragic, to say the least. Especially for the individuals who were the collateral damage, like Tyson’s victims.

  29. Hey, lots of people have it tough – that doesn’t excuse poor behaviour. Sounds like instead of feeling sorry for himself and railing a ton of Bolivian marching powder Pantani should have HARDENED UP and got on with life.

    Jesus, next you’ll be saying you feel sorry for poor little Lindsay Lohan…

  30. @Oli Brooke-White
    Have to agree with Oli here. I have met soooo many people in the Army, and esp in Special Forces, that have come from absolute train wreck lives and have really succeeded. One of my most successful Green Beret medics was raised by his single mother (never knew who his father was)–who was a prostitute and drug addict who left him with “a friend” in Las Vegas one weekend when he was 6 and came back for him when he was 9. On one of our deployments he receieved a call that his mother was found dead in an alley in Los Angeles. He never had any support, and lived through hell growing up, and he is very well balanced and successful now. And he is just one of many that I have met with disaster stories of upbringing or support.

    Yeah, they might have had it “rough” but it does not excuse their actions.

    I love Pantani and Tyson for their passion and amazingness in their discipline, but I do not make any excuses for them. Way more have had it so much worse and hace come out just fine.

  31. Let’s be clear: I’m not making excuses for anybody, but rather identifying the source of the tragedy and human drama.

    @Oli Brooke-White
    You leave Li-Lo out of this!

  32. @Buck Rogers
    Agree here, life is what you make of it not where you came from. The opposite of the train wrecks is the jerk who has everything and screws up. In the end it may come down to brains, not smarts necessarily but equilibrium and common sense. Would a Pantani go the route he went if he had been more stable, more centered? It seems that the truly great have a serenity and calm that the Li-Lo types are missing. For an example we only need to look to Ali or Merckx.

  33. ok, this will take a moment to develop, but if you all will.

    first: imagine a world where as a child, you felt nothing. You grew up falling, not hurting, you reached out touching the hot burning stove and felt no burn. You fall from a great height, break an arm, but feel nothing. Get sick, but feel nothing, no muscle aches. There is an actual medical phenomena called ‘cogenital insensitivity to pain’. Its when a child does just as described, and they rarely live into functional adulthood because they cannot relate with things like we can.

    therefore, there is a reason we feel, we hurt, we suffer, and its so we know our limits, what is safe and actually what is not safe. It, pain/suffering and a reasonable dose of Rule V conditions us and in the end is to our benefit. As members of and keepers of the cog, we love this sense of a healthy dose of pain and of suffering; in fact its best served cold and wet when others are the benevolent recepient.

    However, what is the chance that Pantani transcended the upper firmanent of pain threshold and was able to defeat it? Is that part of the look on his face in that photo?

    What is the chance that he bore it all, every single bit that was given to him and made it, he took it, he caught the ole man divvying out Rule V and made it (another topic yet)…yet we sit here and call him ‘pussy boy’ and what weakness he perpetuated into eternity??

    And once he accomplished this unbelievable feat, one for which so few accomplish, what next?? Is it possible he fell prey to an obtuse oblivion of what life was really like, without that sense of pain, hurting, all this after rising like the pheonix from ashes of defeat, winning the double? Was retirement and reality and the falling to earth as an ‘ex-pro’…living life in a reality he quite literally couldn’t feel ‘normalacy’?

    I will never know
    I just know I respect what he did, how he rode passionately, gave his soul for what he believed

    I just cannot tell him to harden up, because I think he knew more pain and suffering than most and had enough

  34. Sheesh, cry me a river…

  35. Great article and solid commenting here. I enjoyed read this a lot, as I didn’t watch pro-cycling back then so I didn’t know much about Pantani.

    Many of the world’s most talented artists, musicians, and business people have interesting mental “issues” that have served to help them reach their success, but on the other side of that double-edge blade is a steep fall if things fail or if there is a lack of a support network with family and friends.

    It’s unfortunate, but the only person who truly knows what is going on is often the one who winds up dead as a result.

  36. Frank – great article. Very poignant, interlacing you, VMH and Pantani… particularly liked the fact that your VMH is the same height and weight, and she modelled her climbing style on his… great stuff. You captured his loneliness at the end in a sad, sad way.

    It always irritates me when people say “So and so it great, but if only they didn’t do X or Y, then they’d be the greatest” (e.g. Wayne Rooney shagging grannies and hookers, David Beckham loving the celebrity, Clinton and his interns, and Marco with all of his flaws). It’s not the point, real leaders inspire us despite their faults. We never expect them to be perfect and we forgive them their failings. It’s part of their make up and what makes them great. I wouldn’t change a thing about any of my heroes. And Marco was everything you’d expect from an Italian hero – tragedy, drama, passion, talent

    And having just read this, it makes me realise that Cavendish falls into that camp… I’ll have to ignore everything that comes out of his mouth, the idiot actions (e.g. the Audi R8), the fact my wife goes dreamy about his eyes… and just love him for his pure, unadulterated speed.

  37. During the Tour de France in 2008 we had a late night in a bar in Les Deux Alpes. I meet Pantini’s cousin who was organizing the annual Marco Pantani Memorial Cycling (http://www.pantanichannel.it) event held each August. Some souvenirs from that night. Your photo reminded me of great memories. Thanks.

  38. @Markp
    What an incredibly cool story! I didn’t have any idea about that memorial ride; I’m checking out the site right now – thanks!!

    And, I have to say, that is the coolest t-shirt I have EVER SEEN. Incredible. If you have any idea where to get more, please let us know.

  39. @frank

    Cheers Frank. One of those things, right place, right time, introduced by the right bartender. Next thing I know I am talking to Pantani’s cousin, he then walks out of the bar to his car and comes back with this. Try the Pantani Museum (www.spaziopantani.it).

  40. A beautiful, beautiful memorial to Pantani has been built:

    Slideshow:

    Fullscreen:

    Link on Velosnooze.

  41. Don’t think this has been posted yet, if it’s anywhere near as good as the Senna doc, will be essential viewing.

     

    http://road.cc/content/news/62421-documentary-marco-pantanis-life-and-death-coming-british-cinemas-may-2013

  42. Actually I don’t know why everyone raves about the Senna doc.

    Great access but far too much assumed knowledge – I’m not an F1 fan but I follow it casually and was often lost.

    And I’ve seen a lot of archive-based documentaries (having formerly run a large commercial archive).

    When I read that I was thinking “I hope they do a better job than the Senna pic.” The fact that they’re calling it “Accidental Death of a Cyclist” is a poor start in my view. Being run over by a truck is an accidental death, dying of a drug overdose after years of cheating and self-delusion is not.

  43. @ChrisO

    Actually I don’t know why everyone raves about the Senna doc.

    Great access but far too much assumed knowledge – I’m not an F1 fan but I follow it casually and was often lost.

    And I’ve seen a lot of archive-based documentaries (having formerly run a large commercial archive).

    When I read that I was thinking “I hope they do a better job than the Senna pic.” The fact that they’re calling it “Accidental Death of a Cyclist” is a poor start in my view. Being run over by a truck is an accidental death, dying of a drug overdose after years of cheating and self-delusion is not.

    Fair enough, maybe not essential for everyone then.

  44. @ChrisO wouldn’t a lot ofassumed knowledge about Pantani make for an excellent documentary for pathetic loser fanboys like us?

  45. @Marcus

    @ChrisO wouldn’t a lot ofassumed knowledge about Pantani make for an excellent documentary for pathetic loser fanboys like us?

    Tru dat… and I would certainly be going to see it.

    It was really just a note of professional objection to the common wisdom that ‘Senna’ was a benchmark – good but not great, in my view.

  46. @ChrisO

    @Marcus

    @ChrisO wouldn’t a lot ofassumed knowledge about Pantani make for an excellent documentary for pathetic loser fanboys like us?

    Tru dat… and I would certainly be going to see it.

    It was really just a note of professional objection to the common wisdom that ‘Senna’ was a benchmark – good but not great, in my view.

    @ChrisO

    @Marcus

    @ChrisO wouldn’t a lot ofassumed knowledge about Pantani make for an excellent documentary for pathetic loser fanboys like us?

    Tru dat… and I would certainly be going to see it.

    It was really just a note of professional objection to the common wisdom that ‘Senna’ was a benchmark – good but not great, in my view.

    These things are all subjective of course, but the general consensus within F1, and I am not a fan either, is that he was the Merckx of his sport. The big test was when he was driving a lower tier car, a lotus, and it rained. He would then win with this ‘level’ playing field. I just enjoyed the charisma he brought, compared to Mansell and Prost.

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