In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Ten Years Gone

I don’t know if it’s 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.

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69 Replies to “In Memoriam: Il Pirata, Ten Years Gone”

  1. I’ve had this photo on my desktop for an unwritten Pantani post, from Il Dolore.

    The early years. Putting the hurt on a Kelme rider.

  2. “It was effortless for him…”  All else aside, watching Il Pirata float uphill was art.

  3. February 14 has passed down this end of the planet, the flowers are wilting, hangovers nursed, a night of passion abating. A few celebrate a life long lost, others condemn that same life, yet the majority remain oblivious.

    Flawed, yes, brilliant, of course, a victim, possibly… regardless of the semantics, this was a man who showed a human side to the machinations of the time he was a part of, and for his fragile character we cannot condemn him. RIP Marco.

  4. I’m not sure I’ll see such artistry again in my lifetime.  Watching him in full flight was captivating, whether it was up a mountain or down one. I can’t climb out of the saddle with my hands in the drops without thinking of him, and I suspect none of us can.

  5. From what I’ve read and learned about Pantani, he certainly seems to have been a tortured soul. He fought his demons just as we all do. Unfortunately on that day the demons got the best of  him.

    I, for one, truly hope that Marco was able to finally find that peace.

  6. My pain is self-chosen.  At least so the prophet says.
    I could either burn, or cut off my pride and burn some time
    A head full of lies is the weight, tied to my waist.

    The river of deceit pulls down, the only direction we flow is down.

    My pain is self-chosen.  At least I believe it to be….

    – Layne Stayley

    Layne must have been a cyclist at heart.  He is missed, as is Marco.

  7. I didn’t find road cycling until long after the days of Marco, but from what I’ve learned on this site the comparison with Layne is apt.  Like missing the days of Marco, I never got to see AIC perform while Layne was alive.  I did see Jerry Cantrell in Vancouver some years after Layne’s passing.  Great show, but it would have been so much greater with Layne’s voice.  It’s always so tragic when those whose lives are so tortured leave us too early.  I often wonder if their tortured souls would have found some solace in the knowledge of the impact they had on the many they never knew, and the reverence with which their names are spoken.  Even now after all this time.

  8. @Mike_P

    I’m not sure I’ll see such artistry again in my lifetime. Watching him in full flight was captivating, whether it was up a mountain or down one. I can’t climb out of the saddle with my hands in the drops without thinking of him, and I suspect none of us can.

    +1

  9. Kermis Friday! A melancholy one, with Marco’s passing.

    Amazing how different he looked with even a bit of hair. Also amazing how different the racers looked not long ago, just due to the baggy kit and the non-hidden cable routing.

    Did anyone else read the COTHO piece on cyclingnews? As someone who never liked, and never hated, him I feel much more ambivalent than most readers/commenters on there.

    Oh, photo #8…the shirtless dude is reason enough to be a crank turner – that guy is in amazing shape and he ain’t a spring chicken. The built in diet, the needing to stay at climbing weight, the fear of Le Girdle Bibs. What a sport! I actually play futbol twice a week and a few guys are 70 and in excellent shape. They go out to the pub every Tuesday after “practice” as well, they just don’t overdo it. Very impressive dudes. I hope I can still run around at that age! Heck, I have to be on the velodrome until I’m 100, like the Frenchman who keeps on setting his own records.

  10. I too have been watching some past races lately. We’re actually having a winter here and it feels like an eternity since I’ve had a good string of long road rides. I’m reminded of how lucky I am to live in a very favorable climate these days.

    But, regarding captivation – I’m new to the sport compared to many of you and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d a) be into solo endurance sports b) watch people ride bicycles on television/monitor. But turning on a stage race I’m instantly reminded of how much is going on in the peloton at all times. To the uninformed eye, it’s just some folks ridin’ bikes. When you cycle, and learn more, damn there is so much going on! (not necessarily on applicable to cycling; the more you know about anything, the more complex even the simple things are).

    What a sport!

  11. Pantani was a fantastic climber. Doper or not, I suspect Charly Gaul was there to welcome him onto the pearly switchbacks.

  12. Sad really. I loved watching him climb. He made it look so easy. I remember hearing the news of his untimely meeting with his maker (if you believe in such things) and just being sad.

    I’ll always wonder why it seems the most inspirational stars that we follow, that we long to be like, don’t stay long in this world (PSH, Hendrix, Staley, Cobain……the list seems endless).

  13. @TheVid

    My pain is self-chosen. At least so The Prophet says.
    I could either burn, or cut off my pride and burn some time
    A head full of lies is the weight, tied to my waist.

    The river of deceit pulls down, the only direction we flow is down.

    My pain is self-chosen. At least I believe it to be….

    – Layne Stayley

    Layne must have been a cyclist at heart. He is missed, as is Marco.

    I actually wrote about this song during the Giro last year (its hard not to repeat yourself a bit, I’m like an old grandpa) – I totally agree.

    http://www.velominati.com/tradition/self-chosen-il-pirata-il-giro/

  14. Going to take time this year to learn as much as I can about Marco Pantani — and then learn as much as I can from there.

  15. On its surface, many judge Pantani as a doper, one of a self destructive, impulsive and perhaps smug euro snob.  However, upon further study and reading, his personality could not have been farther from this.  He indeed was an innocent soul, a nationalist inherently, a proud Italian.  As he made rank, turning PRO, the capitalistic expectations of returns on investments revealed the organized dope of an era inflicted and something upon him, and perhaps it seems to me the great conflict was manifest between his inherent innocence and love of cycling that drove him deeply into depression and I can’t say I can find a thing wrong about that perspective.

    Forever, he will be loved on this day of love, it seems so perpetually fitting for his inherent virtue and innocence

  16. @Souleur

    On its surface, many judge Pantani as a doper, one of a self destructive, impulsive and perhaps smug euro snob. However, upon further study and reading, his personality could not have been farther from this. He indeed was an innocent soul, a nationalist inherently, a proud Italian. As he made rank, turning PRO, the capitalistic expectations of returns on investments revealed the organized dope of an era inflicted and something upon him, and perhaps it seems to me the great conflict was manifest between his inherent innocence and love of cycling that drove him deeply into depression and I can’t say I can find a thing wrong about that perspective.

    Forever, he will be loved on this day of love, it seems so perpetually fitting for his inherent virtue and innocence

    Excuse me, this is where I get off…

    Fine to remember him if he inspired you, to recall some of his great moments against rivals who were similarly juiced… if people view his rides in the context of their time then knock yourselves out. I’m perfectly prepared to let those who want to glorify him get on with it.

    But it’s the attempts to portray him as some sort of victim that I find nauseating and unable to let pass without comment.

    The photo leading this article is of Pantani leading a protest against doping investigations during the 1998 TdF, which he won, and has subsequently been shown to have been taking EPO. That’s not only actively cheating it also means he made a personal choice to conspire with others to prevent any changes to the system which provided him with wealth and fame.

    Great rider, sublime climber and undoubtedly cursed with a fragile personality but “inherently innocent, virtuous victim of capitalistic expectations” – the bollocks he was.

  17. @ChrisO feel free to disagree, I understand.  He, as all true greats are polarizing figures.  And until most recently, as the depths of doping over the past years has been made transparent, it is easy to consider his guilt in this.  However, what if he had no choice nor will as you assume? In the very photo in protest I think it may be misinterpreted.  He isn’t a hypocrite, as it would be so easy to dismiss.  Perhaps he was protesting, seriously, as the doping was so organized, it stole the will of riders, in that they really had no choice, there were expectations, follow or leave, and in that is why I think he really was innocent inherently.  Listen, there is so much written of first hand accounts of the expectations, most comically is Joe Perkins ‘a dog in a hat’, the riders will was not regarded.  The only will that was regarded was the return on sponsors investments.

    I really do respect your opinion, in fact mine was of the same after his death, however, just back up a moment, and consider the possibility in light of the evidence

  18. Interesting interview with Matt Rendell (who wrote ‘The Death of Marco Pantani’) over on Velonews:

    Everyone seems to have forgotten that Pantani had a vicious bullying side as well. I remember in the 1999 Giro, he brought Andrea Tafi to tears in the peloton because Mapei had signed [a pledge for clean cycling]. 

    The guys who retired, were bullied out of the sport, or never got a start because they refused to dope — these are the tragic innocents of the era.

  19. @scaler911

    Sad really. I loved watching him climb. He made it look so easy. I remember hearing the news of his untimely meeting with his maker (if you believe in such things) and just being sad.

    I’ll always wonder why it seems the most inspirational stars that we follow, that we long to be like, don’t stay long in this world (PSH, Hendrix, Staley, Cobain……the list seems endless).

    Whinehouse is on that list too; also in the trainwreck that everyone saw coming but was helpless to stop.

    I remember calling the VMH and telling her to sit down before telling her he died. She was a bigger fan than I was even.

  20. @ChrisO

    A couple points, of importance only if you’ve already accepted there may be some gray area between being a good cheater and a bad cheater. First, I think your argument is fair enough but it also ignores the complexities of being part of a system and not having any realistic alternative choice other than to go with the flow.  He certainly did have a choice to walk away, but that choice would have put him on the street with very few other options to make a living. Not many would consider that a viable alternative to going along with the flow.

    And, he didn’t lead that protest, he participated. The photo just makes it look like he’s the ring leader. Also, it was in protest to how the police were treating the riders – TVM in particular – not against the dope controls themselves.  (I think the last person with the balls to protest a drug test was Anquetil.)

  21. @andrew

    The guys who retired, were bullied out of the sport, or never got a start because they refused to dope “” these are the tragic innocents of the era.

    This is the major point to always remember; I don’t feel so bad for the dopers cheating other dopers – I feel bad for the clean guys who got cheated.

    The other thing we’ve sorted out is that since the UCI defined the 50% hematocrit level, it basically meant that the less talented you were, the more you could dope. It was the farthest thing possible from a level playing field.

    Enough about doping though, those were some batshit crazy awesome races!

  22. Doped, not doped, pressured, or not pressured, fragile soul, or not – regardless what anyone thinks, that man could ride up and descent a mountain like I could only do in my dreams and is the main reason I started cycling. He will forever have my admiration, however misplaced that may be.

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

  24. @Angling Saxon

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

    Oh, someone from Seattle will go off on this.

  25. Another Layne Staley gem:

    The cracks and lines from where you gave up – they make an easy man to read.

  26. So, I guess that a lot of you who admire his (doped up) riding performances and the way he glided up those mountains (doped up of course) must also be in awe and have fond memories of the same skills displayed by (dare I say it) Lance Armstrong?

  27. @Wondering

    Have you ever watched cycling? Armstrong rode with perhaps 1/10 the panache of Pantani. Also, Pantani was a tortured soul who you feel like wanted to do nothing more than race his bike. Retrospectively, Armstrong was a psychopath.

  28. “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.

  29. @Wondering

    When I am watching a race and the road is getting steep and the attacks are flying the last thing on my mind is who is or isn’t doped….  I like to watch guys race bikes, I tend to keep the doping debate and just plain awesome riding in separate compartments of my brain and have a Chinese wall between the two areas …  I am not saying it is right, that is just the way I am.   When I see clips of Lance crushing it, I look at it and think what stage it was? who he was racing? what was the outcome etc?  others may look at them and get disgusted by the fact that he doped blah blah blah …  Me I look at these photos and clips go Holy Fuck look at guy climb …

  30. @Goggles

    I too separate them, and I love watching particularly the 1997 Ulrich “strong man domination” to the 2007 “last of the big doper” races. I just find it so pathetic to idolise some cyclists despite their vices and demolish others who have essentially the same vices. They are entertaining and awesome achievements for what they are.

  31. After several years of fighting against doping allegations in the courts, in his last six months, Pantani scribbled some notes on some pages in his passport then tore them out and put them in a bin. His friend Mengozzi found them and read them out loud sometime later at Pantani’s funeral.

    ‘I’ve been humiliated for nothing,’ he wrote, in reference to his legal struggles. ‘For four years I’ve been in every court. Rules, yes, but the same for everyone.’

    Now isn’t that essentially what Lance and a lot of his fans say.

  32. @GogglesPizano

    @Wondering

    When I am watching a race and the road is getting steep and the attacks are flying the last thing on my mind is who is or isn’t doped…. I like to watch guys race bikes, I tend to keep the doping debate and just plain awesome riding in separate compartments of my brain and have a Chinese wall between the two areas

    And that’s absolutely fine… but it only lasts until someone comes along and starts claiming Pantani as a victim blah blah blah.

    Most of it is pure speculation and romanticised projection- that’s the bit I find hard to take. To look, as Souleur does, at a photo of him protesting against drug testing and suggest he is actually protesting against organised doping. To convince yourself as Frank has that he is just taking part, not leading, when he was the Giro winner and a favourite going into that Tour, who would have been one of the key voices to say yes or no to any action by the peleton.

    Even regarding his climbing talent, Rendell makes the point that we don’t actually know how sublime he was or wasn’t. The evidence suggests he was juiced up for his entire career. He didn’t arrive in the pro peleton, wide-eyed and innocent. But if people want to celebrate his supposed talent then I don’t begrudge it.

    My own speculation  is that Pantani felt betrayed by cycling and couldn’t handle it,  because he couldn’t separate cycling and doping. It was completely ingrained and he didn’t have the confidence to think he could achieve anything without it.

    You might say that’s what makes him a victim but I would also say that’s what rules him out from being called a Great. Champions in any sport are often those who have the most ability to overcome setbacks, doubts and adversity with renewed desire and determination. Look at the difference between say Merckx and Ocana.

    Dealing with pressure and expectation is not victimisation, it’s what makes competitive sport interesting, otherwise you go back to  ‘all shall have prizes’ and ‘it’s the taking part that counts’.

    I agree with @wondering that if you think Pantani was a victim then you have to extend the same indulgence to Armstrong, Ulrich, Ricco, di Luca and the rest. Hell, even to people like Verbruggen and McQuaid who spent their whole lives working in and sustaining a system only to have it torn apart as unacceptable. Hein and Marco, two peas in a pod ?

  33. @ChrisO

    @Souleur

    On its surface, many judge Pantani as a doper, one of a self destructive, impulsive and perhaps smug euro snob. However, upon further study and reading, his personality could not have been farther from this. He indeed was an innocent soul, a nationalist inherently, a proud Italian. As he made rank, turning PRO, the capitalistic expectations of returns on investments revealed the organized dope of an era inflicted and something upon him, and perhaps it seems to me the great conflict was manifest between his inherent innocence and love of cycling that drove him deeply into depression and I can’t say I can find a thing wrong about that perspective.

    Forever, he will be loved on this day of love, it seems so perpetually fitting for his inherent virtue and innocence

    Excuse me, this is where I get off…

    Fine to remember him if he inspired you, to recall some of his great moments against rivals who were similarly juiced… if people view his rides in the context of their time then knock yourselves out. I’m perfectly prepared to let those who want to glorify him get on with it.

    But it’s the attempts to portray him as some sort of victim that I find nauseating and unable to let pass without comment.

    The photo leading this article is of Pantani leading a protest against doping investigations during the 1998 TdF, which he won, and has subsequently been shown to have been taking EPO. That’s not only actively cheating it also means he made a personal choice to conspire with others to prevent any changes to the system which provided him with wealth and fame.

    Great rider, sublime climber and undoubtedly cursed with a fragile personality but “inherently innocent, virtuous victim of capitalistic expectations” – the bollocks he was.

    Agreed.  A tragic figure to be sure.  To be pitied, absolutely.  But to achieve some whitewashed innocence in death I can’t extend it.  I too watched in amazement as Pantani sprinted up those beautiful slopes at an impossible rate.  Panache…no.  Implausible…for sure.  And every time I see the videos, I’m angry with myself that I could have been so gullible.  The ‘did it cause everyone else did it’ just doesn’t wash.  Sad as his story is,  there appears to be little virtue present.  Like “The Wolf of Wall Street”, I don’t think we should celebrate.  Compassion is I feel, more appropriate.

  34. Marco caught my attention when I was young, naive about the doping going on in the pro peloton and my cycling interests were consumed mostly by bikes with fat tyres, not skinny ones. That a road cyclist made that sort of impression on me was notable; I just loved watching him climb everything at a pace that made the others look pedestrian. Flawed? Yup. An innocent participant in the rocket-fuel era? No chance.  But it’s still a terrible shame that anyone should feel the only thing they can do is take their own life over what is ‘only’ a sport.

    We hit the hills today and every climb was taken sur la plaque, in the drops, just because.

  35. 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….

  36. @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 !

  37. 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).

  38. 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.

  39. @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.

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