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BLACK SHEEP CYCLING CONTINUES ITS OCCASIONAL SERIES CELEBRATING THE HEROES AND VILLAINS WHO DID THINGS DIFFERENTLY, THE ANTI-CONFORMISTS, THE RULE-BREAKERS AND MAVERICKS …

 

For his detractors he is a once in a generation talent who turned to the dark arts, a paranoid maniac who blamed everyone else for his misfortune, overly protected by a loyal press corps and a cocaine addict who masterminded his own seedy descent. For his lovers he is modern cyclist’s greatest climber, a fragile character taken advantage of by the system, an icon of anti-establishment and individualism. We’re not here to speculate on either. Just to remember a truly unique sportsman, a national icon who finished lonely, mentally and physically broke. Drawing from the spirit of Stadio’s 2008 tribute Mi alzo sui pedali / I get up on the pedals

Adesso mi sembra tutto distante 
La maglia rosa e quegli anni felici 
E il Giro d’Italia e poi il Tour de France 
Ed anche gli amici che non erano amici
It all now seems really distant 
The pink jersey and those happy years 
The Giro d’Italia and then the Tour de France 
And also the friends who weren’t (really) friends

Marco Pantani died from acute cocaine poisoning on Valentine’s Day in 2004. Alone in a two-bit hotel room in an out of season party resort. Rimini on the Adriatic coast is infamous for its nightlife and easy drugs. Out of season it’s deserted. The clubs and ice cream parlours closed. Total shutdown. As desolate as the room on the fifth floor of Hotel Residence Le Rose where Pantani had spent the previous five days. His presence noted only for daily pizza deliveries and the habitual morning call to reception to extend his stay for another 24 hours. Witnesses say he looked dishevelled and smelt terribly.

 

Pantani was, and is, genuinely loved, by Italians. In his early years he was the precocious, shy, unglamorously balding and nerdy looking climber who developed a style, which well, was distinctly Italian ‘cool’ of its time. He looked good in pink. The earrings a nod to Roberto Baggio, Italy’s greatest footballer of the 1990s, the shaved head masked by a bandana since favoured by the ageing Italian male on holiday (whisper Silvio Berlusconi), the goatee beard, the elfish ears and the deep, intense, single-minded stare. One of a brave, fearless, sometimes reckless and aggressive rider.

 

 

Ho preso le cose fin troppo sul serio
Ho preso anche il fatto di aver ogni tanto
Esagerato per sentirmi più vero
I took things too seriously 
I also realize that every so often
I exaggerated to feel more real
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Pantani burnt twice as bright but half as long. Injuries blighted his early career. In 1995, during the Milano-Torino race he crashed into a car which had erroneously entered the course. The impact was devastating. Only an emergency transfusion saved his life. Single-mindedly he rebuilt his career from scratch becoming the world’s greatest cyclist. In 1997 he set the record for an ascent up Alpe d’Huez. He’s the last man to win the Tour and the Giro in the same year (1998). The epic rivalry with the contrasting, ultra-confident, alpha male Lance Armstrong should have dominated the cycling landscape for a decade.

 

Everything seemed to tumble after Pantani’s expulsion from the 1999 Giro d’Italia at Madonna di Campiglio. Something Il Pirata took immeasurably badly. The doping allegations grew. The internal torments and external interference became more intense. It was here those closest to him say the demons set in. The legal battles and distractions mounted.

 

Following Pantani’s death, Armstrong credited him with being cyclist’s greatest climber, describing himself as a carpenter compared to Pantani the artist. One of the more poignant visions of Pantani is not of him climbing, but the tossing of the bandana on reaching a summit to begin a descent which at the same time was reckless, heroic, kamikaze and unique.

 

Rest in peace, Marco.

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