Marco Pantani remembered

Marco Pantani died on this day in 2004. The Italian cyclist was wildly popular during his career and has become the stuff of legend. Visually recognisable, his exploits on the bike combined with posthumous myth ensure Il Pirata, the pirate, is still famous today.

Swashbuckling on the bike but the reality is less glorious. The song in the video above is by French band Les Wampas, a tribute but one that captures the sad demise of a man dying alone in a seaside hotel during the winter.

Le soir quand l’Italie est triste (In the evening when Italy is sad)
Elle ressemble à Rimini. (It looks like Rimini)
Non mais vraiment qu’est ce qui t’a pris (But really what got into you)
D’aller mourir à Rimini? (To go and die in Rimini)

Matt Rendell’s 2006 book, The Death of Marco Pantani, is a good read if you want to find out more about both the Il Pirate myth and the realities behind it.

If you’re new to the sport then here is a video clip of him in the Giro d’Italia. Watch his team mates churn huge gears, look on as he takes on his rivals one by one with sharp accelerations, note the way he climbs out of the saddle with his hands on the drops, see how smooth his pedal stroke is. Rides like this made him a hero in Italy and beyond, he could change the shape of any race.

43 thoughts on “Marco Pantani remembered”

  1. He was the last great climber, perhaps only Contador shares his riding style yet he doesn’t attack many kms from a stage finish like Marco did. In an age where the sport seemed riddled with drug controversies, it was Pantani’s style and fluidity juxtaposed against Ullrich’s powerful seated climbing that provided some of the greatest battles on the slopes of Italy and France.

  2. “…perhaps only Contador shares his riding style yet he doesn’t attack many kms from a stage finish like Marco did.”

    “riddled with drug controversies”

    I was really amazing how he managed to attack so far from the stage finish, so hard, and so often…

  3. inner ring, as a 90’s kid who didnt get into cycling untill the mid 00’s is there any chance of a timeline to show how the great riders’ career peaks overlapped? i get that pantini was after indurain and before lance but it’d be good to be able to put vids like these in context.

  4. Pantani emerged in the early 90s and hit his peak about 1996 as did Ullrich who superceded Reiss. Lance didn’t re-appear until 1999 by which time Pantani was starting to suffer from his fame. Indurain finished about 1995/6. For good or bad, Armstrong was able to put them all to the sword seemingly at will.
    Pantani also eschewed any sprocket bigger than 23t

  5. No denying that’s great to watch, and given the likely level(ish) playing field (all on the juice?) it’s still very impressive.

    Was looking at how climb times on Alpe Duez have increased by some 3 minutes in the last few years when compared with this era. Watching that Giro clip I can understand why.

  6. Wow! What an exciting clip! One of the great climbing exhibitions. It seemed a strange throwback to see all the riders — especially Pantani, with his distinctive dome — riding without helmets.

  7. Pantani was an electrifying rider. I highly recommend Matt Rendell’s book, “The Death of Marco Pantani” for a look at the man behind the mask or bandana as it were.

  8. I loved Pantani and remember the ’98 tour as one of the greatest.

    Ultimately though we were all cheated. One of the premises of Rendell’s book is that the era of Pantani wasn’t a level playing field at all. Certain riders’ bodies reacted very well to EPO. Who’s to say if without EPO, Pantani would have been at the pinnacle of the sport? No-one.

  9. People who are amazed at Pantani’s performances are right to be amazed. They were achieved with extreme pharmalogical assistance. No doubt he was a very talented rider, but his ultimate talent (like those who dominated immediately before and after) was his physiological reaction to performance enhancing drugs. His was a pharmalogical rather than sporting genius.

  10. I can’t decide on Pantani – he turned pro with Carrera in 1990. A team being fueled by Prof Conconi from a proven/documented 1993 date, but most likely much earlier. A team where his slightly older team mates suddenly starting performing at a level never before hinted at. All Pantani’s greatest results coincided with an HCT of >56%. Later in his career, he then utilised Fuentes services and the programme that was published in the Italian press was just mind boggling (and very expensive).

    I fear Pantani might have actually been a particularly ordinary pro. More akin to either Chiapucci or Bugno in their early careers, before ‘things’ really took off?

    An outrageous charger, in a field full of chargers – perhaps not the stuff of legend?

  11. Yes, there’s little doubting what was going behind the scenes in terms of pharmacology and we see him ending up alone in a hotel room and seemingly addiction gets the better of him. Rendell’s book explains some of this but we’ll probably never get much more detail.

    Pantani’s career was like a mountain stage, full of highs and lows until he was thrown out of the Giro d’Italia and from this point he seems to struggle with addiction and more.

  12. There is a drug for cadence, its called EPO. By increasing the body’s VO2 Max and thus power output to outrageous levels, a faster cadence and or the pushing of a larger gear is possible and the user can push far beyond the point of someone who doesn’t dope.

    Face it. Pantani was a pharmalogical illusion. Fun to watch, but entirely false.

  13. Chris: I haven’t read Rendell’s book. What evidence does he provide of EPO having a significantly different effect depending on the user? Not that it would matter hugely, because the same could be said of caffein, but one thing is to raise doubts and another one to make assertions. (Anyway, I have read that Fuentes was basically swindling Mancebo, whose haematocrit was naturally very high, and he didn’t need blood-doping. Go figure).

    Tim Naughton: I am not sure we can establish a clear-cut difference between sports and pharmacology. Both are about how the human body functions, about physiology.

    Stephen M.: I’m ready to accept that the Carrera team was one of the first to use EPO. But records differ about exactly when. I would say Perini’s 8th place in 1992 was surely the most blatant case of sudden EPO-related improvement. There can be reason to think Chiappucci’s improvement in 1991 was about EPO, although it’s not so sure, as he was pretty good already in 1990 (too early for EPO, when by the way Bugno already was a superstar). Poulnikov is the other Carrera rider who made it to the top 10 in the Tour in the 90s, but in the late 80s he had already proved serious climbing abilities climber.

  14. My wife wrote this upon learning of Il Pirata’s death.

    In Memoriam: Marco Pantani
    It was just one of many slogans scrawled onto the homemade banners that floated above a sea of cheering tifosi gathered atop the Passo Mortirolo. But its truth rang though the chaos and sticks in my head today. It said, “Pirata—farci sognare” make us dream.
    This is the precious gift of sports heroes. Marco did make us dream—he made us dream about what humanity could be. He was a shy, elfin, bald guy who showed that ordinary men could fly… When Marco was in the race and the road tilted upwards, even the cynical eyes of wrinkled Italian men sparkled with joyous anticipation. He made anything, everything seem possible for all of us. It’s as if he was a god from Olympus, holding up some magic mirror that reflected the potential in us all.
    And so it seemed appropriate, a year or two ago, when I read that he was training alone in those Olympian mountains of Greece. It was right that he escape to those lofty, dreamy, peaks—because the world below had done nothing but drag him down.
    A jeep strayed into his high-speed path on a supposedly closed race-course, mangled his leg and nearly took his life. But he rose from those ashes, first to sing poetry on the broadcast of a Giro he should have won but couldn’t take part in, later to pedal perilously close to the heavens, winning the Giro and the Tour, resurrecting our dreams again.
    Then a legal scandal pulled him down. Guilty or innocent, he was chosen to bear the brunt of a massive backlash against the drugs that had infested his sport. For every would-be eagle inspired by his soaring, there seemed to be two vultures waiting to feed upon his wounds. And as the wounds multiplied so did the vultures—you could see them pecking at his soul in that last, valiant, return to the Giro.
    Well, they, we, finally killed him off. Today Marco was found dead in a hotel. He didn’t die at the peak of his beauty; the modern sports machine had been sucking the life from him for years. Maybe he decided to take the last part himself.
    I’d like to imagine that he’s really still in those hills, escaped from the world of big-time sport, soaring among the peaks of Olympian gods. You may say that’s just a dream, but dreams are one of the best things we have. And Marco made us dream.

    –Heather Reid

  15. Larry & Heather: seems like we share very similar values & sensibilities. Enjoy your posts – and have commented on many – over at Italian Cycling Journal too. Pantani was inspiring: I was at Les Deux Alpes in 1998, and didn’t even go out to see the finish because the weather was so bad. Forza Marco …

  16. Tim, I acknowledge what you say and understand that Pantani is not someone you consider to be a cycling legend. However, awarding a rider the status of a “legend” can be a personal thing. Clearly, many people consider Pantani a legend of the sport (as do I).

  17. Something magnificent about watching a well-drilled squadra put the hammer down for a leader that can subsequently get the job done. I was awed by Pantani when he road as a champion, dismayed by his failures and fall, and have grown to appreciate him moreso in retrospect.

  18. At this point I accept that from the 80’s until the Festina Affair and beyond were riddled with drug use and consider it just another tool that was used. So I can watch Il Pirata with fond memories of domination and style. He was truly one of, if not the last, great pure climbers.

  19. Our favorite Pantani related song is Stadio’s “…e mi alzo sui pedali” (roughly – “I get myself up on the pedals”) from their Parole nel Vento album. In the overall analysis we think Pantani was a brilliant talent and exceptional climber long BEFORE doping with EPO. What doping did for Marco was make possible his amazing time trialing, which made him competitive in grand tours. But what makes him more than “just another doper” were his triumphs over the crashes and injuries ala Fausto Coppi, something Anglophone journalists seem to ignore in their zeal to condemn the Pirate as the symbol of all that was wrong with pro cycling in that era. With that, Larry will now step off his soapbox – RIP Pirata.

  20. That video is great. It inspired me to try climbing the hill to school in the drops while out of the saddle; I think I went much faster. While I (a relative newcomer to caring about professional cycling) understand that there was much doping in the 90s, I’m thankful for this and other blog posts that have helped me understand why many are still passionate enough about him to argue about Marco Pantani.

    (as an aside, I got most of my information about doping in the 90s from here: It may not be the most informative, but it might help some of the above commenters to enjoy that period of cycling again, tainted though it is.)

  21. When I hear the phrase “doped to the gills”, I think of Riis (his tour winning climbing) and Pantani.

    But juiced or not, the man was amazing to watch. It’s possible to make the argument that racing was better when the peleton was juiced. LA’s early tour wins were filled with guys taking huge flyers and coming out of nowhere to win stages, KOM’s, etc.

  22. It’s easy with hindsight to say ‘EPO’, ‘cheat’ etc. But I didn’t see any riders protesting that Pantani was a cheat. He blasted past Jalabert (French champs jersey) and others (Simoni?). I don’t recall them climbing off their bikes in protest. Just enjoy the history for what it was.

  23. I enjoyed this post – and the comments. And the translation of the first verse of Rimini, by Les Wampas, is better than I could come up with from Any chance of giving the rest of the lyrics in English?

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