Photo: Doug Pensinger (Getty)
It makes sense that Marco Pantani remains Italy's most beloved cyclist 14 years after his death. Italy is one of cycling's most vibrant strongholds, and like Brazilian soccer fans, the tifosi demand not just mere victory, but style. Vincenzo Nibali's snoozer of a 2014 Tour de France win is fine, but his iconic solo Milan-San Remo win is the stuff of legends. Bike racing can be a boring sport where the winner is the rider who manages not to fail, rather than the rider who risks it all. It's a harsh sport for the dreamers.
Pantani was a dreamer. He was a plumber's son who grew up poor on Italy's Adriatic coast. Legend has it that he was hit by a car three times as a child, and after he started racing his bike, his father gave him one year to give it his all and see if he could make a career out of it before following him into the plumbing business. He immediately began kicking ass, and in his second season racing Grand Tours he finished third in both the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France, winning two stages at the Giro and generally looking like Italy's great hope to win the country's first Tour in 30 years. His outsized ears earned him the nickname Elefantino, which he hated, instead preferring to be referred to as Il Pirata.
Pantani was a pure action climber, all fireworks and big risks in the mountains. "If I was the carpenter, then he was the artist," Lance Armstrong later wrote of Il Pirata. When he was feeling good, nobody could match his crazed attacks. When he miscalculated, he paid dearly. But that was part of what made Pantani such a thrilling rider; he didn't mind risking it all to score famous wins, and he was always good for a fantastic quote. Pantani earned admiration from the Italian public for his playful personality, charitable contributions, willingness to engage with fans, and habit of partying and enjoying himself. True Grand Tour glory defied him for most of his career, mostly because of sheer bad luck. In 1995, he was hit by a car during a training ride, then struck head-on by another car that had wandered onto the course of Milano-Torino. Pantani's left leg was shattered, and many feared that he'd never be the same. He returned to the Giro in 1997, only for a black cat to scamper out and cause a crash that knocked him out of the race.
He recovered in time to enter the 1997 Tour de France, where he finished on the podium yet again and won atop Alpe d'Huez, the Tour's most famous climb, for the second time in his career. Pantani set a new record for the climb in 1997, blazing up the mountain in 37 minutes and 35 seconds. The record stood throughout the Lance Armstrong years, and it still remains intact today, despite several mountain time trial stages. Armstrong called him, "The best climber in the history of the sport."
The 1998 Giro was a thrilling contrast of styles. Swiss time trialist Alex Zülle embarrassed Pantani in the race's first two time trials, and even won an early stage in the mountains. But Pantani never stopped going after him, and he eventually donned the race leader's maglia rosa after Stage 17. With Pavel Tonkov and Zülle close behind, Pantani needed to come up big on the last mountain stage, a 239-kilometer whopper that finished atop the Plan di Montecampione. Not only did he utterly bury Zülle, who finished over half an hour behind, he shredded Tonkov and won the stage by a minute, tossing his trademark diamond nose stud just before the decisive move.
It was glorious, and he backed it up by then winning the 1998 Tour de France. He was only the sixth rider to win both of cycling's biggest Grand Tours in the same year, and he won the Tour in the same buccaneering fashion. The 1998 Tour, of course, is now considered one of the most infamous editions of the race after the Festina Affair engulfed the procession in controversy. Only 96 of the 189 riders who started the race made it to Paris after a peloton-wide doping scandal was unearthed by French police. Pantani looked to some like the hero who could save cycling from its seemingly new demons, a thrilling rider who could make everyone forget about cheating.
Unfortunately, things got messy in 1999. Pantani won four stages at the 1999 Giro d'Italia and was cruising towards a second straight Giro-Tour double with a 5:38 lead when doping officials knocked on his door. It was June 5, the morning of the penultimate mountain stage of the Giro, when Pantani was kicked out of the race. His hematocrit reading was 51.9 percent, slightly higher than the maximum permissible mark of 50 percent. It wasn't officially a doping violation, but it did signal an abnormally high level of red blood cells. Enraged, Pantani refused to race again that season, and he began to spiral:
He gained weight, went days without sleeping. He always had driven fast, but now he drove into accidents, once speeding the wrong way down a one-way street and wrecking eight cars. There were long, inexplicable absences.
"He could have faced that problem like an adult, like a man," says [journalist Mario] Pugliese. "Or he could have faced it like a kid, and tried to escape it, like a kid. And he chose that."
Pantani exhibited a few flashes of talent after that, but his playful spark was gone. He famously beat Armstrong atop Mont Ventoux in 2000 and destroyed him a few days later in what the Texan would later call his worst day on a bike. However, Pantani dropped out of the race and never returned back to the Tour. He struggled with a rapidly intensifying cocaine addiction that he developed after getting kicked out of the 1999 Giro, and as author Matt Rendell wrote, "His behavior became increasingly irrational and paranoid."
On Valentine's Day 2004, Pantani was found dead of an acute cocaine overdose. He was alone and broken in a Rimini hotel room where he'd holed himself up for days. Italy's great cycling hero did not get a happy ending, and his tragic death is part of why the myth of Pantani still holds such power. He was never the same after getting caught in 1999, and if he'd won that race and kept racing at his peak, he probably could have challenged Armstrong for Tour supremacy.
For years Pantani's family was outspoken in their belief of his innocence, and all manner of conspiracies have been entertained by those close to him. How could such a joyful rider fall so quickly? It's since been revealed that Pantani probably raced most of his career on EPO and he was posthumously linked to Operación Puerto. And yet, the 1999 test remained a strange outlier, and rumors that the test had somehow been rigged or faked persisted for years, even after DNA tests confirmed it was Pantani's blood that had been tested. Pantani's mother said that her son told her he was "scared of winning the 1999 Giro."
Italian police looked into the case in 2014, and two years later, came to a shocking conclusion: The Naples-based Camorra mafia had threatened and bribed a doctor into altering Pantani's test results in order to get him kicked out of the race so they wouldn't have to pay out millions to people who'd placed bets on Pantani to win the Giro. An incarcerated Camorra associate famously said in 2014 that he was advised to put all of his money on one of Pantani's rivals, which got the Forlí police interested enough to open their old investigation of the initial positive test. The attorney general declined to prosecute, citing the statute of limitations, though the investigation found that it was highly likely that Pantani's blood was altered through deplasmation in order to give a false positive.
Marco Pantani had perhaps the greatest season in modern cycling 20 years ago, and he made an often dull sport enthralling to watch. Fading away quietly was never an option for him. In the years since his death the Pantani legend has only continued to grow, and it probably always will.