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Dauphiné Libéré
Photo ©: Sirotti

Special Edition Cycling News for February 15, 2004

Edited by Chris Henry, Tim Maloney & Jeff Jones

Marco Pantani remembered

Back to victory in 2000
Photo: © AFP
Click for larger image

Thirty four year old Marco Pantani was found dead in a room in Le Rose di Rimini apartments in the Italian Adriatic coastal city of Rimini Saturday afternoon, February 14.

According to reports on La Gazzetta dello Sport, Pantani went to Le Rose apartments in viale Regina Elena along the sea front in Rimini a few days ago. The last time anyone saw him was Saturday afternoon. When no-one saw him come down for dinner at 9:30pm, the desk clerk of the hotel called the police. They knocked on the door of his room and found it locked from the inside. They finally gained access and found Pantani's partially clothed body on the floor next to his bed.

The cause of death is not yet known, although according to initial information from the Rimini police, Pantani did not die a violent death. Italian news agency ANSA is reporting that possible pharmaceutical products (anti-depressants) were found next to his body. An autopsy will be performed on Monday according to Italian law.

The news of Pantani's death has swept through the Italian cycling community like lightning, and people are extremely upset to hear it. Italian national coach Franco Ballerini was quoted by La Gazzetta dello Sport as saying that, "This is huge, it doesn't seem real."

Italian TV commentator Davide Cassani, who was an old friend of Pantani's told RAI-TV's Sport2 Sera program that, "I'd like to know what find words to describe this is impossible. Marco and I spent a lot of time together, a lot of great moments, but he got into a mess. The last time I spoke to him, in mid-January, he was deeply bitter ... he'd changed...he wasn't the same person I knew. But Pantani brought a lot of new people into cycling and I was asking him when he would come back...but Pantani wasn't the same anymore. He had become so bitter (towards cycling). And I'm torn up."

Reactions from the peloton

Reached at his home in Gerona, Spain, five time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong told Cyclingnews Sunday morning that "This is terrible and shocking news. My thoughts and condolences go out to his family, friends, and fans. Regardless of our battles on or off the bike, I had a deep respect for Marco. Cycling has indeed lost a great champion and a great personality."

Giuseppe Martinelli, Pantani's former direttore sportivo at Mercatone Uno was still friendly with the former Tour & Giro winner and his bittersweet comments today spoke volumes. "For those who loved Marco there is only one word for this: tragedy. He was a phenomenon, and this can't be denied. Pantani was the number one in cycling, but he became the symbol of evil. Certainly some didn't love him. And others wanted too much of him. But make no mistake, Marco was a giant."

"I'm destroyed... traumatized", said a shocked Felice Gimondi when he heard the news of Pantani's death. "Marco paid a high price for all this...for years he was in the eye of the hurricane after he was the number one cyclist in the world. And then he was all alone and fragile."

At the Tour Méditerranéen, Domina Vacanze's Mario Scirea and his teammates were celebrating Mario Cipollini's win this evening when they heard the news about Pantani. "We're all very upset", said Scirea. "It's a terrible blow and news I would have never expected."

Gilberto Simoni, winner of the Giro d'Italia in 2001 and 2003, upon hearing the news of Pantani's death, was shocked. "It's really hard to believe this... I'm so sorry. He was really young; only a year older than me. I just can't think about this. We always were rivals but Pantani achieved a lot more than I have. That's all I can say for now..."

Simoni's Saeco teammate Danilo Di Luca said simply, "Not having him in the peloton is a huge loss. With Pantani we lose a great champion, a part of cycling's history."

1998: Pantani at his peak
Photo: © Mitchell Clinton
Click for larger image

Sprinter Alessandro Petacchi fondly remembered Marco Pantani, saying admiringly that "He had many great moments in cycling, so it's difficult to chose one. However, I'll always remember the Giro stage to Oropa, when his chain came off on the final climb. Pantani managed to get his chain back on and went on to win the stage. At the Giro last year, we had a few laughs together. He seemed relaxed with a lot of desire to come back... I didn't think that after the Giro he would continue to have his (psychological) problems."

Tour de France stage winner and Pantani's former roommate at Carrera, Claudio Chiapucchi, remembered fondly their times together. "Now Marco has flown away," he said. "I'm sorry to say that his death will probably turn into a spectacle. Until a few hours ago, a lot of people were pointing their fingers at him as a bad person, now they're all saying 'he was a great person'. Pantani could have used more friends when he was alive. When I saw Pantani this past summer, he didn't seem very happy... But I didn't want to say anything to him. A few months ago, (José Maria) Jimenez died, now it's Marco. I'll miss him a lot."

Another Tour de France stage winner, Fernando Escartin expressed his sadness and also evoked the death of Jimenez. "I am very sad to hear this news and the only thing that comes to mind is the same situation with Chava (Jose Maria Jimenez), assuming they were similar," Escartin commented. "It's a very abrupt change, and you have to keep your head straight and be mentally strong, because you can find yourself without having the public to support you. Cycling is very hard, and you pass a lot of time away from home alone and when you retire, you life changes in major ways."

Manolo Saiz of Liberty Seguros also remembered Pantani with affection: "He was the best climber I ever saw. He was a brave racer, and we have to keep with us the moments how he attacked Indurain."

The Pirate strikes
Photo: © Mitchell Clinton
Click for larger image

Alberto Zaccheroni, coach of Milano's Internazione soccer team was a friend of Pantani and was shocked by the news of Pantani's passing. "We knew, everybody knew, that Pantani had problems, but we couldn't imagine it would come to this. I tried to get a hold of him but it became difficult in the last few months. We tried to get him to play in a celebrity soccer match this summer but nothing doing. We couldn't find Pantani."

Amedeo Colombo, President of the Italian Professional Cyclist's Union said of Pantani today that "We want to remember the man first, before the racer. Because Marco was one of the most extraordinary champions that cycling has ever known but he was also a rare person, of a rare sensitivity. Maybe that's really what killed him."

Two time Giro winner Giuseppe Saronni, who last was in contact with Pantani at the 2003 Giro, acknowledged the rider's sensitivity."Rumours were floating around his entourage, some of which may have been true," Saronni commented. "When you're used to competing, you grow accustomed to winning and to losing, but without suffering too much. Not him. His problems were probably rooted much deeper."

Marco Pantani: Palmarès

2003 (Mercatone Uno - Scanavino)

2nd, Stage 5, Settimana Ciclistica Coppi-Bartali
14th, Giro d'Italia

2000 (Mercatone Uno)

1st, Stages 12 & 15, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 14, Tour de France
2nd, Stage 19, Giro d'Italia

1999 (Mercatone Uno - Bianchi)

1st, Stages 8, 15, 19 & 20, Giro d'Italia
1st, Stage 2, Setmana Catalana
1st GC & Stage 4, Vuelta a Murcia
2nd, Stages 14 & 16 in Giro d'Italia

1998 (Mercatone Uno)

1st GC, Stages 11 & 15, Tour de France
1st GC, Stages 14 & 19, Giro d'Italia
1st, Stage 4a, Vuelta a Murcia
2nd, Stages 10 & 16, Tour de France
2nd, Stages 11, 17 & 18, Giro d'Italia
3rd, Stage 20, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 21, Giro d'Italia
3rd, Vuelta a Murcia

1997 (Mercatone Uno)

1st, Stages 13 & 15, Tour De France
2nd, Stage 10, Tour de France
2nd, A travers Lausanne
2nd, Stage 5b, Vuelta al Pais Vasco
2nd, Stage 2, Vuelta a Murcia
3rd GC & Stage 9, Tour de France
3rd, Vuelta al Pais Vasco
3rd, Stage 5, Giro d'Italia

1995 (Carrera)

1st, Stages 10 & 14 & Best U25 Rider, Tour De France
1st, Stage 9, Tour de Suisse
3rd, World Championship
13th GC, Tour de France

1994 (Carrera)

1st, Stages 14 & 15, Giro d'Italia
2nd GC & Best Young Rider, Giro d'Italia
2nd, Stages 12 & 19, Tour de France
3rd GC & Best U25 Rider, Tour de France
3rd, Stage 18, Giro d'Italia
3rd, Stages 11 & 17, Tour de France

1993 (Carrera)

5th, Giro del Trentino


By Tim Maloney, European editor

Considered perhaps the greatest climber of his generation, Italian professional cyclist Marco Pantani was born in Cesena, Italy on January 13, 1970. As an amateur, he brilliantly won the 1992 Baby Giro d'Italia by his climbing prowess. Pantani had 36 pro wins, among which were his first, at the 1994 Giro d'Italia in Merano and his last pro win at the Tour De France in 2000 at Courchevel. Pantani was third in the 1995 World Road Championships in Duitama (Colombia).

Soon after his great ride in Colombia in 1995, Pantani crashed hard in Milano-Torino on the descent of Pino Torinese and suffered a serious compound fracture of his left leg. After a long and difficult rehabilitation, Pantani started the 1997 Giro d'Italia but crashed out again on the stage to Chiunzi and abandoned the race.

In 1998, Pantani came back to magnificently win the Giro-Tour double, the first time an Italian had realized the "bis" since Fausto Coppi did so (for the second time) in 1952. The miniscule climber inspired legions of Italian tifosi in the late 1990's with his dynamic, attacking style, who named the beloved Pantani "Il Pirata" (The Pirate), for his radical look with a personalized bandana, shaved head and earring. In total, Pantani won eight stages of the Giro and eight stages of the Tour. He wore the Maillot Jaune 6 times and the Maglia Rosa 14 times in his career.

Wearing the maglia rosa and two days away from winning the 1999 Giro d'Italia, Pantani was kicked out of the race for high haematocrit, thus beginning his downward spiral that tragically concluded today in Rimini. Pantani faced alleged sporting fraud charges in his career, but the climber from Cesenatico was never found guilty of any real charges. In 2000, Pantani did receive a three-month suspended prison sentence for high hematocrit levels, but his conviction was then overturned on appeal. In 2002, Pantani served a six month UCI ban after a syringe containing traces of insulin was found in his hotel room in the San Remo "blitz" during the 2000 Giro.

Coming back from his suspension, Pantani had poor results in 2002, but once again in 2003, Pantani made another comeback in the Giro d'Italia. He had some respectable performances, eventually finishing 14th but was then crushed by his non-selection for the Centenary Tour De France and plunged into the abyss of deep depression. In late June, Pantani checked into a psychiatric clinic near Padova to treat his depression.

Once out of the clinic late last year, Pantani told his local Rimini newspaper that "You can forget about Pantani the athlete. I still ride my bike, just to turn my legs," he said, "But cycling is the last thing on my mind. I haven't been to the gym for months. I've gained 15 kilos and I have the physique of a little bull."

Pantani was found dead in Rimini on February 14, 2004. He is survived by his parents.

Troubled climbers

By Léo Woodland

Marco Pantani would be neither the first winner of the Tour de France nor the race's first star climber to have died unexpectedly. The reason for his death in a hotel room in Rimini, 20km from where he was born, still has to be established. Suicide has not yet been ruled out, though it seems less likely as more facts come to light. The demons that seem to plague some top climbers have resulted in at least two suicides, though: those of the Tour's first star climber, René Pottier, and of Thierry Claveyrolat.

Pottier, born in Moret-sur-Loing in June 1879, was the opposite of Pantani. Where the Italian was animated and talkative, Pottier was a solemn, sad-faced man who spoke little and never joked. In 1905 he led over the Ballon d'Alsace close to the German border, the first mountain climb there had been in the Tour. The organiser, Henri Desgrange, relished the pain it would inflict on men who knew little about training and rode iron-heavy, gearless bikes on roads made for mules.

He wasn't far wrong. The mountain took an awful toll and the effort gave Pottier tendinitis and he abandoned the race. But that merely encouraged Henri Desgrange. He included the Ballon again in 1906 and gleefully predicted that no human could manage it without dismounting. But he was wrong. Pottier not only rode all the way but he passed Desgrange's struggling car in the process. He went on to win not only the Tour but four consecutive stages through the Vosges and the Alps. He won one of them, to Nice, despite stopping in a bar for a jug of wine.

But he never rode the Tour again. On January 25, 1907, he went to the shed at Levallois-Perret near Paris, where Peugeot kept the team's bikes, and hanged himself from his own bike hook. He left no suicide note. His brother said he had died "of sentimental reasons." It emerged that his wife had had an affair while he was away at the race.

Thierry Claveyrolat, king of the mountains in 1990, also killed himself. He grew depressed after being involved in a road crash that left a family of four badly injured. He shot himself at home in September 1999.

Another troubled climbers was the brush-haired Frenchman René Vietto, the star of the 1930s and second in the 1939 Tour. He was never an easy man but he became increasingly depressed and anti-social after his career ended and lived as a virtual hermit on his farm near Cannes. He once said in a TV interview that he had had suicidal tendencies since childhood.

Another badly affected was Luxembourg's Charly Gaul. He too lived as a hermit, overweight, bearded and unrecognisable, sending away the few journalists who tracked him to his cabin in the woods. He has since returned to public life but there are great gaps in his memory and he frequently appears confused and distant.

For Pantani, whose peers regard him as a giant on the road, the stress and emotional scars stemming from the scandals which derailed his career have taken a tragic toll and added the Italian to a list of top cyclists who found life off the bike more difficult than on.

[Editor's note: Spanish climber José Maria Jimenez, who died last December, aged 32, could also be included in the class of "troubled climbers". Although Jimenez' death from heart failure was not reported as suicide, it was well known that he had been suffering from depression for two years. His death provoked a similar, although not as strong, reaction in Spain as Marco Pantani's did in Italy.]

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