Il Pirata: The Saint and The Sinner

Il Pirata: The Saint and The Sinner

Marco Pantani is a rider like no other, one of just a handful of cyclists whose exploits are etched into cycling history.

05 February 2019

In 2014, Tom Southam – photographed above, then a relatively recently retired Rapha Condor continental rider, now EF Education Pro Cycling Sports Director – visited Pantani's home region to explore the training routes of il Pirata and discover just how the public’s perception has changed in the years since his death. We republish Tom’s essay to coincide with the re-release of the Pantani Commemorative Jersey.

The land around Marco Pantani’s home town of Cesenatico is pan-flat. For 20 or so kilometres inland from the Adriatic shore there doesn’t seem to be a single metre of elevation. Then, as if some giant hand has pushed all the contours into the middle of the country, the hills jump out of the ground imposingly, one after another.

Unlike the picturesque and rolling colline of neighbouring Tuscany, the hills in the east of Emilia-Romagna and Marche, where Pantani once trained, are steep and unforgiving. The first climb you hit after sauntering in across the flatlands all but stops you in your tracks, the intensity of the gradient like a checkpoint that demands to know if you are serious about forging ahead. In Pantani’s hills you are soon alone. Beyond the first range of foothills there are few houses, the only traffic an occasional Fiat Panda, and what buildings there are seem empty and silent. The sharp rock formations as you climb and descend feel brutal. In a land obsessed by beauty, these jagged mountains glare back at you like a face devoid of kindness.

There is something uncomfortable here. A decade after his death, the same might be said for the memory of Pantani himself, a figure whom for a brief, bright moment seemed the very saviour of professional cycling. Even now, Marco Pantani remains a figure that inspires passionate devotion and ardent dislike in equal measure among cycling fans the world over.

Riders of G.C. Fausto Coppi, Pantani’s old cycling club

View out over the Republic San Marino in March

The problem with Pantani is that, unlike other disgraced stars of the sport, he will never have the chance to explain himself. What makes the truth even harder to come by is that he is simply loved too much. It’s hard to explain the depth of feeling Pantani engenders in many Italians. In Italy he is more than a sporting icon – he is adored with messianic zeal. He is the fallen son, tragically lost to the corruption of the Italian legal system or, some whisper, the mafia. He was, they say, the greatest climber of them all, a man with a God-given talent whom, had he not himself been cheated, would surely have gone on to surpass even the greatest of the greats.

Everyone in Italy remembers Monte Campione in 1998. For five years the world had put up with an 80kg Spaniard winning time trials and holding defensive positions in the mountains. The same uninspired routine had secured him five Tours and two Giri. In 1997, a big German came along and it looked as if he was about to do the same. Fans of road racing had grown sick and tired of these great races being won to a mantra of defence, defence, defence. There was no passion left, there were no heroes. Then suddenly, when the Giro reached the mountains, Pantani the artisan, the underdog, wearing a diamond nose stud and the maglia rosa, took the fight to the world. On Monte Campione, when he finally dropped Pavel Tonkov with that umpteenth attack, Pantani seemed to have made the impossible possible once again. When Marco Pantani won there it was a victory not just for him or his country, but also for every fan of the sport. Here was the last great showman, a rider who understood that bike racing wasn’t just a sporting challenge but a spectacle. He wanted to make races exciting. He understood that people wanted to be entertained and he raced accordingly. His attacks weren’t calculated and his training wasn’t measured. He flew the flag of piracy in a sport that seemed to have lost its edge, and he was the epitome of the greatest quality in a cyclist: panache.

“He flew the flag of piracy in a sport that seemed to have lost its edge and he was the epitome of the greatest quality in a cyclist: panache."

With his bald head and distinctive riding style, the iconoclast became an icon himself: hands on the drops, out the saddle, accelerating seemingly to the point of combustion, sitting for just a moment, then standing out of the saddle again and again, an impossible balancing act. His thighs, the thighs of a much bigger man, locomotive pistons attached to that tiny upper body. And then there were the fine details. Pantani, when he wound up his attacks, wore no helmet and no glasses. No hair to hide his face, no lenses to cover his eyes. An open book. Here was a deeply shy man who allowed people to witness his most intimate moments of suffering. When Pantani raced, it seemed you could see in him the hardness and the fragility not just of cycling but of life. It is the way those that loved him then still see him now – and they are many.

Watching Pantani’s monument being unveiled in the centre of Cesenatico on a sunny February day, a grown man dressed in bright yellow Lycra grabbed my arm and told me: “I was there, I saw him ride past on the Monte Campione.” His opinion was quite unsolicited. “Oh, what a spectacle. And what of these drugs, what difference did they make? They were all on them anyway.” To agree to this, to blindly believe that Pantani’s legions of bandana-wearing fans are right in their devotion, is to accept an image of the man that isn’t entirely true. There is another train of thought about Marco Pantani, one that says, based on sound evidence, that Italy’s favourite son was very much a cheat. Moreover, one who broke the rules time and time again, who refused to admit to it when he was caught and, ultimately, who couldn’t face up to the scale of his own deception. This other train of thought, the argument that ‘they were all on them anyway’, doesn’t wash if you were one of the many athletes who chose not to dope. And make no mistake, by breaking the rules Marco Pantani was cheating others, if not in the professional peloton, then somewhere down the food chain. So what was Marco Pantani? Hero or villain, victim or culprit, saint or sinner? The answer is he was all of them and possibly many other things in between.

Pantani's famous motto "The Carpegna is enough for me".

Valentine’s Day memorials in Cesenatico

Friends of Marco Pantani

“To accept Marco Pantani for what he was is to admit that even the greatest can be flawed."

His capacity to suffer in cycling had quite the opposite effect. It gave us all something beautiful and memorable to behold. Cycling is a sport that rewards suffering. Beyond any other pretext, it is what we tune in for. Watching Pantani sprinting to the summit of Monte Campione, it is easy to see a rider of grace, toes pointing down in that fluid pedaling style as he powers out of the seat for almost the entire last two and-a-half kilometres. To the viewer it is perfection, but to Pantani it must have been something else: a man fighting pain with yet more pain. Standing up again and again, when his body and his mind must have been screaming for him to stop – a man riding towards oblivion.

To accept Marco Pantani for what he was is to admit that even the greatest can be flawed. You don’t have to love Pantani but it is important to remember him. Marco Pantani, saint and sinner, magic and loss. Gone but not forgotten, for all that he was.