"Il Pirata" January 13 1970 - February 14, 2004

Monday, February 14, 2005

Marco Pantani, Tour de France 1998

The history of the Tour de France is certainly rife with great stories, heroic stories and terrible tragedies, on the scale that is always somehow beyond the scale of everyday sport. After all, the cyclists not only ride everyday for more than 200km, over a stretch of 3 weeks, they also have to climb several mountains in the Alps and Pyrenees, and sometimes through horrific conditions and terrible roads. Every year, several legends are created over the different stages of the Tour.

Roland Barthes, himself a cycling fan, wrote in Mythology that the very nature of the Tour de France was legendary, not unlike the chivalric quest through the Wasteland for the Holy Grail. The Tour is a balance between the fragility of the men in their wisp-thin armour pitted in a titanic struggle against each other, set upon the backdrop of epic Nature that rises each day to torment them. Often chance steps in to destroy men in their quest; a miscalculated turn on a descent can be fatal, as was sadly the case with Fabio Casartelli in 1995. The structure of the team, with the supporting players often gruesomely sacrificing themselves for the leader, marks comparison with the lords and retainers of medieval times. The yellow jersey has even been compared to the Golden Fleece of the Argonauts.

Most of all, it is in the failure of those who are most courageous that the legend of the Tour is conceived. In 2004, the hero of the Tour was not Armstrong, despite the record-breaking 6th consecutive victory, but a little french rider by the name of Thomas Voeckler, le p'tit blanc. He stole the yellow jersey on the flats in Bretagne, and managed to hold onto it all the way to the Alps, the capping moment being his incredible tenacity at the Plateau de Beille, where he zigzagged haphasardly up the mountain, seemingly always on the verge of falling off his bike in sheer exhaustion. That day, he preserved his lead over Armstrong by a mere 20 seconds. He finished the race stripped of all official accolades, but remains the heart and soul of the Tour 2004.

For this story though, we go back to the Tour, 1998. That year, the year Lance Armstrong was recovering from testicular cancer, Jan Ullrich looked set to win his second consecutive Tour de France. From the start, with the terrible bridge crossing in Ireland which took out almost half the field, Fortuna seemed to glance favourably upon Ullrich. Unbeknownst to him, a small Italian rider by the nickname of The Pirate was to prove the infidelity of the gods. The Pirate was a reknowned grimpeur, climber, and was not known for being an all round cyclist. He wasn't a classified threat, and in fact was the leader of a wild-card team, only let into the Tour by lottery. After the bridge crossing, he was classed in the second bottom half of the standings.

Marco Pantani, the Pirate, was so dubbed not only for his look but also for his style of attack. A courageous and daring rider, but most of all alone and seemingly outside the giants's field, the Pirate was the type of rider to attack mountains with sudden ferocious accelerations that seemed to disprove gravity's rule.

On the 15 stage, Les Deux Alpes, somewhere up a harrowingly narrow path up the mountains amidst freezing temperatures, wind, rain and fog, Marco Pantani attacked the ragged Ullrich, in a sudden swooping tear. The incline of the climb was classified hors categorie, beyond classification. This means even the best climbers are made to suffer, backs seesawing, mouths hanging open, eyes glazed over. Pantani just took off into the clouds, on a day where all had suffered with wind and cold. When the day was ended he had killed the stage by over 10 minutes, taking the lead by 7 minutes over Ullrich. The rest, ordinary riders, wayward knights in this dark quest, were beaten and hollow by the end of the race. Pantani's achievement that day stands as one of the greatest moments of the Tour de France, ever.

Panache: verve, dash; a bunch of feathers/plume, especially on a helmut.

Pantani was to win the Tour that year, a year marked by drug scandal and ill faith. The picture above is from the strike held midway the tour. The cyclists were protesting the McCarthyesque witchtrial over their regime and diet... Pantani wore the feather in his cap that year. He would also go on to win the Giro, the Tour of Italy. Pantani, the antithesis of Lance Armstrong, seemed to dare the very forces of Nature to stop him. He rode against the mountain, more than himself.

One year later, leading the Giro in 1999, Pantani's blood brought back a test whose blood corpuscle count was marginally over the mean. He was suspended from the tour and ostracized. For the Pirate, a man of delicate psyche, it was a striking blow. Even as he struggled to maintain his innocence, the press was happy to find such a likely target to villainise. Pantani slipped quickly into mental illness and had to be hospitalised for several months. In the end, finally acquitted of drug charges in October 2003, Pantani took his own life, February 14, 2004, in a motel room, alone, broken-hearted after being excluded from the sport that he loved.

I admire Marco Pantani's spirit and exploits greatly. It's hard to think of another cyclist who competed with the same amount of panache. A french professor at the Sorbonne, Professor Odon, once remarked that sports needs drugs, needs its athletes to be superhuman, to defy human barriers and to make us dream. Yes, they risk their lives in doing so, but there are worse things than dying. And, if for only one moment, they are to be crowned, that is the price of the hero: that they can be forgiven for almost all other earthly vices for having sacrificed so much.

Il Pirata, li salutiamo.