14 February 2004. Marco Pantani dies alone in Rimini. In a motel, after three days spent in a small room without seeing anybody. Pantani was still a Pro rider. During the previous year, during the Giro, he was able to show great moments and I remember, all over the winter, many people wondering about Il Pirata’s plans for the 2004. Then it all ended.
It has been fifteen years since Marco Pantani’s passing on the 14th of February 2004. Alessandro Federico takes a look back at the questions, the dismay following the news, and the loss of the flamboyant scalatore. It wouldn’t do a piece like this justice to include just a couple of pictures, so we included many, many pictures as a sort of photographic journey…in no particular order.
Some said they were sure of a new team for Marco: there were rumors around the Domina Vacanze, Cipollini’s team. Marco and Mario were friends.
The PEZ snapped this pic at the start of the ’98 Milan-SanRemo: “For a giant of a climber, I was surprised by his small physical stature.”
That day, the 14th February 2004, a Saturday, the riders were already rolling for a new season on the European roads. I was alone that day. My wife was far away, in her country in Asia, to bring her daughter from the old life to the new life, to a new father and in a new place. I still can feel the same emotions remembering that day. Long phone calls to the Consulates, many paper jobs to be completed in short time, and that thin continuous fear to forget something important. That Saturday was one of that days you start to imagine the next spring. You start to plan the vacations and the long rides on the small country roads. You start to plan the race chasings. I was planning and combining with my incoming father duties. How to be a good father starting from nothing?
My cycling passion has always followed me during my life stages. That month my favorite cycling magazine, the Italian BiciSport, was getting out with a long article on the Pirate’s projects. The journalist was clear: no chance to talk about cycling. Marco Pantani is a man suffering for his personal problems. The man comes before the rider and the cyclist everybody was waiting on his way back, shown during the Zoncolan climb the year before, was lost forever. Was hard to be accepted. That article was a stone on the head of many. March wasn’t so far and everybody was looking to the Sanremo. That Saturday was a warm, sunny Italian Saturday.
I was out, that evening. But I can’t remember where I spent the evening. I was back at home late. It was probably 23:00, but I decided to switch on the TV. I wasn’t ready for my bed. My wife’s small cat was hungry and I left the living room to give it some biscuits. I was barely listening the TV from the kitchen but the voice was very familiar – was Cassani – the ex rider, commentator for RAI talking. So late in the evening – no important races that day. Why was he talking in TV?
I run back in the living room; I was curious. Cassani was in phone interviewed during a night sport program. His voice was serious. He was telling about a dramatic event. I was thinking to an accident. The cat was running all around me remembering my duties but I was caught by the Cassani’s talking. – It’s something terrible, something so sad we can’t accept in a shot this night – I start to remember the article. My brain was slowly linking the two facts together. – Who’s Cassani talking about? – Yes, it’s Marco.
When a strong news touches you, when you come aware of a big event you feel the necessity to share it with somebody else. I phoned immediately to Giorgio that evening. My cousin Giorgio and I were spending so many time in chasing races. I was in love with cycling. He was in love with Marco Pantani. Giorgio was watching the TV and was aware of the bad news. We talked, we remembered many actions, many triumphs, many defeats. We cried. But we weren’t able to make any comment. None of us was asking the other – why? – just because everybody was knowing exactly why.
The Marco Pantani’s death definitively – in my opinion – is one of the most important event of last decade. Since we don’t take conscience that what happen that night has dramatically reduced the riders’ power and they became a toy in hand of journalists, organizers and UCI we won’t understand the reason of several bad recent events. Usually, in front of such an event the most frequent question is – why? – Not for Pantani’s death. It was very clear why Pantani left. It was very clear why a champion, a climber, left alone in front of a mountain of legal paper, processes and accusations wasn’t able to reach the top. Pantani the beast, Pantani the doped. Pantani the downfall of the cycling. There was no why because was clear to anybody else what happened.
In few words Marco Pantani was probably not different from many other champions of his era. We later understood that the winners (and contenders) of the TdF of the late 90’s were using all the same methods. Pantani had the blame to speak too much and, especially, ride a sort of cyclist’s strike against CONI and Italian Federation during the Giro 1999, few days before that famous 5th June when his blood was found “abnormal”.
Looking nowadays to that event we can understand how strong was the message to all the cyclists. “Stay your place” – “Don’t touch the wires”. That’s one of the reason we have now great riders but small heroes. And this system, this suspicious feeling already affected all supporters dreams and fantasy. There’s a picture that shows Armstrong and Pantani in the top of Mont Ventoux. That was a battle. That was an epic and real duel. That was the beginning of the century. But someone else decided we couldn’t enjoy it. Pantani wasn’t invited any more to that competition. Why?
Are you really still looking for the answer?