What's Cool In Road Cycling

Marco: Thanks For Making Us Believe

Everybody wants kindness in their lives. Sadly, Marco Pantani’s ran out long before he passed away in a Rimini seaside hotel on Saturday.You can find a great history of Pantani’s career elsewhere on this site, but this piece is about what his death means to me.

I had ploughed my way home from work in a seasonal downpour in the summer of 1998, just after Festina had sunk and cycling was floundering. I turned on the TV and watched Pantani fly through the gloom, putting Jan Ullrich to the sword on Les Deux Alps.

Every turn of his pedals as he soared away lifted my spirits. I believed that you could be flawed, fragile and fantastic at the same time, that you could disregard convention and just go with your feelings. Pantani was the only guy in the 1990s that made me believe that you could go from disaster to greatness just by climbing a mountain. He challenged everything – great cycling rivals, the environment, tactics and common sense, injuries and setbacks – but lost the battle with himself.

Pantani expressed his genius and talent through his dazzling climbing, but equally through his chaotic personal life and fragile emotions. We know how brilliant he could be when everything went right, and can guess how brilliant he could have been if it had been held together for him. Maybe having a talent as rare as Marco had, the most spectacular thing you can do is to squander it.

He was fantastic, but flawed, just like ‘El Chaba’ Jimenez, and so many people are making that comparison. Eurosport have a section of their website dedicated to Marco – currently there are 40 pages of tributes from those who loved him all over the world. The messages display grief, surprise and anger in equal measure, because none of us can take in that it came to this. We all believed in Il Pirata, but no one (even Pantani himself) seemed to believe in Marco Pantani, the man. Maybe we all feel guilty about his loss because he never got support when he truly needed it.

In death, still stalked by questions, Pantani has achieved even more than he did in his mayfly-brilliant career. Like the other great Italian Campionissimi, Fausto Coppi (dead from a tropical illness, or murdered?) and Ottavio Bottechia (murdered, or dead in an accident?), he is no longer Pantani the legend; he is Pantani the myth.

La Gazzetta dello Sport is comparing Saturday’s news with Italy’s other desperate national tragedies, such as the 1949 air crash that wiped out the superstar Torino soccer team, and the riot that caused the deaths of 35 Juventus soccer fans in 1985.

That’s how it should be, because this is a tragedy that goes beyond cycling. It touches everyone who has ever dared to believe for a second that the ordinary and the extraordinary can come together.

Maybe those riders who have never considered putting a full stop on cycling’s destructive lifestyle will finally wake up. You can have it all and lose it. Maybe it’s better to believe that small victories are enough.

Thank you, Marco, for making us believe.

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