Pantani Roadside: Chasing le Tour 1998
February 14th takes on a very different meaning for fans of pro cycling with this year marking ten years since Marco Pantani’s tragic death. But in 1998, Il Pirata was at the top – winning the rare Giro – Tour double. Ale Federico set out from Genoa on his new moto to see the race for himself, and recorded the odyssey in his personal diary…
One thing that we all share here at PEZ is our common sense for adventure, and while the best adventures only seem to appear after they’ve happened, they tempt our thirst for the next one, and the next after that.
For 13 days in July 1998, Ale Federico chased the Tour alone, with only his moto and camping gear, and witnessed a Tour that was a turning point in modern cycling. The internet was still young, and remote access almost nil, so roadside fans had little information about how a stage was developing until they’d read about it in the next day’s paper, or could find a bar with a decent tv feed. No matter, sometimes the best days end up being the ones you feel the most alone…
Le Pradet, 17th July 1998
It has been a long way. Yesterday I was barely able to decide, just if somebody had asked me to not leave, I would not have. I feel little bit alone and the short trip to come has been anyway so hard. The road to Ventimiglia was jammed by trucks even in the early morning. At the French border the police stopped me to check the documents; all in order. Then the Cote d’Azur through Nice and Cannes where the traffic was terrible. After Cannes the road has headed inland, where the red rocks were just surrounding a desert land: the hot Provence.
Postcard from Le Pradet.
It was lunch time but I moved on to try to gain some more kilometres. Bad idea, I was feeling very tired because I’m not used to riding the motorcycle for such a long time. The position is not comfortable and I was frequently stopping in rest areas without even a shadow. Not even water. At a certain moment I decided to turn to the sea, towards Toulon, to find camping and a beach to have a fresh swim. However, on that road the wind was blowing very strong: the Mistral has no mercy. Once at the camping I mounted the tent and I had my swim: the water was pretty cold… maybe was the sun I had the whole day…
La Gran Motte, 18th July 1998
So hard. The camping yesterday night was a sort of rave party full of people equipped with Harley Davidsons with full radio on and beer till the first lights of the day; I didn’t sleep quite an hour. In the morning I had to wake up to continue my trip.
Le Pradet, the small village was not so bad at all: a croissant and the newspaper. Seems the Festina will be out of the Tour for a doping affair. Where I’m now going? Towards a race without contenders? A reason more to turn the wheels heading back home. I decide to continue and I take this decision with a weight on the heart.
Again on the road I understand it will be another hard traffic day. Marseille transit is a nightmare, especially in the underwater tunnel. Out of there isn’t getting better, heading to Montpellier, around Martigues there was a long straight road exposed to the full sun and to bees coming from a huge orchard beside. Behind me big and fast trucks. Trucks or bees: hard choice. At noon I resolve to proceed and, close to Lunel I divert to the sea after witnessing a couple of bad incidents on the “autoroute du sud”.
The Festina Affair.
I come in to La Gran Motte, a big futuristic village on the sea which is really bad to see. I find camping and I wait for the Tour live on TV. Today’s the time trial: is Ullrich going to kill the race? Big introduction to the Festina case: Virenque cries and close to him Brochard and Dufaux too. Who’s going to beat the German now? Comes the race and Ullrich wins. Jalabert is not far away and seems to be the last chance of interesting race. Where’s Pantani? No info about him on French TV. I tell to myself that the race is not finished yet. Jalabert is not far. I know I’m lying.
Somewhere close to St Gaudens ,19th July 1998
I wake up after a long restful nap. Am I already used to sleeping inside the tent? The weather is uncertain and black clouds are telling nothing good to me. I prepare for the rain and I leave La Gran Motte: I didn’t feel well here. My trip continues on the way of Petit Camargue, then, back on the main land, I head to Perpignan.
I buy l’Equipe for the news. Still I can’t cover more than 50 miles each time without a rest; pains to the back are much stronger than my will. Left the main highway full of Dutch heading to Spain the sun comes back and in Toulouse it’s hot once again. I should proceed to Montauban but I prefer to turn to the Pyrenees. Too hot and too tired to have a day more in the flat. I reach camping just before St. Gaudens and it’s already evening time.
Everything here is different. The air is fresh, there’s a swimming pool and the people are nice. The countryside is beautiful and I sit on a wood chair, with my beer, talking to a German man with my few words of German. Now my trip seems taking the good side; I would like to stop a day more here but I’m now just few kilometres from the mountains and I feel I have to go further. People will change and place also. I have to leave back all the good and the bad I’ve found up to now.
Col de Peyresourde, 20th July 1998
Finally the Pyrenees. I saw them in the morning from the flat around St. Gaudens. Down below was warm and desert, the town was ghostly empty with all shopping closed. The flat was terribly hot but now, above the top of the mountains, the air is fresh. Even more fresh the rising water I found not far from here. From the valley below come up the sound of the cows and the shadows are lengthening minute by minute. It’s evening, a terrific evening now.
There’s already a lot of people here, waiting for the tomorrow race; several Spanish. The border is not far away. Down below, to the Col there’s already a sort of party. Someone has prepared a stand and is selling fresh beer. I’ll also go there in a minute, after I enjoyed this view. I didn’t expect the Pyrenees so green. I travelled three days to come here. Three terrible days in the hot, in the wind and in the traffic. I dreamed a life to be here in front of the TV watching the race. Now, a think to home, seems far away. Too far away.
Les Cabannes, 21st July 1998
Clouds since the early morning. Low clouds. I waked up in the clouds and was pretty cold. No half way in this trip: too warm or too cold. I found other Italians here and I’ve spent some time with them. It was days I wasn’t speaking Italian. These guys come back every year with a van and they’re very well equipped. I asked some advice for the next days and seems I shouldn’t have problem to find a place to stay. Just important is to remain on the Tour route.
I didn’t like the race today. It was rainy and I choose a very bad place to stay, just after the Col. After the race the trip was quite long, till Plateau de Beille, a new climb for the Tour. It was rainy all over the road, a long road. However I came here still in the last sunlight. The Gendarmerie has stopped the way to the climb till tomorrow morning. So here I am, camping with others in a football field at a limit of a small village in the Arriege valley with a good sandwich full of local sausages.
Les Cabannes, 22nd July 1998
Very exciting stage today. A Pantani solo win with a good margin on Ullrich. He’s now becoming really dangerous for the yellow jersey. There was a lot of people over there; till the early morning cars have climb on the top and now, back at Les Cabannes they are still descending in the night. A long snake of lights closed by United Savan trucks transporting the Tour equipment. Tomorrow the rest day of the race, but not for me: I planned a long transfer and tonight I will sleep once again here in the football field. I’m little worried where I will find to sleep tomorrow.
Today I’ve found other Italians coming from Borello, a small village close to Cesenatico, Pantani’s place. I met them in the morning but I found them quite unfriendly. In the evening, after the race I met them again and I found them very excited and friendly. They were really happy for they idol win and the elder of them told me – “we never watch anything what is going to happen”. I believe it’s true, the gap is not wide and the time trial is already over.
L’Equipe cover after Pantani’s win atop Plateau de Beille.
Col de Paradis, 23rd July 1998
Someone is preparing the mountain top official finish. Still far away from the sea; I stop here to sleep with some other people found on the road. I’m tired and I would like to be already on the Alps, but the way is a long one. Tomorrow will be a long transfer once again.
This morning, to Tarascon, I met some riders in training during their rest day. I met Axel Merckx and I also had a cheer from him. I spent then an hour in Tarascon to read the news and then I started to follow the Tour route. Then, in the early afternoon I had a swim in a nice lake I found on the way: lot of sun on the shoulders. Now I’m here, not in good form… I’m quite tired. It’s coming dark and someone is chatting around a fire; will go there to talk with somebody.
Col de Murs, 24th July 1998
Wild hot. Left the Col du Paradis in the morning I had a breakfast in a small village; God bless the French croissant. Then road, road and road again. I saw so many people already waiting for a race to come hours later; all of them very well organized with barbecues and camping stuff. Several people were enjoying my passage and I felt part of the big event on the “route du Tour”.
Bunch passage in Bezier.
I passed through huge vineyards sitting on red lands and, despite the sun, I had to wear the jacket. I tried to open my jacket for a while but an insect punctured me. I had a lot of pain and a lot of fear too. I tried to find a medicine but nobody was speaking English.
All the day my mind was busy thinking to the transfer I had to do after the race. A lot of kilometres to come on the top of Col de Murs, close to Carpentraz and to the Ventoux. Again the autoroute on the Mediterranean. All the day concerning about the traffic. So I decided to wait the race in Beziers, on the autoroute entrance. However the race was in big delay due to a sort of strike the riders did for another doping “affaire”. I didn’t understand the reason; seems the TVM was this time involved somehow.
Anyway the transfer wasn’t bad because the traffic was less than expected. Left the highway in Avignon and other 40 miles on the local roads to find this Col de Murs where I finally find several tents and caravans already on the top for the tomorrow race. So now, I feel once again in the Tour group. An hour ago I transited on the Rhone river; this means I’m coming back in “my” region. I’m inside my tent and I write thanks to a flashlight because it’s night time. I came with the dark and I was unsure of the roads; it seems a “lost” place.
Die, 25th July 1998
Once more a terrible hot day. Once awake I realized immediately I was in a sort of desert. Yesterday, in the darkness I was not realizing the kind of place it was. White rocks, no trees but short thorny plants and no recovery from the sun at all. A sort of hell. Race was exciting: Leblanc tried a move but I think he was then caught.
By the way I can’t see anything about this Tour. Being on the roadside means I don’t know anything of the race except what I see, limited to seconds; but I don’t miss the TV at all. I eat bad and few, I sleep much worse than I eat, I don’t have a bath from days but I feel part of the event. I’m part of it, really. Not officially, of course. And there’s a lot of people doing the same I do. I’m writing from a small village called Die. Where am I? My tent is a kilometer far away from here, on the roadside, at the beginning of the Col de Rousset. I feel good tonight, there’s a nice wind and now I’m waiting the cabin phone becomes free to call home after a week I’m out.
This morning I met a special person coming from Czech Republic. A great cycling fan coming here with a van. I’m not sure about what we said each other but I’m sure that when he realized I was coming from Genoa he was excited. He started telling about the time he saw the sea for the first time coming down to Genoa. It was his first trip in the freed Europe after the wall crash. Sometimes incomprehensible but with eyes telling everything necessary I couldn’t stop him telling me about the sea.
Vercors, 26th July 1998 – morning
I write my diary now because later on there won’t be time. It’s waiting for me a long transfer this evening after the race to the Galibier bottom, in Valloire. I just completed my fast lunch in front of a beautiful scenery in a fresh Alpine air. I just passed a couple of hours ago the Col de Rousset through a long tunnel. It’s a long climb but isn’t hard.
In the valley I’ve found a couple of hard slopes. There’s also a canyon by leaving the valley from a side: really cool. I met a family: he’s Italian and was very curious of my trip. He suggested me to avoid the Croix de Fer this evening with the darkness. So I have to reach Chamonix and then the Maurienne. A long trip after the race. Hope the weather will hold.
Valloire, 26th July 1998 – night>
Finally here. At the monster’s feet. I don’t know why but this climb says something to me. Maybe because love to hide into the clouds as is doing this night. There’s a storm far away and I hope it will remain far. Tomorrow it will be the queen stage, but I’ve no time to think about the Tour. I have to eat and the tent has to be fitted. The sound of the river is loud. It’s not the storm, that hopefully will leave.
Somewhere on the Galibier, 27th July 1998
Five kilometres to the top and rain as never I’ve seen. I’m freezing in the suit while the fog comes up from the valley. It’s so cold that when the race cars pass you feel even colder for the air they move. It’s July but it could be November. The race is coming but I have no news of it. Someone says Pantani crashed on the Croix de Fer, but nobody really knows. Nothing comes from the race cars. All the officials are well closed inside with the warm conditioning full on. I’ve all my clothes wet, my tent down below in Valloire is also fully wet. After a week chasing the Tour I can’t more wait. I can’t more travel. But race is coming.
The fog covers everything but people screams are clearly loud and are coming from turns below. The screams fly above me and are reflected by the rocks on the mountain; it’s a magic moment. When are they coming? I can’t wait anymore. Four are coming ahead and I don’t know what’s about the yellow jersey group. Is Pantani going to attack?
Valloire, 27th July 1998
Everybody now is coming down into the valley and nobody’s going to pass the night here. Where am I going? I can’t take anymore of rain and wet clothes. I’m inside a restaurant in Valloire; it would be a nice place if not for the crowd coming and leaving. Everybody looking to leave as fast as possible. Not me, now. Boss of my time or, if you prefer, slave of my time.
And where to go after such race? I never saw such race. Pantani was passing Escartin in front of me, he already left Ullrich alone. I watched the Galibier passage with a German clan; they were left without a word. I didn’t say I’m Italian. Then I came into the valley for the fear of the fog and of the Germans. I found a big tent with a huge screen inside; there was a lot of people watching the race. Pantani was alone ahead and was going to take the jersey. There were other Italians and they were screaming, jumping, singing and enjoying. I didn’t say a word. The others were applauding. After years of Tour de France is the first time I see an Italian winner. This time everybody was looking at us.
The others are coming back to the valley and I stay here. There’s the loud sound of the river. I have no place to go, I have no one to talk with. But this night I just don’t care.
The unforgettable headline in L’Equipe.
Home, 28th July 1998
Finally at home; I wait for long time this moment and I don’t remember already so many things. I don’t feel yet what I will miss about this adventure. But I feel I will miss it. The way back home was very long, the sky was flowing over my head and I was watching it by the mirrors. Now I remember just the good things of my trip but I can also come back to the fear of the first days. The doubts, the hot air of the flats and the cold of the Galibier. But those moments are far away now.
To you, my dear friend is dedicated this diary. To you, watching the sea for the first time at sixty. What did you feel in front of it? Are you still hearing it’s sound during the night?
I met so many people on the road, chasing a race I really didn’t watch. I just escaped from place to place, from person to person. Someone who asked me the documents, and someone else driving me on the good way. Someone met with the same moto and someone else was just talking to me, or the other drinking a beer with me. There’s no difference from who asked about my trip and who just asked me to talk, or who helped me to take a picture. Is now different the people I met just for a case? Did this trip really exist?
Do I forget someone? Something?
If just one of them would remember me, so this trip could get a sense. Just tell me once more.
It’s no sense to chase those bloody races without a target, just leaving the time to pass. I even don’t remember if I escape or I chase. If only one of the people I met could remember together with me, everything would become real.
Please, my friend. Just tell me once more, the time you met the sea!