no one line

Marco Pantani’s Bianchi – 1998
February 2, 2010, 3:20 pm
Filed under: politics, pro crap, the cycling world, Tour de France

Last spring, at the Trexlertown Velodrome Swap Meet, I came across an unusal score – a Selle Italia Flite embroidered with a cartoon Marco Pantani’s face. It read, “The Pirate.” What was remarkable was not necessarily the rarity of this item, but the fact that my pal and colleague, Ethan (of the fine clothing company Laek House) had told me, just a day or two earlier, how long and hard he had looked for this odd end of the bike part spectrum. I, feeling generous, called him from in front of the busy vendor’s table at the swap meet and told him that I was bringing him back a present.

Today I stumbled upon a cyclingnews feature on Marco Pantani’s 1998 Bianchi race bike, the adjective-stricken “Mega Pro XL Reparto Corse” (custom, of course). That year, Pantani won the Giro d’Italia, and put nine minutes into Jan Ullrich in one stage of the Tour de France on his way to becoming the first Italian in thirtyfour years to wear the Yellow Jersey on his way into Paris.

Twelve years doesn’t seem like a particularly long time, but the article reads like a piece of paleontology – “Look at what we unearthed, signs of a forgotten people and their strange customs: alloy rear derailleurs, Campagnolo 9 speed, 1″ nonintegrated forks!” The author seems to forget that Campagnolo used square-tapered crank interfaces until only a few years ago, that a twelve-year old bike would be competitive even today, and that the thousands of dollars a rider might spend on aerodynamics wanders deep into the terrain of diminishing returns. Bikes, even racing bikes, can still be fairly simple machines.

There are unusual parts to the bike. In an era when compact geometry crept into bike design for reasons varying from “stiffer and lighter” to “fewer stock sizes, cheaper to produce,” Pantani’s bike had a remarkably traditional geometry, with a handlebar height from the era of downtube shifting. And, though you’d imagine a climbing specialist to have gears for climbing, his bike was outfitted with an 11-23 and, stunningly, a 54/44 up front. It’s easy to forget the superhuman attributes of world class athletes – even ones tattooed with track marks.

Pantani was a tragic hero – tangled up in EPO use behind the Lycra Wall of Silence (if I am the first to use this term, please, cite me), a national hero stuck between between celebrity and depression. His last great win was arguably spoiled by some big dumb Texan running his mouth about ‘giving’ Pantani the win on top of Mt Ventoux. I prefer to think that Armstrong was spent from his attack that bridged up to Pantani, and had nothing left at the end.

He died of a cocaine overdose five years ago.

He is, perhaps, a tragic example of the difficult transition that cycling has been making through levels of acceptance of doping: from open acknowledgement, to pervasive but hushed, to a peloton that grimly defended its practices by shunning anybody who exposed them, through doping convictions and bans, to clean teams, and on its way to a hopefully cleaner peloton. In the intermediate stages, when everything was torn asunder, it’s no wonder that the upheaval has caused collateral damage, and it’s no great stretch to speculate that Pantani’s overdose, his depression, was linked to his controversy-stunted career. He was known as a quiet, private person; in his diary, he wrote,

For four years I’ve been in every court, I just lost my desire to be like all the other sportsmen, but cycling has paid and many youngsters have lost their faith in justice. All my colleagues have been humiliated, with TV cameras hidden in their hotel rooms to try and ruin families. How could you not hurt yourself after that?

Here’s hoping that cycling has moved past leaving victims in its wake as it pursues cleaner, more honorable competition. When I consider the need to keep heroes despite condemning doping practices (Anquetil’s comment on “mineral water” and Coppi’s crack about only doping when necessary come to mind), I wonder if perhaps what cycling needs is an amnesty, a time of truth and reconciliation that will allow former dopers to admit to past practices without shame, guilt, or punishment, before the whole sport moves forward.

Pantani’s bike, above, is from the year of the Festina Scandal.

As we bundle up in the winter and click newslinks with daydreams of spring classics still months away, here’s hoping that the pursuit of clean racing doesn’t ruin more lives.

This post started being about the odd, foreign tone of the Cyclingnews bit, but morphed into what will be, I hope, my last comments on doping for a while.


2 Comments so far
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i saw this on cyclingnews, was in awe of the chainrings; climbing on a 44-23. i wonder if they changed them for the hills? friends thought i was crazy for tackling ventoux on 39/25.

great post.

Comment by bertraum

yeah, that 44/23 is ridiculous. i guess there’s something to be said for being 125 pounds, half of which is EPO.

your friends may have thought you were crazy, but it was for tackling ventoux, not the gear you used to do it. too high! too far!

thanks for stopping by. i liked your blog post on Cancellara’s descent. One of my favorite cycling race clips.

Comment by nooneline

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