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The Madonna's Long, Dark Cloud

Marco Pantani will be the story for the next two days, and for who knows how many more after that.

Pascal Pavani, AFP/Getty

In the stage preview thread I posted this photo:

Pascal Pavani, AFP/Getty

It comes from the last time the Giro d'Italia visited tomorrow's stage finish, the Madonna di Campiglio ski resort, and while there is some discussion in there, I think the emotion behind this scene, and the extent to which it will hang over the Giro tomorrow and into the rest day, needs its own post. The Giro is returning to the Madonna di Campiglio, with open recognition by Giro organizers that the story of the day will be, in part, Marco Pantani.

Maybe you are tired of the Marco Pantani story. It's easy to dismiss a guy whose career rose and fell in familiar, dope-soaked patterns, but so many people choose not to, and that's why it's a story. His tragic death, due to cocaine overdose, has also been stomped to smithereens thanks to a strangely persistent mass suspicion that he was murdered, that someone forcefully entered the hotel in Rimini that day and made him ingest lethal amounts of cocaine. Last year that theory was investigated and dismissed by the local prosecution, but I don't know if it convinced anyone to change their minds. Like many of our modern controversies, people believe what they believe, and no injection of evidence will change it.

Pantani funeral


Pantani supporters know all the grisly details, or all they need to know. They know he was considered to have doped (Pantani was never decisively convicted of doping, but the circumstantial evidence is rife). But people can't stop celebrating him anyway, because of the magical moments he had on the bike. If you want to know why he is so beloved, it's this moment:

Pantani takes Tour lead


Everything about this moment is cycling magic. Pantani in the rain, striking a curiously Christ-like pose as he crosses the line for his most important race day ever, where he leapfrogged over Jan Ullrich in the type of stage that makes people cycling fans for life. Trailing Ullrich by three minutes after 14 stages of the 1998 Tour de France, Pantani attacked on the Col du Galibier, 48km from the finish, and blasted his way to win at Les Deux Alpes by nine minutes over the defending champion. This legendary moment propelled him to overall victory, making him the first Italian Tour champion since 1965, and the last Giro-Tour double winner, seventh of all time. Think about that status, and what it would mean to the fans in any of the big cycling nations. It's not an Italian thing, per se. It's one of the most powerful achievements the sport has seen in the modern era.

Pantani memorai Juve match

Giuseppe Bellini, Getty

And he didn't just explode on the scene in 1998. In 1994, riding his second Giro at age 24, he won consecutive stages, the second being a Stelvio-Mortirolo-Aprica beast that would turn any young climber into the object of mass hysteria. He finished the Giro in Milan ahead of Miguel Indurain, second to Eugeni Berzin, then won the best young rider at the Tour de France. In 1995, he won the Alpe d'Huez stage of the Tour and another maillot blanc. He didn't win the Giro until 1998, thanks to injuries, but that Giro victory led to the Tour double.

Then add in his style. Off the bike, he wasn't especially flamboyant, but on the bike he was utterly magnetic. The shaved head and goatee (technically a Van Dyke, but whatever). The color swatches -- check out his tire choice above. The big floppy ears. The swashbuckler's bandanna. And for the purists... the sight of him climbing in the drops, attacking all out on the most challenging mountain passes. You can't invent a more exciting character, a more compelling story. Yes, it was dope-fueled (most likely, as was everyone's then), but at the time it was pure magic

When he won on the Madonna di Campiglio on June 4, 1999, it was his fourth stage victory amidst a dominant performance, the type he couldn't manage even in his stunning 1998 campaign. He led the race by 5.38 over Paolo Savoldelli. The Italian public was completely enthralled with their champion, the likes of which they had not seen since Felice Gimondi, if not Coppi and Bartali. His career could not have been flying higher on June 4. And by the morning of June 5, as he was escorted off the Madonna by carabinieri, it was all so suddenly, gut-wrenchingly over.

Pantani memorial

Jean-Pierre Clatot, AFP/Getty

I hope this adds some perspective to the ongoing Pantani tributes that crop up at the Giro so often. I myself have been a bit dismissive of the Pantani obsession in the past, and that's part of the scourge of doping -- what exactly am I supposed to think? But if you put yourself back on that mountainside on the sunny June morning, it's a little easier to imagine the incredible tide of emotion roiling the nation. What if Lance Armstrong had been hauled away by the gendarmerie in the middle of the 2001 Tour, rather than dragging out his career and its inevitable aftermath for another decade? What if all that love and admiration, all that feeling of inspiration every cycling fan feels when watching the sport's great achievements, were suddenly turned on its head and plunged into the abyss? That's the second half of the Pantani story, and it explains why the first half will never go away.

Pantani banners

Susie Hartigan