US football. There’s a scene right at the very start of the movie, The Last Boy Scout, where the running back is rushing, he is about to be tackled, so he pulls out a gun and shoots his would-be tacklers. The point is that the stakes are so high, the guy has blurred the distinction between sport and real-life.
And so it was with the guy I want to talk about today.
When I got into cycling, I was more into doing than watching. I cycled in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Luxembourg, even in Spain. I took my bike with me, wherever I went. But I used to enjoy watching it, too. I watched several Tour of Britain stages, about a half-dozen stages of the world’s leading race, the Tour de France, and visited track cycling events in Belgium.
I was too old, by then, to have idols but one guy stood out above all the others, just for his charisma. You quite naturally wanted him to win.
And win he did! The only time I ever saw him race in the flesh coincided with my very first visit to Le Tour, to see Marco Pantani be crowned the overall race winner, in 1998. Known as Il Pirata, he had already won the Giro (Italy) and here he was, just two months later, winning in Paris too. It was also the first time I went away with Mrs Bump and we stood on the Champs Elysees and cheered. She had no clue about cycling, but was dragged along by the wonderful atmosphere. I had been following the three-week race avidly on TV.
In fact, it was on TV that I watched what I think was Pantani’s greatest win. In 2000, Pantani was forever surrounded in drugs controversy. He had been ejected from one race because of suspicious doping levels (science had not yet caught up with doping), and Pantani generally spent a large amount of time nowhere near his bike. He was considered to be washed-up, eclipsed by the new rising star, Lance Armstrong.
Mont Ventoux is weird. There’s nothing like it. Known just as “the giant”, it is an extinct volcano, down in Provence. It rises, pretty much from sea level, to just shy of 2,000m. Even the professionals, it takes the best part of an hour to climb it, at an average gradient of about 1:8. Very steep, especially considering the distance involved. It’s not the highest mountain, it’s just that it starts so low. It’s a favourite of the Tour. In 2000, ascending Ventoux had come down to a two-horse race, Armstrong versus Pantani. Pantani won, his last big victory. Armstrong, with his eye on the overall title, later said that he had allowed Pantani to win. Only Armstrong knows, but everybody who ever came second could say the same.
Sadly, this was Marco’s last hurrah, and although he raced sporadically until 2003, he never won again. The doping allegations took their toll, he was found guilty of doping by an Italian court – a conviction later quashed, for the simple reason that doping was not yet a crime! The pressure must have been immense, Pantani developed a cocaine habit, and at one point he was admitted to a hospital specialising in the treatment of addictions. In a downward spiral, he was subsequently found dead, from a cocaine overdose in Rimini, on 14 February 2004.
We can look back at Pantani and simply dismiss him as a “doping cheat”, and this was shown years later, in 2013, when the French senate retrospectively tested his samples as part of a larger inquiry into doping. Science, by that time, had caught up. But for me, that doesn’t really matter. All it says is that he was a cheat in an era of cheats. But Marco was the one with the big character, and that will always trump just winning a race. That he came to such a tragic end just adds to his story.