Note: I wrote this in August of 1998, obviously before Marco Pantani's expulsion from the 1999 Giro d'Italia because of an excessive hematocrit level*. That certainly changed my thinking about Pantani somewhat, but I decided to leave this piece up because it reflects my thinking at the time.
* For those of you who are not cycling fans, the Union Cycliste International, the governing body of cycling, limits blood hematocrit to a maxiumum of 50% for male cyclists (I think it is 48% for females, because females generally have lower hematocrit levels). Exceeding the 50% limit is a possible indication, although not definite, of the use of the performance- enhancing drug EPO. Until late 2000, no test was available for EPO use, so the hematocrit limit was put in place as a compromise measure.
Marco Pantani won the 1998 Tour de France on August 2, 1998. He thus became the first Italian winner of the Tour since Felice Gimondi in 1965. It is also only the seventh time in history that a rider has completed the Giro/Tour double (winning the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France in the same year).
This is particularly inspiring for me because Pantani recovered from breaking his leg even more severely than I broke mine. In October of 1995 he was hit by a jeep that had mistakenly gotten onto a race course. He shattered both bones in his lower left leg. Doctors at first feared that he would never walk again, let alone race at a top level. He had to have external fixators put onto his leg, and spent five months on crutches. All the time, he was determined that he would recover his full powers.
In 1997, he showed that he had recovered, and claimed the status of the best climber in the world, by winning two mountain stages of the Tour de France, and placing third overall. One of his stage wins was at the top of the famed Alpe d'Huez, the most prestigious place in the world for a climber to win. This was his second consecutive stage win at the Alpe (the Tour did not visit it in 1996) and included breaking the record time for the climb.
Earlier this year, Pantani rode brilliantly to win the Giro d'Italia (the second most important race in the world, unless you are Italian!). Pre-race favorite Alex Zulle tried to keep pace with 'The Pirate', but overstressed himself and lost over half an hour. Pantani then cracked 1996 Giro winner Pavel Tonkov on the last mountaintop finish, and rode above all expectations in the final time trial to secure his victory.
In the Tour de France, defending champion Jan Ullrich was considered a strong favorite, particularly since the Tour route was not favorable for climbers such as Pantani. Ullrich took an early lead, but Pantani struck back in the Pyrenees. He placed second and first in the two Pyreneean stages, pulling himself back into contention. On the first Alpine stage, he launched a devastating attack on the feared Col du Galibier, the highest point of this year's Tour. He soloed to a dominant victory, deposing Ullrich from the yellow jersey. Raced under terrible conditions of cold and rain, this stage will be remembered as one of the epic days of racing in Tour history. In the final time trial, Pantani again rode well and easily maintained his advantage over Ullrich to take a tremendous victory.
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Last updated 2004-11-29.