Blazin' Saddles

Spare a Valentine’s Day thought for Marco Pantani (13.01.1970 – 14.02.2004)

For most people February 14 is the chance to appease a loved-one with a cheap card and a tacky box of chocolates.

But for the cycling community over the past decade, Valentine's Day is less about roses and more about one of the best-loved men to don the famous maglia rosa.

Marco Pantani died of acute cocaine poisoning in his hotel room in Rimini on Valentine's Day in 2004. It was a pretty sordid way for a great champion to go.

Given his spiral into depression and drug addiction, it was perhaps, in hindsight, hardly a surprise. Yet it remains shocking that such a thing could have happened to someone who brought so much joy not only to a nation but to cycling fans all over the globe.

On the day that it happened, Saddles, in his last year at university, was no doubt straddling the fine line between sentimental romantic and lustful lothario.

This was well before the advent of Twitter and most of us probably didn't find out about Pantani's passing until we read the papers the next day, or listened to the radio.

A decade on, and Twitter is awash with tributes. Alberto Contador interrupted his breakfast to post a picture of Pantani in the yellow jersey of the 1998 Tour de France. "Today I want [to] remember one of the persons that make me fall in love with this sport," he wrote.

Pantani had that effect on people. His swashbuckling style, pulsating attacks and trademark goatee made for captivating viewing at a time when people's enjoyment of the sport was not yet wholly viewed through a prism of doping.

Everyone has their favourite Pantani moment.

For many it was his solo ride to the top of Alpe d'Huez in the colours of Carrera in 1995 - the second of three wins on the Alpe which feature in the top five quickest times ever recorded over the famous 21 hairpins.

For others it was Pantani's gutsy attack on the Galibier in the 1998 Tour, where he dropped rival Jan Ullrich with 48km still to ride, eventually turning a three-minute deficit on GC to a six-minute advantage in an audacious move that sealed the last Giro-Tour double cycling has witnessed.

Pantani on the podium in '98

There are so many wins to count - eight apiece in both the Tour and Giro. Who can forget the penultimate win of his career, when the Pirate went shoulder-to-shoulder with Lance Armstrong on Mont Ventoux, before the American eventually gifted his rival the victory at the summit?

A huge contributing factor to the mythical nature of these victories was the simple fact that this was an era before helmets were compulsory. When the bald pirate surged up the Bald Mountain, you could see every crease on his brow. Pantani's purist aesthetic meant both Armstrong and the global public could peer directly into the eyes of this Gandhi on wheels: despite the harsh shafts of sunlight bouncing off the white scree atop Ventoux, Pantani chose to ride those final kilometres without sunglasses.

This was perhaps the principal paradox about Pantani. Behind that extrovert piratical exterior there was a diminutive, vulnerable and nervous man who felt the need to strip and pare back the very layers that he had intentionally cultivated to hide behind.

You see, Pantani was no pirate by choice. If he assumed the guise of Il Pirate it was simply to lead the tifosi away from the initial nickname they bestowed upon him - that of Elefantino. Unsurprisingly, Pantani hated being called 'the Little Elephant' or 'Dumbo'.

The bandana, the hooped earring, the peroxided goatee - all this was a public persona which he often shed like his rivals on the climbs. Off would come the bandana before his uphill attacks - he was even known to take out the stud in his nose. Heck - give him a razor and Pantani may have got rid of the goatee. So fast was he up the climbs, he'd have had more than enough time for a shave.

That Pantani had his ears pinned back in the twilight of his career - and, sadly, life - just goes to show how troubled Cesana's famous son was with his image.

One wonders whether or not Pantani would be remembered so favourably today had he not killed himself.

Would the subsequent outing of the widespread doping practices of the peloton in the 90s and early Noughties have altered his legacy? Would the French Senate's report that included Pantani's name amongst those as retrospective confirmed EPO positives from the 1998 Tour have tarnished Pantani in the same way as, say, Armstrong?

Probably not. Pantani was a different beast to Armstrong. Even the Texan admits it, comparing Pantani the artist to his own carpenter.

Pantani was the pure climbing underdog who would ship so much time on the time trials he would have to compensate by going all-out in the mountains. His attacks were as wonderfully predictable as they were gloriously entertaining.

Yes, he was a doper and a cheat. But so were the likes of Zulle, Ullrich, Berzin and Armstrong. And Pantani went about his artistry in such a different way. He didn't slowly strangle his rivals - he killed them with repetitive stabs to the heart, often cutting himself in the process.

It's perhaps no surprise that the only Italian riders to exude similar levels of charisma since the death of Pantani are the likes of Riccardo Ricco, Danilo Di Luca and Davide Rebellin. They had Pantani's spirit, but they didn't have his talent - their victories probably the result more to do with their pharmaceutical help than their innate ability.

Vincenzo Nibali and Ivan Basso: as successful as the pair have been over the past decade, neither have come close to pulling the same strings as Pantani in the hearts of the Italian public.

It is perhaps ironic that while Pantani was a victim of his era, he needed that very climate in which to thrive. Born any earlier, he may have been dwarfed by the likes of Bartali and Coppi in the annals of Italian cycling; born later, and he may have been just another doping footnote alongside Di Luca, Ricco et al.

That we celebrate Pantani as a champion more than a cheat tells us more about ourselves than about the man himself.

On Valentine's Day 2014, the official Giro d'Italia feed posted a picture of Pantani taking a mountain-top victory in the maglia rosa, his arms aloft in celebration.

"The Giro remembers you like this: ciao Pirata!" read the caption.

Sure, it was probably a touch hypocritical given that the same race kicked Pantani off the Giro one year later at Madonna di Campiglio when the Italian led the GC with just one mountain stage remaining.

But there's something about Pantani that forces us to remember the positives and not the negatives. Indeed, it would take a particularly nasty and disgruntled official Tour de France tweeter to post a similar message alongside that iconic photo of Pantani sitting on the tarmac during the peloton's protest against doping investigations during the 1998 Tour: "The Tour remembers you like this: adieu Pirata!"

Pantani was a human being. Like you and Saddles, he was deeply flawed. Unlike most of you and Saddles, the Pirate was also a genius of his time.

And on that note - happy Valentine's to all and sundry. Cherish and forgive your nearest and dearest. Had Pantani had someone special in his life to turn to on that fateful day 10 years ago in Rimini, perhaps he'd still be around today and we'd be abusing him, not commemorating him.

Blazin' Saddles - on Twitter @saddleblaze