A previous post introduced a brief history of drug scandals in the professional peloton. In two posts, part 1 and 2, I consider the implications doping has had on climbing by looking at perhaps its most prominent – and tragic – case study: Marco Pantani. In particular, I discuss his record ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez.
Pantani was the most talented and exciting grimpeur of the last fifteen years. His exploits between 1994 and 2000 were sensational. He climbed like a man possessed, throwing races into chaos with his attacking style, and eschewing conservatism to attack on the most difficult of climbs with reckless aggression.
From 1994 to 2000 he won seven mountain summit finishes in the Tour de France and six in the Giro d’Italia. In 1994, only his second year as a professional, he blew the Giro apart with consecutive stage wins in the Dolomites and finished second overall behind Evgeny Berzin (who will feature in our story again) and ahead of Miguel Indurain.
In the Tour, Indurain, on his way to another victory, was in full control and Pantani was unable to win a stage. His best placing was second on Stage 12, although he was over 4 minutes adrift of French climber Richard Virenque’s long breakaway up Luz-Ardiden. On Stage 16, 224.5 kilometres from Valreas to l’Alpe d’Huez, Pantani set the first of his three records on l’Alpe. A breakaway group had victory wrapped up, but Pantani, apparently frustrated at Indurain’s control of the race, attacked with a vengeance at the bottom of the climb. He finished in 38 minutes flat, around 2 minutes faster than compatriot Gianni Bugno’s time in 1991 (variously listed as 39’44” and 40’25”). It was a stunning performance and he would finish the Tour third overall.
Although listed as 5 feet 7 inches tall, not particularly short for a pro cyclist, Pantani always looks smaller in photos, perhaps exacerbated by his diminutive weight, apparently around 125 lbs. He was therefore well built to be a climber, where power-to-weight is the most important consideration. His climbing style was mostly traditional: a moderate cadence (not the fast spin of Charly Gaul or Lance Armstrong) whilst seated, punctuated with repeated accelerations out of the saddle. Pantani’s signature was that he liked to keep his hands in the drops whilst standing, effectively sprinting up the climbs. His style on the toughest climbs was pure excitement.
Injury kept him out of the Giro in 1995, but he took two stage wins at the Tour: l’Alpe d’Huez and Guzet Neige. On l’Alpe, Pantani again attacked at the base of the climb, quickly establishing a gap on Indurain, Alex Zulle, and Bjarne Riis and only 1 minute behind the breakaway group. As he approached them – which included the strong climbers Virenque, Ivan Gotti, Fernando Escartin, and Laurent Dufaux – Gotti attacked. But Pantani was soon on his wheel, then left him behind in his trademark style. At the line (after a wrong turn lost him time and probably cost him his 1994 record), he had 1’24” on Indurain and Zulle, with Virenque and Gotti back in 7th and 8th at 2’50”.
More excitement was to come, however. After recovering from injury in 1996, and missing the Giro due to a crash, Pantani was back on the slopes of l’Alpe in the Tour in 1997. Early in the race, he was back in form, losing narrowly to Laurent Brochard in Loudenvielle (on Stage 9 that included the Tourmalet and the Col d’Aspin and two other category 1 climbs) but losing 1’08” to Jan Ullrich on the hors categorie climb to Andorra/Arcalis.
But on the long stage 13, 203.5 km from St. Etienne to l’Alpe d’Huez, Pantani took his revenge. At start of the virages 21, it was Pantani, Ullrich, Virenque, Riis, with Escartin and Francesco Casagrande lurking. With another of his signature moves, Pantani discarded his bandanna; it was the signal that he was ready to attack.
Ullrich, in the yellow jersey, took up the pace. Pantani, standing up, soon took over, leaving Casagrande and Escartin behind. All were quickly out of their saddles to keep up the pace, although Ullrich was frequently seated: maintaining his steady, low-cadence, big-gear style. Riis dropped away with 16 corners remaining, Virenque with 12 – swaying from side-to-side to try and get more speed, and even Ullrich could not match Pantani’s pace and dropped back a few corners later.
As he approached the line, Pantani’s face was an angry grimace, elation seemingly mixed with incredible pain. When he crossed, his expression was one of defiance and triumph; and with good reason, his time for the climb 37’35” – beating his old record and setting a time yet to be broken. The gap to Ullrich was 47″, then 1’27” to Virenque, and 2’28” to Riis. There was only one small climb on the way to l’Alpe, but it was still 5 hours in the saddle for Pantani, making his new record all the more impressive.
Il Pirata, as he was becoming known, was in swashbuckling form in 1998: his pinnacle year. In the Giro, he remained quiet until stage 14 when he won the summit finish at Piancavallo ahead of Pavel Tonkov and Alex Zulle, the latter taking the maglia rosa back after wearing it for several days previous.
Stages 17-19 saw an epic climbing battle in the Dolomites. With four summits crossed on stage 17, Giuseppe Guerini took the stage with Pantani second with the same time, Tonkov 2 minutes back but Zulle over 4 minutes down – enough to rocket Pantani up the standings into the leader’s jersey. The next day, Tonkov was back, edging out Pantani by just 1 second at the summit of the Alpe di Pampeago.
Stage 19 was the big one: 243 kilometres, 3 big climbs, with the final one the Plan di Montecampione. Zulle fell to pieces, eventually finishing 79th, more than 30 minutes down. While Guerini was still in contention, it was left to Pantani and Tonkov to battle it out on the Montecampione. With 2 kilometres to go, Pantani launched his attack, jettisoning – with a flourish – even his diamond nose stud in case it was holding him back (apparently it is still on the side of the road somewhere, for a dedicated souvenir hunter). It was another stunning display of climbing power and Pantani finished 57 seconds ahead of Tonkov.
An inspired third place in the final ITT was enough for Pantani to hold the maglia rosa and fulfilling all his promise by winning the Giro. Tonkov raised some suspicions about Pantani’s time trial, especially after he’d been passed by Zulle on stage 15. “The thing that made the difference was my determination,” Pantani was reported saying, and cited Laurent Fignon’s 8 second loss to Greg LeMond in 1986 as inspiration. Perhaps ominously, however, a teammate, Riccardo Forconi, failed a blood test ahead of the ITT after showing a haematocrit of 51, just over the UCI limit of 50%.
As we shall see, irony was also heavy in the Tour de France. It was the year of the Festina Affair (see part 1) with the Festina team ejected after revelations regarding its organized doping programme, followed by TVM, then a number of other teams who quit the race in protest. Pantani remained, putting expected winner Jan Ullrich into all sorts of difficulty in the Alps with a Charly Gaul-inspired win at Les Deux Alpes (see here for more) that sealed his victory. The double crown of the Giro and the Tour was a magnificent success, and a thrilling example of how a pure climber could dominate in the mountains and still win the overall race.
It was, of course, to all end in tragedy for Pantani, with his record-breaking performances less than the shining legacy we might expect. Part 2 continues the story.