Looking back it seems difficult to fathom, but in July 1998 I was on holiday 15 minutes away from a Tour de France stage finish in Brittany and I didn’t bother to go.
I knew the Tour had started in Dublin three days earlier only because Willy Voet had been busted driving a carload of drugs to Ireland. Back then cycling wasn’t really my thing. I was more of a basketball man. Ask me who scored 100 points in an NBA game in 1962 or who averaged a triple double in 1961/62 and I could tell you in a heartbeat. Ask me the first rider to have won five Tours? What? Jacques who?
My girlfriend and I had travelled with friends to a campsite on the Breton coast. The day after we had pitched our tiny tents, the Tour had a finish in Lorient. It was the first stage of the race on French soil and it was won by Germany’s Jens Heppner out of a small bunch sprint. I know this because I’ve just looked it up. I wasn’t there. Back then I didn’t care. I’d seen signs advertising the fact the Tour was coming close but I went to the beach instead. It wasn’t like the Bulls were in town.
Fast forward two weeks and I am sat in my girlfriend’s parents’ house reading the paper. On the television is the 30-minute nightly Tour highlights programme on Channel 4. Karen’s father is watching. Everything is about to change.
I hear a murmur of appreciation. I glance up from my paper. On the television I see a diminutive man shoot up the right hand side of the mountain road that I now know scales the Col du Galibier. “Who’s that?” I ask. “Pantani,” comes the reply. “Italian.” He looks interesting. I put down my paper.
On the grimmest mountain the Tour could throw at him, and in terrible rain and cold, Marco Pantani had decided it was time to make his move. In no time he distanced the yellow jersey of Jan Ullrich. Ullrich watched the Italian disappear, had a chat with his DS, and then did nothing about it. After all, there was still around 55km to go. Standing on the pedals in his unique, crouched way, Pantani tamed the mighty Galibier like it was but a bump in the road. At the summit he had an advantage of more than two minutes over Ullrich. He needed one more minute on the final climb to Les Deux Alpes to take yellow.
Pantani dropped like a stone from the Galibier, flew down the Lauteret and then hung a left by the Lac du Chambon before waltzing to Les Deux Alpes. Incredibly, clad in soaking wet and lurid Lycra, his shaven head covered with a bandana, his face grim with pain, Pantani found a further seven minutes on Ullrich. He was untouchable that day. Amid the sodden mountains Pantani soared towards Tour glory. And I was transfixed.
Ever since Voet’s arrest, the 1998 Tour had been beset by problems. Riders had been marched into custody with blankets over their heads. Entire teams had abandoned the race while others were thrown out. Riders staged sit-in protests and fans turned their backs. For a while it seemed the race might not even get to Paris at all. It was farcical, a mess, an embarrassment to sport. Yet it was also the race that made me fall in love with cycling.
Pantani’s ride was one of the greatest pieces of sporting drama that I had seen and from that very moment, despite all that followed, I was hooked.
Pantani and Les Deux Alpes together provided one of the great stories of the modern Tour, billed as the ride that saved the Tour from oblivion. Of course the Pantani story had much more to come – the failed “health-check” at the 1999 Giro; the investigations into his link with Francesco Conconi, formally acquitted of alleged provision of EPO in the 1990s but described as “morally guilty”; the descent into depression and drug abuse; his death on Valentine’s Day due to “acute intoxication from cocaine”.
For some Pantani is a pariah. The sad irony of the man widely celebrated as the rider who salvaged the 1998 Tour during one of its bleakest moments then being implicated in numerous doping-related investigations is not lost on me.
So why write about him now? Why celebrate this ride still? Why? Because twenty years ago Marco Pantani opened my eyes to cycle racing. He was my first cycling love. Maybe that is selfish but so be it. Your first love always has a small piece of your heart, don’t they? Even if ultimately they cheat on you.