Monument in Cesenatico Italy (Photo E.P.A)

Yesterday 15 years ago, on Valentine’s Day 2004, Italian rider Marco Pantani passed away. His life was characterized by great victories and deep valleys. Despite everything, ‘Il Pirata’ is still missed by many cycling fans to this day, but what makes the Italian still so popular after all these years? “It is a bit in the Italian DNA to imagine someone more heroic than he actually was“, says Belgian cycling commentator José De Cauwer.
15 years after the death of Marco Pantani, Italians still stand with banners on climbs to commemorate their hero. Especially in Italy he remains a kind of folk hero. He has something mythical and has shown beautiful things. Pantani was a climber who rode up the mountains very quickly, something the Italians had not seen for a while. “

Pantani was born January 13, 1970, in Cesena, a city in the northeast of Italy, and grew up on the Adriatic coast in Cesenatico. At the age of 22 he won the Baby Giro, two years later he became second in the Giro. “A few decades after Fausto Coppi, a young rider suddenly came up and flew up the mountains and could win rounds. In the following years, he won the Giro once more in 1998 and once the Tour de France in the same year. It was the first Italian Tour win in 30 years. The Tour of ’98 is best known as the edition in which the entire Festina-team of Richard Virenque was excluded after a car full of doping was found on the eve of the start. The rumours that 90% of the peloton at that time on banned resources drove, then became increasingly stronger. Pantani did not escape either. Two days before the end of the Giro of ’99 he was startled by an unannounced blood check. In his blood, a hematocrit value was determined that was higher than the permitted 50, which indicated the use of EPO. Two days before the end of his second Giro winst, Pantani was kicked out of his beloved Tour of Italy.

It was the beginning of the end for Il Pirata. In 2000 he was still successful in the Tour. Pantani won the ride with arrival at Mont Ventoux for Lance Armstrong, who later announced that he had Pantani won. Armstrong also called Pantani ‘Il Elefantino’, the elephant. Frustrated by the nickname, the Italian also put the next ride on his list. But it did not go well mentally with the Italian round-trip. When his attack failed in the final stage of the Tour of 2000, Pantani stepped out of the Tour. His decision could not count on understanding from the Tour Director, who did not invite Pantani’s team to start in the following years!! That weighed on Pantani, who was getting deeper and deeper into a pit. In 2002 he got a suspension of six months, after a syringe with insulin was found in his hotel room a year earlier. In 2003 he announced his retirement from cycling. But farewell did not bring peace. Pantani disappeared from the public eye, but his depression worsened. In addition, he had a drug addiction and became increasingly lonely. A few days before his death, he moved into a hotel room in Rimini where he deprived himself of life on February 14, 2004.

Many Italians still believe 15 years after his death that it would not have been suicide in which Pantani died. They think that Pantani died due to a bill from the Italian mafia. Marco’s mother, Tonina Pantani, does not believe that her son killed himself, Mrs Pantani has this year again asked the Italian criminal investigation to investigate the cause of her son’s death. She is convinced that Marco was obliged to drink water containing a large amount of cocaine. May you rest in Peace Marco..you entertained me and thousands of others a few decades ago, for this, I am grateful for.

All photos from E.P.A.(BEL) and some quotes translated from Belgian National newspaper “Het Nieuwsblad” reporter Steffi Verheye interviewing Jose De Cauwer (TV Pundit and ex Belgian national coach) with thanks.