‘My pain is self-chosen; At least, so The Prophet says.’ Layne Staley, Alice in Chains, ‘River of Deceit’
We expect our heroes to suffer; in fact, we demand that they do. But we don’t necessarily appreciate the depth of that suffering. What we witness on the television screen shows little of what they are really going through: the fluidity of their motion creates an illusion of effortlessness.
It is only because we have also ridden a bicycle, and therefore suffered, that we can achieve at least some understanding of what the pros’ efforts feel like.
When the pros crash, more often than not they jump to their feet, gather up their machine and sunglasses, leap back onboard and crack on, as though the incident upset their rhythm but little else.
In fact, every crash hurts. There is no cure, there is no remedy, there is no getting used to crashing so it sucks any less. Have you come off recently? Yes? It sucked quite sharply, didn’t it? No matter how cool they make it look, it is just as bad, or worse, for our dear heroes. (Remember, they’re probably going a tiny bit faster than us.)
Our heroes are human, after all. We tend to forget that. We imagine them to be hardened, somehow immune. Steeled against the dangers that lie along the day’s racing parcours. But they face the same risks as we do when they climb aboard their bike. In fact, they are as vulnerable to impact with tarmac as we are.
And they are also just as vulnerable as us to poor morale, self-doubt and bad judgement. Racing a bicycle professionally doesn’t make you perfect, no matter how great it looks from down here in the peanut gallery.
Marco Pantani was more artist than athlete, his brilliance matched only by his crippling self-doubt. When all the pieces came together in the right order, he was unstoppable, seemingly making molehills of mountains as he tapped out a relentless rhythm in his distinctive style.
He didn’t spin the high cadence we see in modern climbers but instead rode bigger gears, typically out of the saddle with his hands in the drops instead of the more common position on the brake hoods. His style was graceful and elegant, yet powerful; every time he felt his rhythm wane, he rose out of the saddle and poured a few more watts into the pedals.
To this day Marco holds the two fastest ascent times up L’Alpe d’Huez, despite going off course on one occasion. He set those times at the end of full mountain stages with L’Alpe as the final ascent. Not even a freshly blood-transfused Lance Armstrong could match either of those times on a 14 km time-trial sprint up from Le Bourg-d’Oisans to the ski village above Huez.
Pantani’s legend is full of amazing feats, but his greatest moment was in the cold, pouring rain from Grenoble to Les Deux Alpes during the 15th stage of the 1998 Tour de France.
He had targeted this stage because it passed over two of the most obnoxious passes in the Alps: the Col de la Croix de Fer and the Col du Galibier. The Croix de Fer (‘iron cross’) is a terrible pass; halfway up, just as you settle into your rhythm, it ascends sharply to avoid a dammed lake before descending back to where the pass would naturally have continued on.
If you have ever ridden a long mountain climb, you will know how demoralising it is to lose all your hard-fought elevation for something so random as a dammed lake. The Galibier, on the other hand, is just high, cold and brutish.
It is a climb that goes relentlessly into the clouds, and just as your suffering reaches its maximum potential you pass by a gated tunnel that, were it open, would give passage to the other side of the col and its welcoming descent. Instead, the road churns on and on up to the faraway col.
Pantani, in ’98, languished far down in the General Classification, and it is unclear whether he had any designs on the podium in Paris. But he wanted this stage, and our hero, who should have been immune to race-day nerves like us mere mortals, was so gripped by his anxiety that he fell on one of the hairpin turns on the way up the Croix.
He attacked from the base of the Galibier, in the pouring rain. Rarely has a rider Looked so Fantastic climbing a mountain: head wrapped in a bandana; his sunglasses, rendered useless in such conditions, perched atop his head; his face steeled, showing effort but not suffering.
He was a machine that day. Over the top of the Galibier, between the ever-present glaciers, Marco struggled to get his rain cape on. He pulled over and stopped, losing valuable seconds rather than risk crashing or freezing without protection.
Sometimes the difference in the race is measured by the precautions one takes, not the risks. Those precious seconds were repaid by a faster, warmer descent into the valley, where Pantani flew up the final climb while his rivals – including the race leader, Jan Ullrich (who hated racing in the cold and wet) – lost large chunks of time.
Ullrich finished more than eight minutes behind, handing the maillot jaune over to Marco. They battled all the way to Paris, with Marco prevailing, to become the first Italian to do the Giro–Tour double since the great Fausto Coppi.
It’s no secret that, despite all his imperfections and indiscretions, Marco Pantani remains one of our very favourite riders. Not just because he rode uphill faster than anyone ever, not only for his style and composure while in lactic acid hell, nor for Looking Fantastic at all times despite being blessed with some big ol’ ears and premature baldness.
It was more the fact that for all his brilliant athleticism and God-like celebrity, he was real, and vulnerable, and flawed. Just like us.