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Giro Casts a New Light on Pantani’s Legacy

The week after a Grand Tour is traditionally dedicated to post-race lessons and analysis, and there’s certainly plenty to talk about from the 2014 Giro d’Italia. But what stands out for me is how well the race, dedicated to 1998 champion Marco Pantani on the tenth anniversary of his death, reflected the positive aspects of Pantani’s racing while still being almost unrecognizable when compared to the Italian’s greatest wins.

Pantani has a complicated legacy. While pretty much every notable rider of his generation relied on EPO, Pantani’s hematocrit levels — a measure of red blood cell density and a tell-tale sign of doping— suggest particularly aggressive use.

In the mid-90s, he worked with Dr. Francesco Conconi — as famous for legitimate research into the limitations of athletic performance as he was for finding ways to extend them. Conconi kept careful records showing Pantani ranging in the mid 50s through much of his early TdF success, peaking at 60.1% when he crashed out of Milan-Turin in 1995.

And while any number above 50% is now cause to prevent a rider from starting a race, 60% is rarefied territory — the kind of thing that gives you nicknames. Even in his last, decidedly mortal performance at the Giro in 2003, documents seized in the Operacion Puerto raids in 2006 suggest that he had an ample supply of performance enhancers (under the codename “PTNI”) at his disposal.

But what made Pantani legendary was his character. In a world of clean shaves and meticulously gelled hair, Patani was a bald, goateed iconoclast. He was miserable in the time trial, most notably losing a staggering four-and-a-half minutes to Jan Ullrich in the first TT of the 1998 Tour, and as a result, his stage race victories were built on attacking early and often, animating a sport that would be dominated for the next decade by the heavy, metronomic thud of Lance Armstrong.

So while I understand and encourage the questioning the Pantani commemorations, I find myself in rare alignment with Rapha (who launched their own Pantani collection ahead of this years race), in saying that the legacy of Pantani is worth remembering and discussing.

That said, the racing in this commemorative Giro bears almost no similarity to to the sport as Pantani raced it. Stage 14 of this year’s event was modeled after a performance in 1999 in which the Italian lost his chain at the foot of a climb, climbed off his bike to fix it, remounted, and powered inexorably back through the field, in that heavily-geared, standing style so evocative of the EPO era.

(The mechanical occurs at 3:28, but I’d encourage watching the full video, just to get a feel for how dissimilar it is)

This year, the climb to Oropa was won from the breakaway in a grinding, painful, brilliantly tactical finish — not that you could ever tell from the “official video,” but that’s a story for another time. The overall contenders trickled in nearly two-and-a-half minutes later, separated by handfuls of seconds.

I much prefer the racing that this year’s event provided. While it may lack the firework appeal of a pink-clad, bald-headed man swashbuckling his way through a sea of rivals, it also highlights that there’s more to the sport than simply pedalling harder. There’s no question in my mind that Cataldo and Pantano, both capable climbers, could have kept the gap to an all-arounder like Battaglin, if the Colombian had been more confident of winning the sprint even after contributing to the pace.

Additionally, only two mountaintop finishes of the 2014 Giro were won by groups that were comprised almost entirely of GC contenders, or were won solo by legitimate threats for the overall win. It’s a distinction that I like to make, because mountain stages that go to the break provide the sort of race-within-a-race considerations that make Grand Tours compelling, and it’s a stark contrast to 1999, where nearly every mountain day went to GC challengers.

Some might complain that riders are too cautious now, that there’s no panache. But I disagree: polemica aside, Nairo Quintana’s win on Stage 16 was one of the boldest individual efforts I think I’ve ever seen. On a day that started with the Movistar rider considering a DNF because his hands were too frozen to eat, Quintana took a massive risk, isolating himself with with a legitimate GC threat and a former Giro winner, and then towing them unaided for 12 consecutive kilometers, all because he had an opportunity to cut a massive amount of time out of his rivals.

It was a risk he didn’t necessarily need to take. Over a minute-and-a-half ahead of race leader Rigoberto Uran, in a small group with a strong teammate, Quintana could have hidden in the wheels that day, letting Uran burn matches in a slow chase, perhaps leaving the Maglia Rosa vulnerable to lose 20 or 30 seconds to a Quintana attack in in the closing kilometers. With three more uphill finishes that week, including a mountain time trial, Quintana probably could have worked through his remaining gap to Uran before the finale in Trieste.

Quintana, quiet and calmly self-confident, definitely lacks Pantani’s public flare. But in many ways, he’s an ideal representative for a sport that is cleaner, or at least cleaner-looking, than it’s ever been; a champion who relies more on timing and race savvy than pure bravado. But still, bold rides like his effort on Stage 16 highlight the positive aspects of Pantani’s legacy outside the miasma of doping, and help marry cycling more comfortably to its troubled and complicated past.

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