If the Italians can’t have an overall winner in pink in Trieste this time next week, then it’s a safe bet that that the stage win they would most crave for a countryman would be this one. The Plan di Montecampione holds a special place in Italian cycling folklore, more so perhaps than the more famous climbs of the Passo del Stelvio, Gavia or Zoncolan, all of which feature later in this years edition. The tree-lined climb up to the Montecampione is where Pantani sealed his ’98 Giro and is a key part of the homage to him that this edition of the race has sought to become.
Having travelled to Italy myself on this day I missed all of the build-up that the 217km stage might have offered before the crucial last 15km. By the time I reached my holiday villa in Sicily and found Rai 3’s coverage, Lotto’s Adam Hansen and Garmin’s Andre Cardoso were already leading on the lower slopes of the Montecampione. The Maglia Rosa group were 21″ behind with Blue jersey (I still can’t used to this) KOM leader Arredondo bridging up to the front pair.
There was still a lot of action ahead though, as my 3 pages of notes for the next 10miles can attest. Arredondo – so strong at the beginnings of climbs – caught them quickly enough and took Cardozo on with him to test the resolve of Uran and the others. All the GC contenders were still in the thinning chase group who doggedly stuck together almost to the catch, which took place at 9km. Sky, freed from the shackles of overall contention, chanced their arm again: this time it was Ireland’s Philip Deignan who slipped away in a familiar, high cadence style that won him 26″ by the 6km remaining mark.
Behind Deignan, the twenty strong group holding all the main players, started to probe and press the pace. Arredondo soon paid for his earlier efforts whilst Ryder Hesjedal and Ivan Basso also cannot hold the pace which Mick Rogers begins to lay down for his team mate Rafal Majka. Suddenly the group is 14 strong and Deignan’s hard-fought lead begins to tumble fast.
Pierre Rolland makes a slight feint at 5km, a move which which animates Uran, who goes on to make the break that the Frenchman could not quite make stick. Evans, Majka and a much stronger looking Nairo Quintana follow the pink jersey, who eases off once the damage has been done and lets Evans sweat on the front for a while again. The former winners’ pace isn’t enough for Rolland though as he goes again at 4km, taking Colombian Duarte with him as he swiftly catches Deignan.
Astana’s Italian rider Fabian Aru, who has clearly been biding his time in the Uran group, makes his move at 3km prompting a change of pace which, initially, Uran seems most able to match. Quintana waits a little longer, regaining with contact with Uran just as he and Aru catch Rolland and Deignan but whilst they then pause in the regroupement Aru strikes alone for the win.
Quintana, looking well recovered from the injury and cold which affected his first couple of weeks in the race, finally attacks with 1.7km remaining as he looks to start to regain his time losses. Rolland goes with him. Evans has momentarily disappeared from sight and when a moto camera drops back to find him, he is suffering mightily, working like a dog on the front of a group of the young pretenders Keldermann, Majka as well as Pozzovivo, fighting to save his Giro.
Ahead Quintana half springs at 900m trying to catch Aru but he is still lacking the explosive force we saw in 2013 and though he drops his French companion Rolland, he cannot catch the flying Italian. Aru takes an emotional home win and is already fielding questions from the media about Pantani by the time Quintana crosses 22″ later. After Rolland and Duarte cross, Uran comes in ceding just 20″ to Quintana. Evans loses another 32″ to Uran and immediately seeks comfort in his security neck towel/blanket.
At the end of the day Uran had consolidated his lead overall, regaining the minute lead over Evans that he had after the time trial. Aru lay in fourth place 2’24” adrift but Quintana had risen again, up to fifth and now just 2’40 back on his countryman Uran. With the hardest climbing yet come he once again looked like the contender that we all expected before the race.
The new Marco Pantani film had its premiere in London’s West-End this week. I went along to see the film and also spoke with director James Erskine about it.
Often alone on the mountain climbs upon which he made his name. Ultimately alone in the Rimini hotel room where he died ten years ago, aged just 34. Always, it seems, alone in his own uncomfortable skin. For a man adored and feted throughout Italy for his cycling achievements and celebrated far further for his exhuberent verve in the saddle, Marco Pantani always remained a loner. Even when he was at the very centre of things – both good and bad – he somehow appeared detached. A riddle. An enigma. And that is what drew many of us to him.
James Erskine’s new film, Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist, makes no judgement upon the man known in turn as Little Marco, Elefantino and Il Pirata, and in the Q&A following the premiere in London on Wednesday night, the write-producer-director Erskine made no bones about that omission saying, “We wanted to make an emotional film and show the human cost.” he explained. In contrast to many recent cycling films, the director’s own presence is non-existent in the finished piece and the audience are allowed to make up their own minds as the whether he were ‘Pantani The Saint’, ‘Pantani The Sinner’ or someone struggling with both titles and wanting to be just Marco.
Life is much easier when our sporting heroes and villains are one-dimensional. “Four Legs Good. Two Legs Bad.” is easily modified into “1990’s Bad. 2010’s Good” but we all know how that black and white simplification played out in Orwell’s Animal Farm. Despite everything that has happened since Erskine started making his film 3 and half years ago, Lance Armstrong has managed to continue to polarise opinion, still loved and hated in equal amounts, but Pantani always walked a greyer line. Even before the film starts we bear witness to the truth. The BBFC certificate gives the film a 15 rating, pointedly noting that it includes “Drug Use, Injury Detail”. There you have it: in the most literal black and white. We know he cheated to win. So why do we feel differently about Pantani than we do about Riis, Ullrich, Virenque and Armstrong? Why is there always a question mark with Pantani’s legacy?
The very fact of his untimely death is obviously the key point in that it allows his sporting frauds to be viewed as part of a wider tragedy from which he could not ultimately be saved. Conspiracy theories crop up in the film about his fall from grace in ’99 – the pivotal moment in a career that had already been beset by disappointment and terrible injury – but they seem a side story to the main theme of a little boy lost in the world of men (a phrase which Erskine echoes in our conversation). An innocent. Such a thought would never occur about Riis, Ullrich or Armstrong who were as calculating as they come and who, in the case of Lance in particular, would seemingly stop at nothing to win. They all wanted to lead. Perhaps Pantani just wanted to be followed.
There is also a school of thought that suggests it was Pantani’s destiny to be deified and that the manner of his racing subliminally encouraged this. The repeated rises from the dead to claw back time in the mountain’s desert-like wastelands; the faithful disciples at Carrera who followed their messiah enmasse to the new team of Mercatone Uno; the outstretched arms crossing the winning line matching a crucifixion pose. His passing simply fulfilled this role as a tortured soul who struggled with greater highs and lows than those he conquered at the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez.
For just one moment in the film we see the anger of Pantani. A still frame of a grimace as he achieves another mountain-top win. For the only time there is fire in his eyes. All the other times, even when battling hard, the eyes are searching for something that is missing. When they close in ecstasy as he wins, he seems to have momentarily found it. But then it is gone again and he is still searching, and we must search with him, for an answer that cannot be found.
The film expertly assembles a remarkable amount of archive footage, talking heads, evocative scenery and subtle reconstruction. The archive material is suitably grainy in quality and breathless in it’s commentary and thus is superbly contrasted by the high-definition vistas of the silent Dolomite and Alpine ranges that punctuate the various sequences. The talking heads are superb with valuable input from Greg Lemond, Evgeny Berzin, Bradley Wiggins and Matt Rendell, whose book The Death of Marco Pantani was a key source for the film. It is Pantani’s family though, and his mother in particular, whose words will last longest in the memory. For all the scientific jargon and shots of blood-spinning centrifuges and syringes which dominate the central part of the film, it is her simple warmth and still raw sadness that touches deepest.
Marco Pantani wasn’t the de facto choice of subject when Erskine was first tempted into looking at making a film about cycling. “I’m intrigued by pain,” he says, speaking the day after the premiere from Belfast where he is finishing up his latest movie about the Northern Ireland football team taking on the Brazilians in the ’86 World Cup, “I’m interested in sportsmen absorbing pain and cycling seemed like a good place to look. The Individual versus themselves. A boxing film would have been too obvious.” James doesn’t count himself as a “proper cyclist”, though he watches it a bit and didn’t know of Pantani before being pointed in his direction by cyclist friends in the film industry. “I knew it would have to be someone from the Nineties for there to be enough of the sort of archive material I wanted and then someone suggested Pantani. I started with the obituaries, the English language books and videos. He was some who stood out from the pack. A maverick. Not a rebel but a maverick. Once we found Matt’s book I knew we had a story.”
Erskine tells the story in familiar fashion. The chronological history from birth to death is interwoven with the key achievements and events that defined the career. He likens the format to that of ‘Raging Bull’. We see the pirate conquering The Galibier in ’98 – all yellow wheels and saddle as he floats away in the rain. We see the empty victory atop the Ventoux ahead of Armstrong in 2000. Erskine uses a different filmic device to differentiate each significant win and to individualise them. Deployed partially to help the non-cycling audience they hope to attract and partially to give some texture to what might otherwise become a stylistic monotony of clips, I only noticed it for the first time during the Ventoux segment where I found the device chosen there a bit distracting. I asked James to explain the thinking behind this and highlight the other more subtle tricks they had used.
“We tried to give each segment a different feel to distinguish them. The ’94 Giro segment is quite straightforward but jumps around in time a little. It goes off and looks at something else and then comes back. We cut the ’99 Madonna di Campiglio sequence with whip-panned shots of trees. We were looking to take it faster and faster, punchier and punchier, higher and higher to give that final hallucinogenic moment before the fall.”
It’s the fall that defines the film of course; Pantani’s dramatic descent into cocaine addiction following his expulsion from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for a high haematocrit level when over 4 minutes in the lead. That is what Erskine felt showed the key elements of Pantani’s character, “He had an extreme psychology. There’s guilt, shame and huge insecurity about a two week ban that many others had at that time too. What mattered to me was why did Pantani take that series of false steps afterwards? Why did he start using cocaine, which increased his paranoia? What was it that took him over the edge when he could have come back just two weeks later and raced hard again? Why did he go bonkers? It was all really intriguing.”
Finding the answers were not so straightforward as asking them. It took a long time to get the family fully on board. “We spent a lot of time talking to them. Being considerate. It was difficult for them to think about EPO and cocaine – they are grieving parents – but they understood that it needed to show both sides of the story. We showed them the film before the press launch in Italy and they did have some issues but I think that ultimately they respect the work.”
The director also delayed the film’s release by a year to ensure that they had all the family material they needed and it was a wise choice given it’s importance in the finished article. The film has already been released in Italy and, despite falling well short of exonerating their saint, it received a warm welcome from the local partisan audiences. The main wonder was why it was a British team making the legacy film. In truth the film benefits from the distance and balance that Erskine gives it and it’s hard to imagine that coming from an Italian source.
Ned Boulting, who along with The Times’ cycling correspondent Jeremy Whittle admirably hosted the audience Q&A after the screening, said during his brief introduction before the film that this is ‘perhaps the greatest cycling story ever told’. Many, including myself, would take some exception with that but none would doubt that Pantani’s is the one of the great tales of modern cycling and after seeing the film I think that all would agree that here it has been expertly told.
Pantani: The Accidental Death of a Cyclist is released 16th May.|Visit Pantanifilm.com for details of screenings.
“Whatever happened to all the heroes? All the Shakespeareos?” – The Stranglers: No More Heroes
With the Giro d’Italia starting in Belfast on Friday, and the inaugural Women’s Tour of Britain breaking new ground in England this week, there are probably more top-level cyclists currently on UK soil than for many, many a year. But whilst the Women’s Tour has attracted the crème de la crème of female riders, this edition of the Giro has been dogged by some big name stay-aways who are preferring to focus on the Tour de France later in the Summer.
If this is your first time watching the Giro check out the Beginner’s Guide at the bottom of the page.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali’s decision to fight for Yellow rather than Pink has perhaps caused the biggest concern for the organisers and certainly for the homegrown fans. Italian cycling is suffering from a cyclical downturn and true contenders appear very thin on the ground despite their country-men making up more than a third of the 198 entrants. Previous winners Damiano Cunego, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso are riding (as is 2012 winner Ryder Hesjedal) but none have shown the form that would put them into consideration for the top prize. Elsewhere, Joaquin ‘Purito’ Rodriguez, a seemingly resurgent Cadel Evans and 2013 Tour de France runner up Nairo (Nero for this race, surely??) Quintana do bring undoubted quality but there remains a feeling that this is very much a sideshow filled with men who are either deemed too old for a Tour win, or still too young. Quintana, with an occasionally 50-year-old looking face on his 24 year old body, sits in both camps.
Quintana: the favourite is an old head & young shoulders above the rest.
Injury and accident have also robbed the start list of a couple of key battles. Richie Porte’s early season illness has pushed his goals backwards, meaning we miss out on a potential repeat of a high-level Sky vs Movistar battle that illuminated last years Tour and which had been widely expected. After Wiggins’ disastrous appearance in Italy last year (and Sky’s courting of the American market in the overlapping Tour of California this year) it’s been left to local boy Dario Cataldo to carry the hopes of Sky for this Grand Tour instead. Chris Horner’s incident with a car during recent training has also removed his name from the start list and with it the intriguing prospect of him going head-to-head on the mountains with Quintana whose age is his own digits swapped around.
Visa issues have also blighted the build-up to Belfast’s Grande Partenza. A number of riders have apparently either been denied visas by the UK authorities or simply not received them (and their all important passports) back in time. Cue further last-minute roster re-shuffling. That aside, preparations for the big roll-out in Ireland seems to have captured the enthusiastic spirit that the country is famous for. The Emerald Isle has been turned totally pink – literally in some cases – with fuchsia sheep, rose horses, coral cranes and even the odd mauve mayor popping up the celebrate the coming of the Giro. 1987 winner Stephen Roche has been roped in as the de facto ambassador for the first three days and, with his son Nicholas leading the Tinkoff-Saxobank team and his nephew, Dan Martin of Garmin-Sharp in the hunt for stage wins, he will be hoping to continue celebrating long after the Giro caravan has moved on.
There will be lots of pink wool to be had in Ireland’s Autumn/Winter fashions.
And move on they must; for after starting from the Titanic museum near Belfast’s famous shipyards and winding their way through North and South en-route to Dublin, the whole entourage faces a long transfer to Southern Italy before beginning the stages ‘up the boot’ towards the Alps and the Dolomites. This year’s finish will be in Trieste on June 1st but there is a whole heap of climbing to be done before the riders reach the final port. And that brings us back to Quintana.
With a favourable course than includes monstrous ascents of the Gavia & Stelvio on Stage 16, a mountain time-trial up the Monte Grappa on Stage 19 and then a penultimate day which ends with the eye-watering ramps of the Zoncolan, the tiny Colombian climber looks set to thrive. Quintana has been given the lead role of a strong team under the pretext of Movistar preferring to develop him in the less pressured environment of the Giro. With the relatively depleted start list though, this plan could backfire as Quintana is now such a hot favourite (10-11 ON at the time of writing) that anything less than the win will be seen as a sure thing thrown away. With such high expectations, and without another potential leader within the team to deflect attention, all the pressure will actually be fully on him from the outset. One hopes that his attacking style is not overly curtailed by the burden of favouritism.
If Quintana can’t land the Giro in a suitably swashbucklingly way I suspect that most neutrals will be hoping that the ever-popular Purito finally lands a Grand Tour. Whatever happens, we don’t want a defensive phoney war through the mountains with one explosive attack on the last 100m of the Zoncolan any more than we did the dull time-trialled victories of Indurain. More than any other Grand Tour, the Giro sets itself up to be about spectacle. Let’s hope it delivers. Forza!
Beginner’s Guide to the Giro
21 stages, 3 rest days (Mondays), 3,449.9 kilometres.
Key stages: 16 (Tuesday 27th), 19 (Friday 30th), 20 (Saturday 31st)
TdF/Giro Differences: Yellow is Pink, Green is Red, Polka Dots are solid blue, White is still white.
Grand Depart = Grande Partenza, Domestique = Gregario, Maillot Jaune = Maglia Rosa
Porte, Kennaugh, Cataldo. Cav is Swift. Kittel is still Kittel.