Friends: Despite his tragic and unsavory death, Marco Pantani remains hugely popular in his home town of Cesenatico and in Italian racing circles. When I visited his quite stately tomb yesterday afternoon, eighteen people that day had already signed the registry sitting within the tomb, most leaving lengthy messages. All were in Italian. I couldn't find a single one in a language I could read (English, French or Spanish), as I paged through its many pages. I could be the first American to have paid it a visit.
It was no challenge finding his tomb, even though it sat well back in the cemetery, as there were signs indicating the way, unlike other graves of Tour de France stalwarts I have visited (Bobet, Simpson, Lefebre). I left my bike in the entryway of the cemetery, though I discovered biking through the cemetery is not prohibited, as there was a sign on the tomb next to Pantani's asking cyclists not to lean their bikes against it. The walk-in tomb stood over thirty feet high. It had a slight conical shape, giving it a resemblance to a mountain peak. A slight twirl wound around it, as if it were a road to its summit. Atop the monument was a sculpted bicycle wheel.
Within the monument were many tributes to Pantani, medals hanging on the wall and small works of bicycle art. A bust of a goateed Pantani rested on a mantle. All around it and on the wall behind were photos of him racing his bike and on podiums. One showed him in a suit greeting Pope John Paul. Lance is known for the fierce intensity etched on his face. The majority of the photos of Pantani showed him with an expression of great serenity, even when in battle.
Pantani was one of the greatest climbers ever. He was known as an "Angel of the Mountains," a man who flew, if not floated, up the steepest of slopes in utter defiance of gravity, unlike any other racer in the peloton. It was an electrifying spectacle to behold, and won him legions of fans.
He holds the record for the fastest two climbs up L'Alpe d'Huez. Both came at the end of long stages after several other major climbs. Lance couldn't even break his record, though he very much wanted to, starting the climb fresh in the 2004 time trial up the Alpe. Lance rode like a man possessed in that time trial, pummeling all else, even passing Ivan Basso who started three minutes before him, but he couldn't come within a minute of Pantani's record.
Pantani is not the first Tour winner to go disastrously adrift upon retirement. Another of the great climbers, the first to be anointed "Angel of the Mountains," Charly Gaul of Luxembourg, 1958 winner of The Tour, fled to the woods and lived as a hermit for years. He and Pantani became friends in Gaul's later years when he became a bit more sociable. Its too bad Pantani couldn't have taken refuge in his cabin, rather than in drugs, as he tried to come to terms with his demons.
Cesenatico has also honored him with a statue, this one without a goatee, astride his bike in a plaza along the main coastal road through the town. And there is a Pantani Museum next to the train station.
Pantani's tomb was only slightly smaller than Dante's tomb in the larger city of Ravenna twenty miles to the north. Dante's tomb isn't confined to a cemetery, but is in the center of the city beside an ancient basilica. Dante was exiled to Ravenna in 1302 from Florence, about 100 miles away. He spent the last 19 years of his life in Ravenna. Florence came to regret exiling him and, as penance, pays to keep the eternal flame alight in his tomb.
Despite its size, Ravenna is the most bicycle friendly city I have visited in Italy so far. A bike lane and a newly constructed bike and pedestrian bridge over a river led into the city. Much of its downtown was restricted to bikes and pedestrians. There was a steady flow of young and old, men and women, on bikes. I was glad I had been lured to this city by its World Heritage sites, eight buildings of Byzantine architecture from the fifth and sixth centuries scattered about the city. Each was a remarkable work of art.
My thought has been occupied the past few days with the shortness of life after learning of the recent death of John Olin, owner of Higher Gear bicycle shop in Highland Park, a suburb north of Chicago. He recently died in his sleep at the age of 51. I'm riding a bike I bought from him four years ago. He was a most friendly and affable chap, a man always with a smile. If a training ride took me north, I enjoyed dropping in on his shop 25 miles north of where I live to talk bicycles and bicycle racing. I was always eager to visit with him after riding the Tour de France to hear his insights. He is one of those friends who would often be in my thoughts as I ride The Tour, knowing he would be in heaven if he were along with me. Now he is in a heaven of a different sort. I hope his fine shop can stay in business.