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Marco Pantani

Born in Cesenatico[?], Italy, in 1970, Marco Pantani is widely regarded as being the best climber in professional bicycle road racing of his generation with his high point being winning the Tour de France in 1998. The bandana he often wears and his attacking style of riding led to him being dubbed 'Il Pirata' (the pirate) by the adoring Italian press. However, his recent career has been dogged by drug allegations which have sadly cast a shadow over his successes.

At 5'6 and just 8st 9lb, Pantani is the ideal build for a mountain climber and he demonstrated his potential on his Tour debut in 1994 by finishing 3rd and winning the legendary climb to Alpe D'Huez[?]. Just when he looked set to build on this success, Pantani was in a horrific collision during an Italian race which left his leg broken in two places and facing the end of his career

Pantani returned to action in 1997, but was felled by a black cat which ran out in front of him during the Giro d'Italia, ending his race. Remarkably he returned to action in the 1997 Tour and mounted a strong challenge for the yellow jersey. Because of his slight build & unique ability, Pantani was virtually unmatchable in the high mountains of the Alps & Pyrenees, but the bulkier and more powerful Jan Ullrich[?] showed his own determination and limited the amount of time he lost to Pantani during some titanic battles. Ullrich was then able to recover these losses and more in the individual time trials[?] which he was far more suited to so he ultimately claimed the yellow jersey, with Pantani eventually finishing third

Although Pantani's build gave him a significant advantage in the mountains, it restricted his performance in the time trials[?]. As long as more powerful men like Ullrich could remain with Pantani for most of the mountain stages, they would be able to recoup their losses and more in the time trials.

However, in the following years' tour, Pantani was finally able to crack the resolute and hitherto indestructible Ullrich, defeating him by almost seven minutes in one sensational mountain stage. Although Ullrich showed his character by going on the offensive during the next stage, but the damage had already been done and Pantani went on to become the first Italian since Felice Gimondi[?] (1965) to win the Tour. His achievement was all the more remarkable because for many years the Tour has been dominated by powerful time trial specialists such as Miguel Indurain[?], Jan Ullrich[?] and Bjarne Riis[?]. Not since the days of Lucien van Impe[?] had a 'pure' climber been victorious and his triumph resurrected the legend of the specialist mountain man flying up the steepest of ascents as if made of air.

Marco Pantani has also put in some spectacular displays in the Giro d'Italia, where the greater number of mountainous stages favour his unique style. Faced with challenges from other powerful time triallers such as Alex Zuelle[?] and Pavel Tonkov[?], Pantani attacked repeatedly in the Italian mountains and was able to get a big enough lead to compensate for his weakness in the time trials, resulting in overall Giro victory in 1998 and numerous stage wins.

Things turned bad for Pantani towards the end of the 1999 Giro which he was well on the way to winning when he was thrown off the race (eventually won by Gilberto Simoni[?]) for a suspiciously high red blood cell count which suggested (although could not conclusively prove) use of the banned substance EPO.

During the past two years, Pantani has been banned for alleged EPO use, but he did participate in the 2002 Tour de France. Although well off the pace for much of the race, Pantani showed a glimpse of his talent and determination when he matched the seemingly invincible Lance Armstrong pedal for pedal up the fearsome Mont Ventoux, leaving the rest of the field way behind.

Despite the drug allegations, Pantani still remains popular with many fans as he is seen as something of a throwback to the great pure climbers, explosively attacking in the mountains and making the race exciting, rather than grinding his rivals down. It remains to be seen whether Pantani will be able to recapture the form that led him to the yellow jersey, but if he does, be prepared for some mighty battles with Lance Armstrong.

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