It started back on Ventoux a few days before. Marco Pantani and Lance Armstrong, both of them doped right to the outer limits of what was medically conceivable at the time, put in an attack on the rest of the leaders of The Tour De France and rode out of their minds - right past the memorial to the late Tom Simpson - up, up, up, straight into history. At the line, side by side, Lance let Pantani have the win.
Two weeks ago, local weather prognosticators around town predicted that we'd have as much as 10 inches of snow in a day. Much build up and panic, as the local lot is prone to, and we got...rain. Emotions around town ranged from relief to disappointment to anger, but I was mostly just curious: what's the first emotion to go through the local weatherman's mind when he wakes up the next morning, looks outside, and sees how wrong he was? Surprise? Amusement? Embarrassment? Is he scared for his job? Does he feel irrevocably alone?
Maybe it's just me. Maybe it's winter. But I wonder about Pantani at moments like that. Did he know Lance was doped on Ventoux that day? Did he care? He'd spent the last twenty years of his life grinding down his big chainrings and his molars into stubs on the steepest, hardest climbs in Italy. And this, this...Texan, could give him a little wry smile, downshift, and ride away from him. Weathermen, in a sort of natural pattern that is common to unnecessary jobs, probably don't care that they blew it. Brush it off, blame it on El Nino, and move on. But forecasting the weather doesn't put a person through the extended kind of torture that training as a professional cyclist does. Every winter, Pantani would train, and he'd diet, and he'd dream, and I'm sure he'd see Lance in his sleep, imagine dropping that American sonofabitch just as soon as they hit The Madeleine or The Galibier, or whatever kind of awful steepness would finally be enough to show everyone that Pantani was the better man.
So what emotion was the first one to go through Pantani's mind that day when Lance beat him up Ventoux, and then let him have the stage win at the top? He'd spit when he mentioned it, a gift. Racing was divine. For Pantani, to gift a stage win was blasphemy. Especially from Lance, his nemesis, who had nicknamed him "elephantino" referring to his height and his ears. You can't call a guy "little elephant" and then let him win a stage beside you on purpose.
Naturally, Pantani was furious. Suicidal. He called a press conference in Courchevel, glowering with anger, and declared, "If Armstrong thinks it's all over, he's wrong. In any case, he's not finished
The next day on the way to Morzine, Pantani attacked. Right out of the gates Pantani rode completely
outside of his ability, acknowledging that today would be his last day in the
Tour De France, and just wanting to blow Lance up and show the world that Lance
was still mortal, still beatable by someone, even if it would never again be Pantani.
Pantani rode himself into the ground that day, and the Texan chased him harder than he should have.
So when Pantani pulled the plug, defeated and completely blown and let Lance ride by with what little he had left, I hope he at least managed to spit at him, see the"oh shit" look cross his face just that one time, and know that Lance would
fold further up the road. Sure enough, Lance, dehydrated from chasing
Pantani all day, gave up 2 minutes to Ullrich on the way up to Morzine, and
nearly lost the Tour. His losses that day, tricked as he was, gave the cycling world pause.
In hindsight, Lance lost like Pantani lost - with the throttle wide open.
erratic behavior on the way to Morzine that day was not something out of character. He'd
rather quit a race than lose. He'd rather leave professional cycling than be
Lance's pet. He'd rather die than be elephantino. And his death, like so much of
his life, was marked with pain:
"For reasons that were at first unclear,
he'd destroyed everything in the hotel room: the furniture, the mirrors, the
plugs in the walls, not in an uncontainable anger, but in a persecutory
delirium; in sheer paranoia. Apparently, to stop some alien entity from
entering, he had piled the furniture against the door...As a means of
suicide, cocaine is a poor option. A heroin overdose lets you sleep to death. To
kill yourself with coke, you need a lot of money, and even then, you can't be
sure it will kill you. Marco probably took some time to die. It was an ugly
death." -Dr Giuseppe Fortuni, Forensics Medicine, University of Bologna
I don't know anything at all about about Heaven. But I do know that death - at the very least - is the great equalizer. And if Heaven gets the OWN network, and if it's possible for Marco Pantani to tune in this year, if only to see that oh-shit-look furrow Lance's aging brow one more time, I hope he does.
What would be the last thing Patani would think, there in Heaven, watching his old foe's downfall, before he turned off the TV and went riding? What did he think, for that matter, when he checked into that hotel room on the Mediterranean and decided he'd had enough?
I beat you here, Lance.
But the gap is smaller than you think.