12th July 1995.
The 1995 Tour was beyond heartbreaking for the Italians, the Motorola Team, the global peloton, fans of the sport and the cycling world in general. Olympic gold medallist and Motorola Team member Fabio Casartelli crashed along with several other riders on Stage 15, with fatal consequences. The race was on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees, when the tragedy occurred. Casartelli struck a concrete block on the side of the road, and it was immediately apparent that something terrible had happened. Casartelli was taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital where it was confirmed that he had not survived the incident. Today, a memorial to his memory stands beside the Pyrenean road where he crashed, and his death still evokes strong emotions. Casartelli had not been wearing a helmet, and some argued that there would have been a different outcome if he had been.
Six days prior to the terrible tragedy on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the tifosi had been celebrating the arrival of a new Italian superstar bike rider, when Marco Pantani won Stage 10 from La Plagne to L’Alpe d’Huez. Prior to entering the mountains, Italians Fabio Baldato and Mario Cipollini had already given Italy something to cheer about, with three stage wins between them. Pantani had been steadily breaking into the consciousness of the cycling world since his days as a Junior, with his incredible climbing skill and daring attacks when the road kicked up. Pantani drove his coaches mad with his preferred style of attack – sit at the very back of the race before tearing past everyone and climbing into the clouds; a risky strategy which could easily see a rider sustain heavy time losses.
A few days prior to the Alpe d’Huez stage, Pantani was considering abandoning the race. A small adjustment to the cranks on his bike had altered his position and caused an old injury to flare up. When the race entered Belgium at the end of the first week, the pain was unbearable. In a desperate effort to keep the Italian in the race, an osteopath was found to work his magic. Miraculously it worked, allowing Marco the opportunity to enter the mountains with the peloton and showcase his panache and flair when climbing.
Thirteen kilometres from the finish line on 12th July, the Italian climber attacked in his usual style, coming up from behind until he reached a group of three elite riders – Laurent Dufaux, fellow Italian Ivan Gotti, and the darling of the French cycling world, Richard Virenque, who were he leaders on the road. Sensing Marco’s intentions, Gotti accelerated away from Virenque and Dufaux before Pantani was able to catch the triumvirate. His previous two companions were unable to match his speed, and Gotti broke away from the group. Marco was a different proposition however, and he sailed past Virenque and Dufaux to gain Gotti’s wheel. Not content to sit on, Pantani launched another attack; dancing on the pedals, he rode away from his compatriot. No one was able to catch Marco that day, and as he wasn’t a contender for the General Classification, his move hadn’t panicked the bunch.
He might not have panicked the bunch, but Pantani did manage to briefly panic the tifosi and anyone else watching his escapades as he approached the finish line. At the 250m to go mark, there was a curve in the road which Marco appeared not to see until the very last moment. A collective exhale was made by the spectators as Pantani realised he was heading straight for the crowd barriers and the exit point for race vehicles instead of the finish line. Braking in time, Marco finally made the turn and rode to victory on Alpe d’Huez, a mountain that proved good to him throughout his career. To this day, Pantani is the holder of the record for the fastest ascent of the Alpe – although not without some debate. The controversy of the feat having been achieved during the EPO era not withstanding, different sources quote various times for the fastest climb of the mountain due to discrepancies between the accepted start point for the ascent. It is generally accepted by mainstream cycling publications and the Alpe d’Huez tourist board that Pantani’s 1997 ascent is the fastest – in 37 minutes and 35 seconds, with an average speed of 23.08kph. Others claim that 1995 was faster, quoting figures of 36 minutes and 40 seconds at 22.58kph. A third time of 36 minutes and 50 seconds is recorded elsewhere.
Whilst the figures may be in doubt, one thing is for sure – on 12th July 1995, Marco Pantani stamped his authority on the ascent, and announced himself as one of the finest climbers of his generation.
Photo courtesy of L’Equipe.