Marco Pantani was born in Cesena, Italy, on January 13, 1970. Like most Italian children, his favorite sport was soccer. But when his grandfather Sotero gave him his first bicycle, he discovered his true passion: riding for hours through the hills of his native Romagna. Pantani debuted as a professional with the Carrera Tassoni team at the 1992 Gran Premio di Camaiore. At the 1994 Giro d’Italia, 24-year-old Pantani showed he was not simply a support rider, leaving rivals breathless on Mount Mortirolo and showing the world his skills as a climber. That year he came in second at the Giro, and third in his first Tour de France. During the 1995 Tour de France, Pantani captured the public’s attention with stage wins in Alpe d’Huez and Guzet Neige. His fans were impressed not only by his victories, but also by his style and determination.
He used a bandana instead of a cap, earning the nickname, “the Pirate.” In 1995, disaster struck: he was hit by a car during a Milan-Turin race, and suffered compound fractures in his tibia and fibula. Fiercely determined to recover his form, Pantani was already back on a bike in 1997. He took part in the Giro d'Italia with the Mercatone Uno team, but had to quit after another fall.
The athlete recovered quickly and took part in the Tour de France, coming in third. In 1998, when he was just 28, Pantani chalked up an epic achievement, joining the ranks of only a handful of superior cyclists. “The Pirate” won both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France, becoming a cycling legend. At the Giro, Pantani had an unforgettable duel with Pavel Tonkov. The two raced head-to-head during the Plan di Montecampione stage. Pantani removed his bandana and sunglasses, signaling he was about to make a break for the finish. Tonkov kept up, but the climb exhausted him. Pantani proved unstoppable, releasing a final boost of energy and crossing the finish line, his arms raised.
He held on to the pink jersey, the shirt reserved for the overall race leader, until June 7, 1998, when the race finished in Milan. The Tour de France came next. On August 2, 1998, he triumphed in Paris, after winning the Les-Deux-Alpes stage, and beating his main rival Jan Ullrich by nine minutes. After triumphing in Madonna di Campiglio during the Giro d'Italia, on June 5, 1999, medical tests revealed that his level of red blood cells was too high. He was immediately disqualified for doping. That year the Giro went on without him. Pantani’s personal and athletic struggles had begun. The story of one of cycling’s greatest champions ended tragically in an apartment in Rimini, on February 14, 2004. Marco Pantani died at the age of 34. Even though medical tests determined the cause of death to be cardiac arrest caused by a cocaine overdose, the circumstances of his death are not entirely clear.