Tour Champion Evokes Bygone Heroes in Italy

PARIS: Marco Pantani returned home to Italy on Monday to more than a hero's welcome after his victory in the Tour de France. He will surely be acclaimed campionissimo — champion of champions, a title that is not easily earned.

The last authentic one was the fabled Fausto Coppi, the winner of the Tour de France in 1949 and 1952, the winner of the Giro d'Italia, the world's second-most-important bicycle race to everybody except Italians, in 1940, 1947, 1950, 1952 and 1953, the world road race champion in 1953, the Italian national champion in 1942, 1947, 1952 and 1955, the record holder for the hour's race against the clock in 1942 and the winner of every major Italian one-day classic and then some.

That's pretty swift company, but Pantani has won his right to be included. The 28-year-old leader of the Mercatone Uno team is the first Italian in 33 years to win the Tour de France. He is also the first bicycle racer since Miguel Indurain in 1993 to win both the Giro and the Tour in the same year.

The only other riders to have done it are the big stars: Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Stephen Roche.

"He's a throwback, the old-fashioned kind of rider," said Prime Minister Romano Prodi of Italy in a telephone interview Sunday. The prime minister, a big fan of professional racing and the riding companion of such Italian stars as Gianni Bugno, meant that Pantani did not base his season on one major race.

"A real star," Prodi said. "It's unbelievable what he's gone through, the sacrifices and pain he's known."

The charismatic Pantani was hit by a car during the minor Milan-Turin race late in 1995, fracturing his left leg. He spent the rest of that season and most of 1996 on crutches, learning to walk again.

Last year he had recovered well enough to finish third in the Tour, the same placing that he had in 1994. But bad luck struck him again in the Giro in June 1997, when a black cat — yes, really — crossed the road and caused a mass crash of riders trying to swerve around it. Pantani went down and was out until the Tour a month later.

This year, though, all went right. He won the Giro two months ago by dominating his opponents in the mountains, just as he did in the Tour, and then riding a superlative time trial, or race against the clock, to finish third.

Acknowledged to be the sport's swiftest climber, the 1.7-meter (5-foot-7-inch), 60-kilogram (132-pound) Italian came into the Tour with many complaints: The mountains were not difficult enough, he said, and only two of the five daily stages in the Pyrenees and Alps ended on a peak. In the three other stages, his rivals would have the chance to catch him on long descents. Nevertheless, he finished second and first in the Pyrenees and first and second in the Alps. The final Alpine stage was annulled by a riders' protest against anti-doping investigations.

With a lead nearing six minutes before the final time trial, he again finished a surprising third, guaranteeing himself victory by 3 minutes 21 seconds when the Tour finished in Paris on Sunday. That was margin enough to subdue panic when he had a flat during the 10 laps on the Champs-Elysees and had to be rushed back by his teammates to the main pack.

But Pantani rarely gives in to panic. "His biggest virtue is his intelligence," says Felice Gimondi, the last Italian until now to win the Tour de France. "He has an acute sense of the race."

Pantani, who used to be known as Il Elefantino, the Elephant, because of his Dumbo-like ears, has reshaped his image in the last few years. Now he prefers to be known as Il Pirata, the Pirate, with his ears hidden under a bandana, his head shaved, an earring in his left ear and a suave mustache and goatee.

Possibly to match his yellow jersey, he had the facial hair dyed blonde from black for his appearance atop the final victory podium on Sunday. His teammates were all yellow-haired too.

As he says, his beard will have to turn gray before he also attempts to compete in the sport's third major stage race, the Vuelta a Espana. Not even "throwbacks" still ride the three big races in one year.

Nor does he plan to appear in the post-Tour criteriums, basically exhibition races, though they enrich many riders. But he has an offer to move from Mercatone Uno to the Mapei team in Italy at salary reported to be above $2 million a year.

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