Anguish of a champion on verge of collapse

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The Independent Online
IT'S A crying shame for Marco Pantani that this year's Tour de France will be remembered as much for night raids and protest pull-outs as for what should, barring disasters, be a fantastic victory especially as his achievement hinges upon two of the most enthralling days' racing for years. Not for the first time, the brevity of Channel 4's highlights programme was exposed as ruthlessly as last year's winner, Jan Ullrich, on his nightmare day in the mountains. As the police swooped throughout the week and the peloton began to resemble a Second World War convoy being picked off by U-boats, the C4 team struggled to contain the off-road developments as well as all the action in their piddling daily half-hour.

Early on in Monday's crucial stage, won by Pantani to take yellow, Ullrich had been attacked six or seven times by riders who must have sensed his growing vulnerability. All this, though, was perforce dismissed in one sentence by Phil Liggett. Part of the problem, I suspect, is the requirement that it should all hang together like a well-made play, even at the risk of losing the essence. The fear of making a smooth narrative disjointed leads to too many sins of omission.

They should also be more flexible when it comes to Gary Imlach's filmed inserts which kick off the second half of each programme. Monday's for example, concerned the three-times winner, Greg LeMond, who was back for the first time since he retired, leading a group of Americans paying a few thousand dollars to see the Tour with their hero. All mildly interesting, except that the C4 team's intentions of filming the party as they handled a climb came to nothing when the American and his charges took a wrong turning. On a day as exciting as Monday they should surely have dropped the dead Yankees.

Still, when they got back to the action, it was gripping. In driving rain and wet-blanket mist, Pantani pulled away on the stiffest climb of this year's Tour, the 8,500ft Col du Galibier, accelerating up hills as smoothly as most other human beings on the flat. Ullrich, poor bloke, punctured at the foot, and when he resumed seemed to have been debilitated by his delay in the spirit-sapping rain. "He's going to have to take it like a time trial," said Liggett's co-commentator, Paul Sherwen. No chance. As Pantani powered his way home, the German was done for. A particularly cruel edit cut from the Italian to Ullrich and his team-mates, about five minutes behind. It was like going from the Keystone cops to one of those pointless pop videos filmed entirely in slow-motion.

Finally, Ullrich cracked. His team-mates, Bjarne Riis and Udo Bolts, rode just in front of him, bellowing at him to carry on. A motorbike camera pulled alongside and held Ullrich's profile for what seemed like half an hour. His face, normally so free and boyish yet focused and self-confident, was scarred with pain - not just the physical agony in his legs and torso, but the anguish of a champion on the verge of collapse. There were bags under his eyes the size of Willie Whitelaw's. He looked 100 years old.

On Tuesday, though, he was back, as though the previous day's wipe-out had been erased from history. On the slopes of the Madeleine, the last big climb of the Tour, he attacked, pulling away like Michael Schumacher leaving, say, Toranosuke Takagi breathing in his exhaust fumes. No one could live with him. Except Pantani. In Ullrich's pink jersey and the Italian's maillot jaune, the pair looked like a slice of Battenburg cake as they took the stage by the throat, Ullrich leading the way, Pantani never more than a few inches behind. There was pain etched on the German's face again, but this time it was the determined grimace of a man in control. Phil Liggett recalled the great duelling days of Eddie Merckx and Jacques Anquetil: "it's getting personal," he said. "I wonder what he thinks as he sees them coming," Liggett said as the pair overtook the lone breakaway man, Stephane Heulot. " `It's the TGV and I don't think I've got a ticket for this ride,' " Liggett suggested.

All the drug coverage meant that Channel 4 was unable to devote any time to telling us a bit about Pantani. Their magazine fills in a few details, though: he rode nearly 4,500 miles in winter training, and his favourite food is pancakes with chocolate spread (I have to say I like the second of those as an exercise tip better than the first). Three other snippets stand out: his bandana is his most treasured piece of equipment, his favourite music is the Eagles, the best part of the job for him is all the massage, and the worst part is the stress. Presumably the stress of listening to the Eagles, if he only but knew it. Somebody should have a word.

The magazine also, incidentally, contains an optimistic foreward from the Tour director, Jean-Marie Leblanc. "Who will be the chosen champion this year?" he asks. "As long as he is the best, and there are no hitches along the way, that will be enough for us." Oops. By the end, as the peloton limped to Paris, down to around 100 riders, it was almost a hitch too far.