Italy's No 1 cyclist remained closed inside with family and his Danish girlfriend, pondering his future as television crews set up camp outside waiting for a glimpse of the fallen hero. In Pantani's hometown of Cesenatico, which had been organising a huge street party for the imminent victory, the streets were empty and the mood in the local cafes grim.
News that Pantani had been suspended from the tour after a doping test was greeted with consternation and disbelief. He registered a concentration of red blood cells two per cent above the allowed level in a spot test on Saturday morning.
Pantani's talent and sheer guts in fighting back after a series of setbacks, including a near fatal accident, have made him one of the country's favourite sportsmen. He is affectionately known as The Pirate because of his shaven head, scarf and earring.
In a brief appearance on Saturday, Pantani said he was sorry for cycling and that there was something strange going on. He also cast doubts on his professional future saying he had come back before "but this time it would be difficult".
The director of Pantani's team, Giuseppe Martinelli, said he hoped to convince his star cyclist not to retire: "It won't be easy, but I hope to succeed to show just what Pantani means for sport and for cycling," he said.
The story received blanket coverage in Italy's three sporting dailies and in media generally. "He's innocent!" screamed the banner headline in TuttoSport. Corriere dello Sport, which organises the Giro, asked: "Pantani, why?" The editor of the pink Gazzetta dello Sport, Candido Cannavo, knocked down talk of a plot but spoke of a sense of betrayal. "I don't know to what extent Pantani is to blame or is the victim of a shameless provocation," he said. The veteran commentator Sergio Zavoli said it would have been wiser to allow Pantani to complete the final leg, with victory imminent, leaving the result "subjudice", pending verification of the positive haematocrit test.
"I have difficulty believing that a champion of his class and with the responsibility he has could succumb to the temptation of adding to his own immense strength something artificial," he said.
In Pantani's absence yesterday, there were a few scraps of consolation, his compatriot Ivan Gotti taking overall victory. The final stage from Boario Terme to Milan was won by another Italian, Fabrizio Guidi, with compatriots Dario Pieri second and Massimo Strazzer third.
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