Pantani inspired by papal meeting

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Ever the showman, Marco Pantani followed two dramatic exits from the Giro d'Italia in three years with an equally unexpected grand entrance on the eve of the race yesterday.

Two days of speculation became fact when the 1998 Giro victor announced to his army of fans that he would be competing in the Giro after almost a year of inactivity. It came after an audience with Pope John Paul at the Vatican. Inside, Pantani sat next to the Italian sprint specialist Mario Cipollini as the Pope told the visitors that the 83rd Italian Giro officially launched the summer's "Sports Jubilee" as part of the church's year-long Holy Year celebration.

"This interweaving of a sports event and Jubilee celebration contributes to raising awareness of the relationship that must always unite sporting activity and spiritual values," said the Pope, who was once a footballer and skier.

Pantani, nicknamed "The Pirate" for his trademark bandanna and earrings, joined other athletes who went up one by one to kiss the Pope's hand.

Pantani forfeited a second Giro triumph last June when a blood test, taken on the eve of the Milan finale, showed that the shaven-headed Italian was over the legal haematocrit limit of 50 per cent laid down by the International Cycling Union.

A year before, Pantani had become the first Italian for 33 years to win the Tour de France and the first Italian for 46 years to complete a Giro-Tour double in the same year. He has not raced professionally since he pulled out of the Tour of Valencia in Spain in late February because of lumbago.

The Giro, which is due to end in Milan on 4 June, starts with a six-kilometre prologue at the Vatican today.