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Final ascent for a troubled bike rider

In the St. Petersburg Times it merited just a few lines — the briefest of sports briefs. But the words stopped me cold. At just 34 years of age, 1998 Tour de France winner Marco Pantani was found dead in a Rimini hotel room Saturday.

I must have read the story five times, but the words just wouldn’t register. It was only last May that I watched the charismatic Italian cyclist in his latest comeback bid. His 15th place finish in the Giro d’Italia suggested a return to the pinnacle of his sport. Instead, 40,000 people are expected to attend Pantani’s funeral in his hometown of Cesenatico today.

Pantani came to prominence at a time when daring seemed to have vanished from cycling for good. The sport, especially the Tour de France, was dominated by well-built, all-around athletes like Miguel Indurain, who dominated time-trials and then followed the wheels of his rivals in the mountains.

When viewers around the world got their first glimpse of Pantani in the 1994 Tour, it was love at first sight. With his elephant ears, shaven head and goatee beard, he looked the unlikeliest of cyclists. But against the best backdrop in sports, the upward slopes of the Alps and Pyrenees, the slender 125-pound cyclist would accelerate away from groups of elite riders, evoking the epic breakaways of Tours past, when legends such as Fausto Coppi and Federico Bahmontes soloed to mountain-top stage victories.

Scandal beset the 1998 Tour. Rocked by the arrest of a team masseuse, whose car was stocked with banned substances, the Tour seemed ready to implode. Rider strikes by day, police raids on riders’ hotel rooms by night; the press was already penning the sport’s obituary.

Redemption came on a cold wet day in the Alps when Pantani gave a reminder of why fans wait for hours on top of a cold sodden mountain for just a glimpse of their heroes. Breaking away on the penultimate mountain pass, the Italian descended the wet, treacherous, hairpin curves alone before climbing the 10-mile ascent of Les Deux Alpes to win the stage and the Tour. More than nine minutes later, an ashen-faced, yellow-jersey clad Jan Ullrich limped across the finish line, his Tour ambitions strewn over the mountainside.

From that high, Pantani’s career crashed. Only one day from overall victory, he was ejected from the 1999 Giro d’Italia for an abnormally high haematocrit level. Although not conclusive, the inference was that Pantani had injected EPO, a banned substance consisting of synthesized oxygen-rich blood cells. The incident signaled the beginning of the end for Pantani, who was dogged by investigations, injuries and depression for the remainder of his career.

Pantani’s tale is one that current sports stars would be wise to heed. Whether guilty or not, the lesson here is that tainted glory is no glory at all.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but think wistfully of the memory of Pantani, his bike pointed toward the sky, dancing on his pedals, defying gravity and competitors alike.

Until Saturday, I had hoped to see Pantani back at his best. Instead, his passing has given me an idea of how his rivals must have felt. I’ll keep looking, but he’ll be forever out of sight, pedaling ahead just around the next corner.