Three years after breaking leg, Italian rider wins Tour de France
Posted: Tuesday September 22, 1998 06:20 PM
PARIS, (CNN/SI) -- Marco Pantani of Italy became the first Italian to win the Tour de France since Felice Gimondi won it in 1965. However, the drug scandal and sit-down strikes that have dogged the tracks of this year's premier cycling event tarnished 'Il Pirata's' golden moment in the spotlight.
With the sun bright after a heavy shower, the Italian rode in triumph along the Champs-Elysees, proving he indeed was a champion but still no match for the scandal that enveloped cycling's showcase event.
The drug scandal even overshadowed Pantani's rare double -- he won the Giro d'Italia (Tour of Italy) and the tour, repeating a feat performed by Miguel Indurain of Spain five years ago
"To win the Giro and the Tour de France is something my country has been waiting for a long time," Pantani said. "This day will remain one of the most important days in my life."
Defending champion Jan Ullrich of Germany was second, 3 minutes, 21 seconds behind. Bobby Julich of Glenwood Springs, Colorado, was third, at 4:08, the best performance by an American since Greg LeMond won his third crown in 1990.
Julich, riding with the French Cofidis team, joined LeMond as the only Americans to finish in the top three.
"This year I had little chance to win," said Julich, riding in his second Tour. "Pantani was on another planet. When he attacks the mountains, no one can match him."
This was a race in which many riders felt they were being treated as criminals during the ongoing investigation. Once, they delayed the start of a stage by two hours. Another time they held hands in protest crossing the finish line, prompting organizers to wipe out the entire stage.
"No matter what happened here, it was my dream," Julich said. "Different things come about and try to mess with you. But it's the strong people that persevere and don't let it bother them. I'm very proud right now."
Tom Steels of Belgium won the final 147.5 kilometer (91-mile) stage from Melun to Paris, which finished along the Champs-Elysees. Steels won four stages, including the first in Dublin, Ireland.
Pantani, riding for the Mercatone Uno team, finished the 91-mile stage from Melun to Paris in the pack in 45th place. A flat tire held him up for less than a minute.
Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro sent Pantani a message offering "the thanks of the Italian people for having given Italy this exceptional success."
Pantani's tributes are just beginning. A wine shop in Alessandria in northern Italy dedicated a Piedmont wine after the rider.
In Cesnatico, Italy, a banner on a building read "Pantani flies high." Some 2,000 people took to bicycles in the town's streets to celebrate their hometown hero.
The Tour de France crowds, populated by many vacationing Italians, cheered Pantani every time he passed, easily spotted in the leader's yellow jersey.
Pantani took the lead last Monday after Ullrich lost nine minutes in one day.
The Italian came in third in 1994 and 1997 and lost by more than 14 minutes to Ullrich last year. Pantani broke his leg at the end of 1995 and did not race in 1996.
On Sunday, however, it was a time to luxuriate in the traditional nine laps up and down the Champs-Elysees, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde.
Usually the finale of the grueling competition is cause for revelry. But this year, there was a sense that the end could not come soon enough for a pack whose numbers dwindled as the race went on.
Nearly each day since the start of the Tour on July 11 in Dublin, there have been new drug revelations, police searches and rider protests.
Only 14 of the original 21 teams ended the race; six dropped out and one team, Festina, was expelled. The pack was reduced to fewer than 100 riders from the original 189.
While riders crisscrossed France, seven people were placed under investigation - one step short of being charged - on drug-related charges: three officials of the Festina team, two from TVM, a doctor from ONCE and one rider, Italy's Rodolfo Massi of the Casino team, the Tour's leading mountain climber.
Festina was ousted on July 17, after team director Bruno Roussel admitted to an organized system of providing performance-enhancing drugs to his riders.
Six other teams dropped out in protest over police tactics and treatment during the Tour, leaving 14 in the competition.
On Monday, riders of the Dutch TVM team are to be questioned about drug use by police in Reims.
Britain's Chris Boardman was the Tour's early leader before crashing into a stone wall in Ireland and leaving the race.
"The Tour is big enough to handle one scandal like this," he said. "But maybe not another."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.