In August 2, 1998, Felice Gimondi scaled the top of the Tour de France podium for a second time, 33 years after the first. Il Bergamasco won the Tour in 1965 but was called by race director Jean-Marie Leblanc in 1998 to present the winner, Italian Marco Pantani. Eight years later after that summer, the classy Italian got a similar call, this time for a film about the life of the fallen cyclist, Il Pirata-Marco Pantani, which airs tonight, February 5, in Italy.
"Jean-Marie Leblanc called me and asked 'would you like to present your successor?'" explained the 64 year-old to La Gazzetta dello Sport. "I went and raised the arm of Marco Pantani. In this moment the winner of the Tour enters into history, never to exit. It is a euphoria that, maybe, the Worlds does not even come close to.
"When they called me to participate in the film and repeat the same screen, I thought it was appropriate that I said 'yes,'" continued Gimondi who will cameo as himself in Il Pirata-Marco Pantani. "The first take went well, and maybe it would have been enough. But it is like photography; the more you take the better it is. And we repeated the scene five times."
After Pantani's 1998 Tour de France win, Gimondi briefly worked with Il Pirata for 2000 and half of 2001 at Mercatone Uno. "He won two stages at the Tour, on Mont Ventoux and at Courchevel. It was in this day, on Ventoux, that for the first time I had the impression that he listened to my advice.
"The night before the stage, in the hotel I recommended to him 'watch out, be attentive and don't ride outside of yourself. I had tried to follow Poulidor and Motta [in 1965], but I risked blowing up, and I finished in third.' He understood this, and without caving into the tension of following the attacks."
But being in the Mercatone Uno squad also allowed Gimondi to see that Pantani had his dark moments. "Sometimes I would see him act strange. For dinner he did not come and join the team, preferring to stay in his room. To eat and drink together is an important part in building a group; recounting stories, laughing, joking ...
"He had talent. On Oropa [in 1999 Giro d'Italia] he did a number. He had mechanical problems, remounted and then recaptured around 50 riders, and at the finish line he was not even convinced he had caught everyone," recalled Gimondi (The 2007 Giro will hold a mountain time trial up Oropa to remember Pantani.) Was it possible without drugs? "Nothing can transform a donkey into a race horse."
Local viewing time of Il Pirata-Marco Pantani is February 5, at 21:10 on Rai Uno.