The Giro d'Italia returns to Madonna di Campiglio in stage 15 on Sunday, for the first time since Marco Pantani was expelled from the race in 1999. The stage finish in the ski resort evoking mixed, but still strong, emotions for every one in cycling.
Police in Rimini are still investigating what happened on that fateful day on June 5, 1999 on the insistence of Pantani's mother. An investigation in Trento confirmed that the test was valid and no manipulation of Pantani's blood took place but Tonina Pantani is trying to save her son's honour and is convinced the consequences of what happened at Madonna di Campiglio led to his descent in depression, cocaine addiction and ultimate death in Valentine’s Day in 2004.
Sixteen years ago, Pantani was an idol for the Italian cycling tifosi, attracting millions of television viewers and millions in sponsorship for himself, his team and his ever-growing entourage. He had won the Giro d'Italia and Tour de France double in 1998 and on June 5 in 1999, he awoke believing he was about to win a second pink jersey. He had dominated the race up to that point, winning four stages and opening a lead of over five minutes.
A few hours later he left Hotel Touring in a daze, mobbed by television camera and surrounded by police after failing a UCI haematocrit test.
The Mercatone Uno team was convinced he was below the 50 per cent limit but the early morning tests showed he was at 51.9 per cent. All the riders in the top 10 knew they would be tested, with some sailing perilously close to the mark, but only Pantani's name was listed on the UCI communiqué that he had been disqualified from the race and suspended for 15 days.
Pantani and his team believed a victim of some kind of plot, a conspiracy theory that still lives on today, with suggestions he was nobbled by illegal betting rings or targeted because he was too successful. Pantani claimed that further blood tests done in the afternoon cleared him but they have never been validated. It has since emerged that EPO was rampant in the peloton in the 1990s and no doubt played a part in Pantani's success and ability to distance his rivals in the mountains.
Fabio Aru's directeur sportif Giuseppe Martinelli was Pantani’s directeur sportif in 1999. He has always refused to reveal the full truth of his relationship with Pantani and what they did together.
"The last time I was in Madonna di Campiglio, we won the stage. I've got some great memories of when Marco won races. Everything else is locked away in my heart," Martinelli told Cyclingnews.
"You can never cancel your emotions and memories even if there are good and bad. I've never denied what I did back then. I'm proud to have been Marco Pantani’s directeur sportif and I always will be. If I became someone, it was thanks to Marco, not thanks to Martinelli.
"The new investigation is part of the whole story of what happened that day at Madonna di Campiglio. We can only hope that one day they get to the bottom of what happened. I'd like to know too."