The outpouring of emotional messages remembering Michele Scarponi highlighted just why he was so admired and appreciated as a rider, a rival, a teammate, and a friend.
Scarponi always sought out happiness in life, using a joke, a smile and a funny face to ease the pain, the suffering, and the disappointment of professional cycling. He was only serious when it came to working for and advising his Astana team leaders, first Vincenzo Nibali and then Fabio Aru. Pressure and expectation are often high in professional teams at Grand Tours but Scarponi helped ease any tensions with a smile and an upbeat outlook on life.
Despite being 37 and a professional since 2002, Scarponi was still motivated to train and race. He had dashed home after the Tour of the Alps to give his twin sons Giacomo and Tommaso the leader’s jerseys he had won at the stage race, his final photo on Twitter showing him as a loving father. He opted to go training early on Saturday but tragedy struck just after eight in the morning. A van hit him on a down hill junction and he died instantly from his injuries.
Scarponi’s sudden death has hit hard because of the circumstances and because of his friendly character. As Marco Bonarrigo pointed out in Corriere della Sera, if Scarponi hadn’t been a professional cyclist, he could have been an entertainer, a warm-hearted clown or an excellent motivator.
Scarponi played a vital role in Nibali’s 2014 Tour de France victory and again at last year’s Giro d’Italia. After working, often as last man, for Nibali, Scarponi knew how to help the Sicilian switch off from racing. His smile and jokes worked better than any recovery product on Nibali’s fatigue and frustration.
A lifelong love for cycling
Scarponi, like so many Italians, started racing when he was a young boy as he grew up in the village of Filottrano deep in the Le Marche hills, 30 minutes from the Adriatic coast. He was given a Bianchi bike for his first church communion and started racing when he was eight years old with a local club. His family sacrificed their weekends to support him and he won often, with the junior Italian national title at the age of 17 one of the most significant victories of his early years.
He rode for the Zalf amateur team for four seasons and turned professional in 2002 with the Acqua e Sapone team in 2002, wearing the standout zebra-stripped colours with the likes of Mario Cipollini and Daniele Bennati. His climbing skills honed on the Le Marche hills made him a good stage racer and man for the mountains. He finished fourth at Flèche-Wallonne in 2004 and moved to the bigger Spanish Liberty Seguros team.
Spain was also the cause of his problems after he became implicated in Operacion Puerto and accused of blood doping with Dr. Fuentes. Scarponi was one of few riders to confess and was banned for 15 months. He was also banned for three months in the winter of 2012 for working with Dr. Ferrari.
“I’m not interested if I’m one of the few riders to pay for what happened. I made a mistake. I just hope I won’t be labelled as a doper for the rest of my life,” he said at the time.
Scarponi refused to let the ban end his career and made a comeback with Androni Giocattoli and won Tirreno-Adriatico – the race that so often passed through his local hills. He also won a stage at the 2010 Giro d’Italia and finished fourth overall. He then became a Grand Tour leader for Lampre and was the only rider to take on Alberto Contador in the 2011 Giro d’Italia. Scarponi finished second overall but was declared the winner when Contador tested positive for Clenbuterol and agreed to give up his Giro d’Italia victory as part of his shortened ban from racing.
Scarponi was awarded the pink jersey and winner’s trophy at the start of the 2012 Giro d’Italia in Denmark.
“I’m sorry for Alberto and sorry for me because I’d really have liked to win the Giro in a different way,” he said at the time.
Scarponi went on to finish fourth at the Giro d’Italia in 2012 and 2013 before accepting an offer from Astana to help Vincenzo Nibali. His career evolved from being a team leader to that of important domestique and he played a vital role in supporting Nibali at the 2014 Tour de France and the 2016 Giro d’Italia. Age slowed his legs but never his enthusiasm and he was happy to stay at Astana and work for Fabio Aru in 2017.
Destiny stepped in and Scarponi was named as Astana’s team leader for this year’s Giro d’Italia after Aru’s knee injury. He immediately took up the role of leader at the Tour of the Alps with courage and eased pressure on the team by taking the first stage to give the Kazakhstani team their first win of 2017. He was looking forward to the challenge and ready to carry Astana’s hopes in a last hit out at the 100th edition of the Giro d’Italia.
His death has left his family and friends grieving and Frankie the Macaw will have to fly alone in future. Fortunately, memories of Scarponi’s smile and enthusiasm for life will remain forever.