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Michele Scarponi: A career of smiles and sacrifice

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Michele Scarponi (Astana)

Michele Scarponi (Astana) (Image credit: Bettini)
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Michele Scarponi in action at the Tour of the Alps

Michele Scarponi in action at the Tour of the Alps (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi liked to play to the camera

Michele Scarponi liked to play to the camera (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi smiled even in bad weather

Michele Scarponi smiled even in bad weather (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi with his wife and one of his twin sons

Michele Scarponi with his wife and one of his twin sons (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi

Michele Scarponi (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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The Astana boys: Michele Scarponi with Vincenzo Nibali

The Astana boys: Michele Scarponi with Vincenzo Nibali (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi celebrates success at the 2016 Giro d'Italia with Vincenzo Nibali

Michele Scarponi celebrates success at the 2016 Giro d'Italia with Vincenzo Nibali (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi distances Esteban Chaves

Michele Scarponi distances Esteban Chaves (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi in action at the 2016 Vuelta a Espana

Michele Scarponi in action at the 2016 Vuelta a Espana (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi (Astana)

Michele Scarponi (Astana) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi amusing expression after his stage victory

Michele Scarponi amusing expression after his stage victory (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi with his Astana teammates at the Tour of the Alps

Michele Scarponi with his Astana teammates at the Tour of the Alps (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi smiles after a stage at the Tour of the Alps

Michele Scarponi smiles after a stage at the Tour of the Alps (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi also rode for the Italian national team during his professional career

Michele Scarponi also rode for the Italian national team during his professional career (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi celebrates his victory at the 2013 Gran Premio degli Etruschi

Michele Scarponi celebrates his victory at the 2013 Gran Premio degli Etruschi (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi with Alberto Contador

Michele Scarponi with Alberto Contador (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi in a time trial

Michele Scarponi in a time trial (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi was awarded his Giro d'Italia trophy and pink jersey before the 2012 race.

Michele Scarponi was awarded his Giro d'Italia trophy and pink jersey before the 2012 race. (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi shares a joke with Ivan Basso

Michele Scarponi shares a joke with Ivan Basso (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi with his long-time agent Raimondo Scimone

Michele Scarponi with his long-time agent Raimondo Scimone (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi was always laughing and smiling

Michele Scarponi was always laughing and smiling (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi jokes with Filippo Pozzato

Michele Scarponi jokes with Filippo Pozzato (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi in the snow

Michele Scarponi in the snow (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Michele Scarponi wins the 2013 Gran Premio degli Etruschi

Michele Scarponi wins the 2013 Gran Premio degli Etruschi (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Astana teammates Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali at the squad's presentation in Italy

Astana teammates Michele Scarponi and Vincenzo Nibali at the squad's presentation in Italy (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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Vincenzo Nibali and Michele Scarponi at the 2014 Astana Pro Team's presentation in Brescia, Italy

Vincenzo Nibali and Michele Scarponi at the 2014 Astana Pro Team's presentation in Brescia, Italy (Image credit: Bettini Photo)
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An exhausted Michele Scarponi at the finish

An exhausted Michele Scarponi at the finish (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

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.