The land around Marco Pantani’s home town of Cesenatico is pan-flat. For 20 or so kilometres inland from the Adriatic shore there doesn’t seem to be a single metre of elevation. Then, as if some giant hand has pushed all the contours into the middle of the country, the hills jump out of the ground imposingly, one after another.
Unlike the picturesque and rolling colline of neighbouring Tuscany, the hills in the east of Emilia-Romagna and Marche, where Pantani once trained, are steep and unforgiving. The first climb you hit after sauntering in across the flatlands all but stops you in your tracks, the intensity of the gradient like a checkpoint that demands to know if you are serious about forging ahead. In Pantani’s hills you are soon alone. Beyond the first range of foothills there are few houses, the only traffic an occasional Fiat Panda, and what buildings there are seem empty and silent. The sharp rock formations as you climb and descend feel brutal. In a land obsessed by beauty, these jagged mountains glare back at you like a face devoid of kindness.
There is something uncomfortable here. A decade after his death, the same might be said for the memory of Pantani himself, a figure whom for a brief, bright moment seemed the very saviour of professional cycling. Even now, Marco Pantani remains a figure that inspires passionate devotion and ardent dislike in equal measure among cycling fans the world over.
In 2014, Tom Southam – photographed above, then a relatively recently retired Rapha Condor continental rider, now EF Education Pro Cycling Sports Director – visited Pantani's home region to explore the training routes of il Pirata and discover just how the public’s perception has changed in the years since his death. We republish Tom’s essay to coincide with the re-release of the Pantani Commemorative Jersey.