Marco Pantani, clouded by drug allegations, is out to prove his 98 Tour win was clean

Marco Pantani may be looking for more than a win at the Tour  Credit: Mike Powell /Allsport
Il Pirata (The Pirate) is back, but theres still a dark cloud hanging over his head.

Italys Marco Pantani, known as The Pirate, because of the bandanna he wears during races, returns to the Tour de France after a year of exile.

Pantani, who won the controversial Tour de France in 1998, will be riding this Tour with a pending trial for sports fraud, in connection with his alleged use of banned substances during a 1995 race, lying ahead.

Many called the Tour de France of 98 the Tour de Farce. A doping scandal caused numerous riders and teams to drop out as only 96 of the 189 riders and 14 of the 21 teams who started the race finished.

Seven people were placed under investigationone step short of being chargedon drug-related offenses: three officials of the Festina team, two from TVM, a doctor from O.N.C.E. and one rider, Italys Rodolfo Massi of the Casino team, the Tours leading mountain climber.

Festina was ousted on July 17, 1998 after team director Bruno Roussel admitted to an organized system of providing performance-enhancing drugs to his riders. Six other teams dropped out in protest over police tactics and treatment during the Tour, leaving 14 in the competition.

At the end of the race, brought to the brink of collapse by the doping scandal, the then 28-year-old Pantani recovered from a puncture to finish the final stage with his lead of three minutes, 21 seconds ahead of the 1997 winner Jan Ullrich of Germany, in tact.

Pantani, racing for the Mercatone Uno, became the first mountain specialist to win the Tour de France since Belgians Lucien Van Impe in 1976.

Suspicion of drug use was rampant. Pantanis victory stood.

But The Pirate didnt defend his Tour title last year. He was thrown out of the Giro dItalia in June and suspended. He was so incensed over the turn of events that he opted not to compete in the 99 Tour de France.

Pantani was disqualified from the Giro because he failed the blood test for hematocrit level. His level was found to be 52 percent, which is 2 percent above what is deemed to be safe and normal.

A high red blood cell count can indicate the use of the banned performance-enhancing growth hormone EPO.

The suspension came on the penultimate stage of the Tour of Italy and kept Pantani from winning his second straight Giro.

In a rage Pantani smashed a window in his hotel bedroom and in the process cut his hand badly. Pantani maintained that he had been tested a number of times on the Giro already and that his level was never above 46 percent. Also in a test given that evening his level was only 48 percent.

Pantanis team doctor had said that because of the extremes in the weather over the previous couple of days that Pantani was suffering with dehydration and this would push his hemocratit levels up.

However, the Mapei team director told the press that after 20 stages of a tough stage race that his riders levels drop by up to 5 percent creating serious questions about Pantani.

Still, despite failing the blood test in the Giro dItalia, he was cleared of doping charges by the Italian Olympic Committee.

Earlier this month Pantani, who has had limited races this year, finished an hour behind the winning time in the 2000 Tour of Italy.

However, two days before the finish in Milan, Pantani finally showed his amazing climbing ability; riding with such ease at the front on one of the hardest days of the race.

That performance on stretches that will be part of this years Tour raised eyebrows throughout the cycling world and gave indication that Pantani was indeed ready to challenge Lance Armstrong or any of the leaders of the Tour.

However, on June 8th four days after the Tour of Italy, Magistrate Stefano Celli ordered Pantani to stand trial for sports fraud in connection with his alleged use of banned substance in the 1995 Milan-Turin race. Pantanis count was found to be almost 60 percent above normal when he was tested during the 1995 race.

Pantani, who insists he has never used performance-enhancing drugs, told reporters as he left the magistrates office on June 8th that he left a written document instead of answering questions.

Its better this way, said Pantani. We have cleared things up because my credibility is at stake here. I hope we can change direction and finally talk about cycling. I presented a written memorandum to clear up my position.

No one knows whether the prospect of a trial will have any effect on Pantani and his performance in this years Tour. It may well be another motivating factor.

Pantani came in third in the Tour de France in both 1994 and 1997 before his breakthrough in 1998.

There are those who believe that that title was tainted by the dope scandal and that Pantani will have to win another Tour to prove his true worth.

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