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Stage 9: Castel di Sangro – Campo Felice, Veiled in fog

15/05/2021

Tappa 9: Castel di Sangro – Campo Felice. Effetto nebbia

Stage 9: Castel di Sangro – Campo Felice, Veiled in fog

Nestled at the heart of the Sirente Velino, Ovindoli is the perfect starting point for hiking across the Apennines, as if it were a corridor leading to wonderful places. When the route of the 1999 Giro passed by this quaint town of Abruzzo, however, these digressions sure were not a priority for Marco Pantani. The break had passed a few minutes before. From within the peloton, Pantani was looking straight in front of him. «There were so many thoughts running through my head», he later told the reporter Alessandra Giardini. He was deep in thought because intense discussions had broken out in the peloton, and because he knew that it would have been the right day to explode the race. It was the first summit finish, and everybody was expecting just that.

Thousands of supporters had gone on a hike on the Gran Sasso, and found themselves in a different situation than they expected. The weather had been hot all week, but as the race set off from Pescara, the rain was pouring. At the finish, gentle snowflakes were falling on winter snow that hadn’t melted yet. On an unusually cold afternoon in May, the riders would be met by the extraordinary wintery landscape that attracts thousands of snow sports enthusiasts to the Apennines of Abruzzo every year. Pantani had never had the chance to perform in such a setting. He had already won among the snow-covered meadows, but in a mild springtime climate. That year, however, the weather was somehow stormy, and things were a little tense on Marco’s first victory. Seeing him ride through giant white snow walls felt like a scene of old time. And still, it was the turn of the millennium. It was him who reminded us of the heroes of the past – soloing at the front, hands off to the handlebars, pushing the big gears.

 

Nobody wanted to miss the chance to see Pantani in the leader’s jersey

All around him, his fans proved even more resolute. They had been waiting for hours in the cold, under the pouring rain. Many had even slept there, in tents or camper vans, below freezing. They were wearing windbreakers, ponchos, makeshift raincoats. Some had even used flags as cloaks. Nobody wanted to miss the chance to see Pantani in the leader’s jersey. That sight, however, only lasted a few seconds. He zipped by, as quick as lightning, and disappeared into the clouds. Nonetheless, it was more than the grey screen that millions of viewers came to see. As the helicopters could not take off, stationary cameras were providing the only footage available: banners, fans and… fog.

For an afternoon, the Giro had leaped back a few dozen years. The audience could only rely on Adriano De Zan’s voice, rising steadily to a crescendo – “There he is!” – as Pantani burst into the last bend, only to disappear immediately afterwards. He rode among the massive snow walls as if he were parting the sea. At the 1999 Giro, he took his first Maglia Rosa – which he just kept for one night – atop the Gran Sasso. He would lose it to a time trial the following day, and he would have to wait until the following week to wear it again. Up to the second to last day, when the fate of that Giro – and of his life – changed forever.

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