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I did my first Pantani ride three years ago. Sight unseen, details unknown, and arguably highly unprepared. Not that there is any amount of preparation in the traditional sense that will do any good: but it helps you sleep a little better the night before. Even if you’re “squealing I like a piggie” coming up broken back in the morning and you’ve peed your bibs just to stay warm, at least you’ve got a good night sleep.

What was great about that ride wasn’t the falling snow; though that was a factor, it was the experience of living and hopefully riding the way Marco did. He danced on those pedals because that’s what he did. He climbed and descended and rode with a vigor and verve that we just don’t see anymore. In a world of “marginal gains,” watts, and wind tunnels we’ve lost what it’s like to get lost. Get lost in the moment. Moving elegantly up up up. It doesn’t happen often, heck sometimes it doesn’t happen for months but when it does, it’s Marco. Watch him climbing up an alpine pass and a tell me you don’t see an angel. A lean mean mustachioed angel of a man. He had his demons; no doubt, but they couldn’t pedal as fast as he could…not half as fast.

Every ride since that first has been different. Last year it was cross bikes and mini-vans. Ill advised gear selections maybe, and even more ill advised directions probably. That was a long hard solo ride home to an empty farm. This year it was company. Company new and old. 80 friends and teammates who rolled in for some good old fashioned Johnny Cash Hurt. There’s no way around it we all found our Marco out there even if only a little. Mine was on Simmons. I felt good. Smooth, elegant, lithe like all the winter miles, small meals, and determined dreams had brought me to this first test of the season. A lot of folks do power tests throughout the season, there’s a lot of benefit to that but I prefer a test which not only tests my physical mettle but also puts the heart and soul to the test. Think of the time you rode outside yourself to bring back the group or charged off the front or finish the last ten miles of a hundred mile day. Twenty minutes on a computrainer staring at a screen doesn’t bring you that kind of power. So for me Pantani is the spring power test.

I spent much of it with Bryan and Charlie. Charlie I have known for a while, Bryan also in a different capacity. And it was great to spend time on those ribbons of dirt and gravel with those guys. I’ve always recognized and cherished the camaraderie of the cycling scene. We were racing at times. Eventually we had to I suppose when it came down to it. But much in the fashion of Marco we let the crux of the ride do the talking. W rode smoothly and comfortably together up Simmons and down until the bottom of broken back. Bryan charged, I countered and stayed smooth, Charlie no doubt more powerful and stronger in a sprint suffered and a gap opened. As Bryan became excited and realized what he had created (and the monster inside him began to growl and whine with fire in its eyes) I said “stay smooth bud, keep it smooth.” Whether I was talking to him or myself I’m not fully sure but one thing I know is that we had seen the power. To us, in many senses the ending became irrelevant. We had seen inside ourselves and came to the top together. Almost peacefully. Were it not for the pounding of our hearts in our heads I bet you could have heard and felt a light Italian breeze blow on the summit.

And that’s where I’ll leave it. I love that ride. I dread it in the same way many athletes dread power testing. I know I’ll have to dig and dig deep. But I always do. We always do. And we always like what we find. And if you don’t, well stick to your Tour de France rerun on the trainer and leave the good life to the rest of us.

And when you see Marco crane his neck to look behind him here a hint: he’s not looking for his competition.

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