Today’s stage to Courchevel is first time the Tour has been to the resort since Marco Pantani won th
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Had it not been for Lampre rider Evgeni Petrov’s failed haematocrit test in Grenoble on Tuesday morning, Giuseppe Martinelli would have been bracing his emotions for a poignant trip down – or rather up – memory lane on the first mountain stage of the Tour to Courchevel this afternoon.
The Tour has not returned to Courchevel since the late Marco Pantani won there in 2000, with Martinelli pulling the strings from his Mercatone Uno team car. Coming three-and-a-half years before his death, it was to be Pantani’s last ever victory.
This morning in Grenoble, Martinelli could have been forgiven for preferring not to dwell on his spiritual return to Courchevel. Petrov’s exclusion caused panic and dismay in the Lampre camp, and left Martinelli in the front line as the journalists and television crews went in search of an official reaction from the Russian’s team. Martinelli batted them away with a polite but firm “no comment”.
Fortunately, he was more willing to reminisce about what turned out to be Pantani’s final masterpiece. And one of the very rare occasions when Lance Armstrong’s aura of invincibility has slipped at the Tour, as Martinelli told procycling this morning:
“Marco didn’t want to ride for the win that day. A couple of days earlier, he had won on the Mont Ventoux, but his spirits weren’t particularly high that morning in Brianon. He had been suffering from a chest infection and was quite de-motivated. Contrary to what people have said since, he wasn’t “inspired” by the kerfuffle surrounding his win on the Ventoux and what Armstrong had said about it afterwards. Nonetheless, he was still convinced that Lance hadn’t let him win on the Mont Ventoux. I disagreed but you couldn’t change Marco’s mind. By that time, Marco’s problems outside of cycling had started and he was becoming even more stubborn than he had always been.
The climb to Courchevel itself isn’t particularly hard. There was still a fairly big main bunch with a few guys left up the road from a breakaway earlier on the stage. Jos Maria Jimenez had attacked on the penultimate climb, the Col de la Madeleine, and had caught the break. Behind, Pantani told Marco Velo to start setting the pace on the front. Salvatore Commesso, who was then riding for Saeco, gave us a big hand, too. I was surprised that Marco was suddenly being so positive but the excitement was starting to mount in my stomach as the kilometres went by.
Marco first attacked about half-way up the climb. It was a real attack, like the ones which had won him the Giro at 1998 and 1999. It was enough to reassure me that he was very nearly back to his best. Armstrong and Virenque went with him, then Virenque was dropped. I think that one reason why Marco had been hesitant to attack at first was that Jimenez, his mate, was up the road. But once he was committed, he couldn’t take his foot off the gas. He and Armstrong rode together for another five or six kilometres then he attacked Lance. Again, a really good, sharp acceleration. It had to be for him to have a chance of catching Jimenez, which he did with about two kilometres to go.
It’s funny, I was telling this story at the dinner table with the team last night. As well as Marco’s victory, what everyone remembers about that stage is the Basque separatists’ protest, when three guys in kit road onto the course near the finish. Believe it or not, they fooled me. I saw the guy in the Kelme jersey ride onto the course in front of Marco and for a split-second thought that we must have miscalculated, that he must have been a remnant of the breakaway that morning.
It was also one of the only times since 1999 that I can remember someone really force Lance onto the defensive. Marco beat Lance by over a minute that day, which was a big gap to open up over such a short distance. Lance was perhaps not at his best that day but Marco was very strong.
Of course I could never have imagined that it would be Marco’s last victory, or even our last win together. And, yes, of course I’ll be thinking about Marco when we hit the climb today.”