Now I wanna be your dog
He was gonna be top dog, come hell or high water. And the shirt was made for him. Number One. Numero Uno. Marco Pantani’s shirt. Mercatone Uno.
It was a beauty, a look totally of its time, an old millennium staggerin’ towards its dénouement. Marco was to be the man of the moment, and he needed to be dressed for the part. Bespoke, naturally, just like those collarless, lapel-less grey Beatle jackets that Dougie Millings ran up for Ringo ’n’ the boys in ’63 in his cutting room on Old Compton Street. No frills, no fuss.
By ’98, the smiley face of rave culture had waned a little. The fluorescence of that vivid rainbow had dimmed. A muted statement of shade was appropriate. In came a pale primrose yellow and washed-out turquoise, top to toe. And when I say “top”, I mean it full-on. The entire team had their heads shaved in facsimile of their leader and wore matching bandanas with earring. It became a must-have accessory for the tifosi, three-deep on the slopes of the Dolomites.
It was a canny ’n’ stylish move for a supermarket boss. Romano Cenni built his team around Marco. Il Pirata was a winner, not yet a sinner (and never that for me). He had to look cool. Tailor-made, just like the bondage trousers ’n’ shirt that Vivienne Westwood knocked up for Johnny Rotten in ’77 down the dodgy end of the King’s Road. It is unimaginable that Dame Shirley Porter would use Tesco like that. Mercatone Uno would blossom off the back of its cycling triumph, doubling turnover and tripling the number of outlets during the Pantani years.
Oh, for sure, there were other sponsors’ names patchworked onto the jersey, such as Bianchi. The colours were the clue, an abstract, modernist painting, like shards of winter light streamin’ through the stained glass windows of Chartres Cathedral. Marco searchin’ for redemption, finding only crucifixion (hey, check out those outstretched arms on the winning line at Deux-Alpes).
The Giro was in the bag in ’98. Le Tour was rippin’ apart at the seams. Les flics were raisin’ hue ’n’ cry. Virenque was blabbin’ like a baby. And now your moment of zen...
Down the road at Tarascon-sur-Ariège went the striking rouleurs, with Marco a cross-legged yogi, serene and wise beyond his years. That jersey was thrust out for all the world to see. And the unsaid message: “Don’t you fuck with me!”
Three days later, he made his move on the Galibier and left ’em for dead. The raindrops poured down the camera lens of the motos so heavily that the TV screen appeared soaking, or maybe they were tears of joy on the inside of my eyelids. Mercatone Uno went Maillot Jaune. The Italian bank that co-sponsored the team gave away free shirts to new customers.
Nowadays, a bare-chested Iggy flogs car insurance, but there ain’t no price tag on panache.
Colin O'Brien unravels modern cycling's great tragedy and meets a Pantani family in pain and dis