The Italians are very passionate about all sports and cycling is still hugely popular in Italy.
I have watched many races throughout Europe but I was struck by the passion and knowledge of the Italian fans or casual roadside spectator has.
In Italy they even have a name for those passionate fans called the tifosi
After the second World war Italy was in the depths of a depression but two of their cyclists - Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali - were flying the Italian flag at all the major races throughout Europe.
Cycling was looked at as more than a sport - Coppi & Bartalis achievements were used as a symbol to restore pride back in to Italy
Of course in typical Italian fashion many supporters sided with one rider over the other - causing huge debate among the tifosi.
Pantani was admired because of his attacking climbing style and his panache on the bike. His shy personality and large ears endeared him to the public.
He was a popular winner of the Giro in 1998 but he was elevated to superstar status when he became the first Italian to win the Tour later that same year.
If you are interested in the history of cycling than a browse of either Coppi or Bartali's career would be a great place to start.