Michele Scarponi was perhaps the most seasoned rider in the professional peloton. The Italian had been racing as an amateur or a professional for almost 20 years, beginning as a domestique on some very good teams, working his way up to Grand Tour heavyweight, and then sacrificing his waning individual ambitions to once again work as a domestique for younger Grand Tour contenders. His team, Astana, announced that Scarponi was killed by an oblivious van driver near his home this morning while he was returning from a training ride. He was 37 years old.
Scarponi found the greatest successes of his career at the Giro d’Italia, first with Androni Giocattoli and then with Lampre. He was one of the few to actually serve a suspension for his involvement in Operacion Puerto, and he was honest and apologetic about his doping past. After coming back to the sport from a 15-month ban, Gianni Savio signed him and his career took off. From 2009 through 2013, Scarponi won three stages and finished fourth three times. After finishing second on the road in 2011 to Alberto Contador, he was retroactively awarded the overall victory.
Scarponi’s time as a leading man ended when he went to Astana, but he quickly remade himself into a selfless lieutenant for Vincenzo Nibali and Fabio Aru. His steady work in the mountains helped Nibali win the 2014 Tour de France and the 2016 Giro. Aru is the future of Astana (and perhaps Italian cycling), but after he went down with a knee injury, Scarponi was slated to step up and lead the team at the upcoming Giro. His preparation for the race was going splendidly, as he won the opening stage of the Tour of the Alps last week, his first race win in nearly four years.
He will be remembered as a true character of the peloton, someone who would reportedly break out in song during races and take training rides with his pet macaw Frankje.
“The truth is, I’m not in a great place now, and when I heard the news it really messed me up, it was very difficult to take in. You never know when something like this can happen. One day you’re here, the next, it’s over.”
There will be tributes and a minute of silence for Scarponi’s memory before Liege-Bastogne-Liege starts tomorrow morning, and Astana will somehow take the start line. They’ll be racing for their teammate.