Photographer Unknown ‘Cipollini at the Tour de France’ (1993)
Cycling Hero for November 12th 2013
Mario Cipollini (1967-present)
Over the years, a lot of larger than life and flamboyant individuals have competed at the upper echelons of professional bike racing. Few, if any however, have been masters of controversy and showmanship like Mario Cipollini, also known as Il Re Leone, the Lion King, or Super Mario. With his leonine face, movie star good looks, and mane of luxuriant hair, Cipollini would have got a lot of attention even if he wasn’t one of the most formidable sprinters in professional cycling.
Cipo, as Cipollini was also known, was born in Lucca, Tuscany in 1967. As a junior rider, he won 80 races, including the World Junior Team Time Trial in 1985. He turned pro in 1989 with the Del Tongo team. As a pro, he was one of the most feared and respected sprinters of his generation, and also one of the most long lasting - his first pro win came in 1989 and his last was in 2005 at the Tour of Qatar. In all he had 191 professional victories and won stages in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta d’Espana. In fact, one of the hardest parts about writing a biography of Cipollini is keeping track of all of his wins.
When he won his 42nd and final stage of the Giro d’Italia in 2003, he broke a record set by Alfredo Binda in 1933. When he beat Binda’s record, he said, with uncharacteristic modesty, that he wasn’t worthy to polish Binda’s shoes.
Cipollini was not a climber. Although he completed every stage of the Giro d’Italia on multiple occasions, during his career, he infuriated the cycling press, officials, and fans by winning early stages and wearing the overall or points leader jersey at the Tour de France and Vuelta for several days only to retire just before the race entered the mountains. Cipo then seemed to revel in having his photo taken while he basked on a beach somewhere while the peloton rode itself ragged in the high mountains.
At the 1999 Tour de France, Cipo led the peloton to the fastest stage in TDF history – averaging more that 50 km/h over 195.5 km. Also at the 1999 TDF, Cipollini won four stages in a row, setting a post war record for the number of consecutive wins in the Tour de France. He was also the first rider to use a “sprint train.” The Saeco big red train become a familiar and awesome sight as it rocketed toward the finishing line, leading Cipollini out for another sprint victory.
In 2000, Cipollini was kicked out of the Vuelta d’Espana for punching out Spanish rider Francisco Ferezo before the start of the race.
In 2002, Cipollini announced his retirement after a disagreement with organizers of the Tour de France. Cipo loved to show up for a stage dressed in a custom and highly “non-regulation” uniform. He was famous for his zebra or tiger print, or skin coloured outfits. It was also not unusual to see him arriving at the start of a stage sporting bizarre, one of a kind riding glasses. He was convinced to return to racing by Italian national team coach Franco Balerini and won the UCI World Championships at Zolder, Belgium in 2002. Because of his shenanigans, he wasn’t invited to the Tour de France from 2000 – 2003, in spite of the fact that he was World Champion in 2003.
In 2004 Cipollini crashed out of the Giro d’Italia. It was the only time during his long and storied career that he entered and failed to win a stage at the Giro. He was to have started the 2005 Giro, but retired a week before the start of the race. His way of saying arrivederci was to appear in a fluorescent pink skin suit at a ceremonial prologue before the race. He returned briefly to racing in 2008, and rode with the Rock Racing team at the Tour of California.
Although he has been retired from racing for several years now, Cipollini has not strayed far from cycling and launched a line of very high end Cipollini Bikes in 2010.
Professional cycling has never been as exciting as it was during the Cipollini era. He brought an unpredictability and individuality that is lacking in most other riders.