Cycling in the ’90s might have been dominated by the steady, remorseless cadence of Miguel Indurain, whose impassive visage delighted in the slow dismantlement of his opponents, but for star power there was only one. Mario Cipollini was a sprinter, perhaps the greatest of all time, but it was how he carried himself, and his open flouting of rules and convention which made him such an outrageous feature of the Peleton.
Born in Tuscany in 1967, Cipo had a long career notable chiefly for the way he destroyed opposition on the flat, with his Saeco team pioneering the sprint train, thrashing the peleton through the final kilometres of a race so as to discourage attack, and fling their king Mario across the line at its conclusion. He won 191 races, including 12 stages of the Tour without ever making it over the mountains (he felt they demeaned him), though it was the Giro which was his true home, and he took a record 42 stage victories in his home tour.
He was a vicious sprinter, and for pure bike speed in the final 200 metres there was no one who could match him. Here he comes from nowhere to steal stage 2 of the ’97 Tour:
That’s why he was respcted. But many riders are succesful without inspiring passions. Cipollini’s antics were more famous than his wins.
On Julius Caesar’s birthday in the 1999 tour, Cipo and his team dressed as Roman Emperors, and he rode through the Tour village on a chariot, with a stripper named Cleopatra by his side. This so infuriated Tour organiser Jean Marie LeBlanc that Cipollini wasn’t invited to race the Tour for the next four years, at the height of his fame. This probably cost the Tour more than it did Cipollini, such was his popularity at the time.
Throughout his career he was fined and lambasted by authority, for everything from motor-pacing on motorways to riding in a techno-suit made in tribute to 1982 sci-fi freakout Tron. He collected nick names (Super Mario, The Lion King, Mario The Magnificent) and had an outlandish reputation for womanising and partying. He frequently appeared on the start-line disheveled and looking underslept, only to beat his rivals across the line hundreds of kilometres later. Some have suggested this was a ploy to lull his competitors into a flase sense of security, but with Mario anything was possible.
After threatening retirement several times, he finally quit in 2005, at the age of 38, just prior to the Giro. An abortive comeback was staged last year in the Tour of California, but Mario’s greatest years were between ’92 and 2003, when his ridiculous hair, movie-star looks and phenomenal speed made him the natural leader of the pack.
It was that potent, intoxicating combination of insane pace and strength (he always seemed to be turning a much bigger gear then anyone else would dare attempt) and an almost psychedelic approach to life, the epitome of Italian flamboyance, that made him so riotously entertaining, on and off the road. In a field full of Russian and German drudge, whinging Frenchman and automaton Americans, there was no one who could hold a candle to Mario.