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In the den of the Lion King

Mark Bailey
4 May 2016

Mario Cipollini, one of the most successful and flamboyant sprinters ever, claims that the truth doesn’t always match the myth.

Mario Cipollini strolls along the 16th century walls that surround the elegant town of Lucca in Tuscany, where he was born, and surveys the ancient alleyways and cobbled piazzas below. Here, on his home turf, the man dubbed il Re Leone (the Lion King) for his lustrous mane and muscular machismo still reigns supreme. Dressed in an immaculate white shirt, jeans and high-top trainers, with a designer jacket flung across his shoulder and his hair swept back, Cipollini, has aged like a fine Lucchesi wine, boasting the tanned cheekbones of an Armani model and the rock-hewn physique of a Roman gladiator. 

An old man shouts and waves. Two female joggers blush and giggle as he passes. Tourists stare. Earlier in the day, at the factory of his suitably stylish Cipollini bike brand, a man asked him to autograph his back. As Charly Wegelius, his team-mate at Liquigas in 2005, recalls in his book Domestique: ‘He was a celebrity and he had flair. For the Italians, these were things that drove the common man wild with delight.’

Life always has been a stage for Cipollini. During an extraordinary career with teams such as Del Tongo, Saeco and Acqua & Sapone, which stretched from 1989 to 2005 (followed by a brief comeback in 2008), he amassed 191 victories, including a historic 42 Giro d’Italia stage wins and 12 more in the Tour de France – an Italian record he shares with Gino Bartali. His annus mirabilis came in 2002 when he won Gent-Wevelgem, Milan-San Remo and the Road World Championships. Yet to many observers Cipollini embodied the all-conquering ambition of Caesar, the wild passions of Cassanova and the self-serving instinct of Machiavelli. 

‘The arch drama queen Cipollini, a rider with legs and vanity in roaring health and the moral power of a spoilt brat,’ wrote Graeme Fife in Tour de France: The History, The Legend, The Riders. ‘Showman, show-off, he is, of course, a publicist’s dream and a sporting director’s headache.’ 

The Cipollini legend is one of mid-race cigarettes, wine-soaked parties, glorious victories, podium girls, high-profile squabbles and attention-grabbing cycling outfits – from tiger skin and zebra patterns to a full-body muscle suit. This is a man who celebrated his four successive stage wins in the 1999 Tour de France by dressing in a toga as Julius Caesar and announcing: ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (I came, I saw, I conquered); who rode with a picture of Pamela Anderson stuck to his handlebars (‘because I know what my wife looks like’); and who appeared in a shoe advert cradling a naked woman while dressed as a musketeer. 

Controversy trailed Cipollini like rival sprinters. At the end of the 1993 Milan-San Remo race he hurled his bike at the race director’s car. In 2000 he was booted out of the Vuelta for punching rider Francisco Cerezo at the registration. And in 2003 he was disqualified from Gent-Wevelgem for throwing his water bottle at a race commissaire. But every new story only enhanced his popularity. In his chronicle of Italian cycling, Pedalare! Pedalare!, John Foot noted, ‘He was the perfect rider for the post-modern, televisual sport cycling had become.’

It is immediately clear from trying to keep up with Cipollini’s silver Audi A8 on the roads of Tuscany that he has lost none of his passion for speed. When we sit down in a sun-drenched cafe in Lucca, Cipollini pulls on a pair of stylish glasses and begins to dissect his myth. 

‘My image and my life are totally different,’ he says. ‘My public image was like a playboy – discos, parties and cigarettes. But I am an incredibly professional person. I lived my cycling life like I was in a convent. Really. I would not even drink water with gas – only natural water. My routine was breakfast, riding, massage, osteopath… I need always the same routine. My life was about cycling 24 hours a day. I went through hurt and pain every day.’

Former Italian professional Pietro Caucchioli recalls, ‘I remember people took pictures of him at a party. He left soon after but the newspaper said he was partying all night.’ Cipollini reveals, with an ivory-toothed grin, that some stories were true and others were not. But he was happy to perpetuate his playboy image: ‘It was very smart because people thought I wasn’t professional. I knew I was strong.’ 

However, he insists his extravagance is genuine, even if his decadence is not. ‘My personality is not created, it is natural,’ he says. ‘I am a very strange personality. I am boring! I get bored easily so I need new stimulation, new ideas, new clothes, new excitement, new entertainment.’ 

What about those bizarre jerseys? ‘Every day we wore the same clothing. I needed something different: yellow, blue, green. This was not for marketing. It was for me. I still change my shoes every day.’ And what of the iconic photo of him smoking halfway through Paris-Nice in ’94? Cipollini laughs. ‘I get bored, remember? I needed something to do…’

The Little Onion 

Cipollini was born in Lucca on 22 March 1967 and grew up in the nearby village of San Giusto di Compito. His surname translates as ‘little onion’. He was inspired to ride by his older brother Cesare, a pro from 1978-1990, and he can recall sheltering under his father’s coat from the snow as he watched Cesare climb the Turchino during Milan-San Remo. 

‘As a boy, cycling was my freedom,’ he says. He can remember his own first race, aged six: ‘My brother organised a small race in the countryside over 3km. I was the youngest but I won. The others were angry: “How can this kid win?” But I was training hard. Every day. I stood on the podium and got flowers and wine. Then the father of the second placed racer said, “It’s not possible to win with this time.” They found an excuse to disqualify me. That was my first lesson: life is not fair.’

Cipollini never lacked motivation to train. ‘I rode with passion but also with science,’ he says. ‘I liked the era of Fignon and Gavazzi, when there was romance and real cycling. But I also used technology. I remember in 1984 using an early heart rate monitor. It weighed a kilo. I also did [altitude] training in St Moritz. But if you ride with your soul within five minutes you are in contact with your body, your muscles and your heart anyway. When I see juniors with SRMs I don’t like it. First, understand your body.’

Cipollini’s career was rich in glory but his first maglia ciclamino at the Giro d’Italia in 1992 lingers in his memory. ‘I was very young and surrounded by cyclists who were like heroes to me. One moment I was reading about them in a newspaper. Then I was inside this world with [Jean-Paul] van Poppel and Guido Bontempi and trying to beat them. I remember [GB-MG Maglificio team-mate] Franco Chioccioli saying to me in the massage room at the hotel, “Good job today, young man. Tomorrow I will help you.” My skin… look at this.’ Cipollini points to goose bumps spreading across his arms at the memory. ‘Chioccioli, the champion, who won the Tour of Italy, wanted to help me. Incredible.

He would go on to win a total of 42 stages of the Giro and 12 at the Tour de France but he was not invited to the Tour between 2000 and 2003 because he routinely retired before the mountain stages, then releasing photos of himself sunbathing on the beach. 

Cipollini has admitted to ‘an unfulfilled desire’ at the Tour. He says he used anger as fuel but he never lacked motivation, highlighting his preparation for the 2002 World Championships: ‘After the Tour of Italy, the sponsor of my team, Acqua & Sapone, said, “Sorry guys, no money for next year. The team finishes here.” I was nervous and angry. So I trained alone for two months with 200-300km rides. One day it rained so I waited, then cycled from 4pm until 10.30pm with my friend shining lights from his car. I could never miss my training. It was no good for my soul or my professional pride. I was at war with other racers but before then I was at war with myself. I trained to make myself better and when I was better, I raced. My first rival was always me.’

The Cipollini brand

Since retiring, Cipollini has channelled his flair and eye for detail into his bike brand, with the aid of technical expert Federico Zecchetto. His baby is the aerodynamic and aggressive Cipollini RB1000, which boasts the elegance you’d expect from a frame Cipollini himself began moulding with plasticine samples and sketches at home, before it was honed by experts in wind-tunnels and science labs in Milan. 

‘I wanted to build a bike for people like me: racers. Maybe there are only 100 of us in the world, but who knows? We are like skiers and racing drivers – we need strength, speed and power.’ The RB1000, which Cipollini describes as ‘the sexiest frame in the world’, features a down tube shaped around the front wheel for enhanced aerodynamics, a short head tube for an aero riding position, and a bulging bottom bracket for meaty power transfer. But its USP is its full carbon monocoque frame, crafted in Italy. 

‘A lot of frames are made from six pieces stuck together, which loses power,’ Cipollini says, ‘but this is a full carbon monocoque so it is strong and transmits power very well. The first time I tried my bike, I thought: wow, this is the bike I always wanted.’

Cipollini treasures Italian cycling heritage and he was adamant that his bikes be created by Italian enterprises. The frame moulds are created in Venice, the carbon monocoque is fashioned in Florence, the mechanical parts are fitted in Verona and the painting takes place in Pisa. When we tour the facilities, and see the monocoque frames being hand-crafted, layer-by-layer, and the intricate details being applied by skilled painters, it is clear that this is an Italian artisan product – high quality, rich in taste and coated with large dollops of Cipollini flair. 

‘Before, bike frames were made in Italy, stylish clothing was made in Italy and the best racers in the world, like Eddie Merckx, Roger De Vlaeminck and [Freddy] Maertens, came to Italy. This was the school of cycling. Then things changed. Maybe the United States changed things, because frames started to be made in China and Vietnam. It is cheaper, I understand, but we make ours in Italy because this product is our passion.’

The Cipollini range also includes the RB800 (which has a more relaxed geometry), Logos (constructed from less expensive carbon) and Bond (the chainstays are bonded to the frame with a patented Bond-Atomlink to enhance drive to the rear wheel). ‘We have bikes of different personalities for many people,’ says Cipollini. ‘My soul is in the RB1000. This is the bike I ride. This is my dream.’

A new era

When he is not sculpting bikes, Cipollini continues to watch professional cycling. ‘I think the competition is less aggressive today,’ he says. ‘There is more fair play but before it was more masculine, more macho, you understand? I remember on the Tourmalet [in 2010] when Schleck won the stage and Contador was in yellow, there were lots of pats on the back and “Well done” and “Thank you”…’ Cipollini shakes his head. ‘I remember Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thevenet, Jan Ullrich and Lance Armstrong – it was like smoke was coming out of their noses. They were warriors. Cycling was war. There was respect, but it was a fight.’

Cipollini has no hesitation when asked who he believes is the best sprinter in the world. ‘Cavendish is the best,’ he says [interview in 2013]. ‘But maybe his mentality of [being] the winner is a little bit lost. Sometimes too much money or a change in your life can change your aggression, or you can be fixed on past victories. I don’t think [Marcel] Kittel is faster than Cavendish, but sprinting is not only in your legs, it’s also in your mind, and Kittel has a roar, a passion. Cavendish is a little bit subdued. Mark has an incredible body; he is like a bow and arrow – little and very aerodynamic. Kittel is built like me – big, strong. We need more power to move the air. Two different bodies; two different styles. It is like having two different cars in the same race.’

Cipollini admires Team Sky’s often maligned methods of control. Perhaps Sky’s tactical nous evokes memories of his own Saeco team’s innovative sprint train. ‘I think Team Sky do a very good job. They are not boring. Other teams should attack. Why let them dictate? Nibali or the others should do something different. If Sky have a fast train, make a faster train!’

Cipollini seems to be adapting to the next stage in his life quite comfortably. He is busy with his bike brand, looking after his two daughters, Lucrezia and Rochelle (he separated from his wife Sabrina in 2005), working out in the gym and enjoying Tuscan life. 

‘My work now is the Cipollini brand – I save my energy for this,’ he says. He still rides his bike several times a week. ‘I love riding at night under the moon,’ he says. When he attended Interbike in Las Vegas he did a 70km ride at night. ‘My colleagues were saying, “Stop Mario, it’s getting dark. You will crash!” When I got back to the hotel they thought I was mad.’

As our interview draws to a close, Cipollini finishes his coffee and reveals in an almost conspiratorial tone, ‘I dream of cycling, you know? My dream is to organise a little peloton with maybe 20 old friends so we can cycle from Lucca around Tuscany, just for pleasure. Maybe you have problems – family, money, work – but on the roads everything is always perfect. When you ride a bike you are like Peter Pan, you are forever young.’ 

And with that, Cipollini shakes hands, swings his Dolce & Gabbana jacket over his shoulder and disappears into the Tuscan sunshine – gone but unlikely ever to be forgotten. 

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