Mention the word “Cipollini” and a warm smile appears on my face. No other rider I’ve known has combined excitement, style and charisma like Mario Cipollini. I’ve been following pro cycling since 1988 so that’s practically a quarter century of riders. If some dress for dinner, here was a man who would don a cream suit for the podium.
A sprinter, he has an extensive list of wins from numerous stages in Grand Tours to Milan-San Remo to the Worlds and Gent-Wevelgem. He rarely won by chance, he didn’t hop between the wheels and hope to get lucky. When he hit the front with 300m to go, he was rarely beaten.
So many times he came close to sending himself up but each time his enormous charisma meant efforts like wearing a toga or puffing a cigarette somehow worked. Maybe you thought “fool” or “dork”? But me? I was left awestruck in admiration, although sometimes this was because he had the balls to pull off such stupid stunts. He was elegant but you had to laugh. He was more Roger Moore than Sean Connery.
There’s no point eulogising. Cipollini is Italian for “small onions” which isn’t quite so stylish and he seems to have worked with preparatori Michele Ferrari and Luigi Cecchini.
But there’s another side to Cipollini. I can’t claim to know him well but I have met him a few times, often on the bike. He really isn’t the playboy he and the media like to pretend he is. Beneath the showman image is a more complicated character, one who realised that in order to maximise a short career it is better not just to win but to be noticed even when you are not winning.
He famously infuriated Tour de France organisers by quitting mid-race. He’d collect a couple of stage wins but leave before the race to the mountains, saying he preferred the beach to the Pyrenees. But Cipollini was not a lazy rider…
Wolfwhistles or Hill Reps?
I remember when he was building up for San Remo, I was riding in the area near where Tirreno-Adriatico was starting and tagged along with his Saeco team for a tempo ride, catching the last part of their four hour ride. The riders looped back to their hotel. I planned to ride more but needed to centre my back brake, so I asked and a mechanic helpfully went in search of a spanner.
Above me, several of the riders emerged on their hotel balconies, sunning themselves in only bib shorts and calling down to almost any woman passing on the street below. As the mechanic came back out of the hotel with the spanner he was accompanied by Cipollini and a soigneur. Whilst I tweaked my brakes, the soigneur slotted two water bottles on Cipo’s bike and he was off to do hill repeats on a nearby climb.
This is only an anecdote but it says a lot, whilst his team mates were whistling at passing women, Cipollini was doing extra intervals. Yes he was a showman but he played this side up to the full whilst hiding his abilities and work rate.
Cipollini was a superb sprinter but he realised cycling relied on imagery and mythology and so he himself created the myth of Cipollini which became greater than the man himself.