It is one of the peculiar quirks of a stat-heavy sport that sees us compare the incomparable. Drawing from more than a century of races, when a long-standing record falls, we can pit one of the Giro d’Italia’s most complete riders with a man who took specialising in sprinting to a new level of niche.
But when Mario Cipollini soared to successive stage victories in the 2003 Giro, the man they called the Lion King equalled, then surpassed, a mark set in 1933. Some 14 years after he’d carved the first notch in his Giro bedpost, Cipo wrote his name into the record books in the rainbow bands he’d won seven months earlier at Zolder.
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The author of that 70-year record was Alfredo Binda, a rider known as “cycling’s first cannibal”. In his book, Giro d’Italia – the Story of the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Race, Colin O’Brien describes the first man to win five editions of the race as “a rider of unparalleled ability, of such unique talent that he dominated almost every race he entered”.
Such was Binda’s vice-like grip on his national race, the organisers even had to pay him not to turn up one year. Most people thought his record would stand forever – until a machine seemingly designed for the sole purpose of winning Giro stages came along, all muscles, hair gel and macho flamboyance.
On the surface, the cold and detached Binda was a man who had about as much in common with the charismatic Cipollini as a smooth Barolo to Grappa. One was a champion vintage to savour long on the lips, another a coarse digestif enjoyed – if that’s the word – at the very end of a meal, something that came and went in a matter of seconds. And, once it hit the spot, it left behind a bad aftertaste. For as we will see, Cipollini's story is far more than that of a winning machine as allegations and hugely controversial comments continue to cast an ugly shadow.

Tour de France 1999, Mario Cipollini vs Erik Zabel (Imago)

Image credit: Imago

In Montecatini Terme, in his native Tuscany, a bidon’s throw away from his grandmother’s grave, Cipollini went one better than Binda by getting the best of Australia’s Robbie McEwan and the new star of Italian sprinting, Alessandro Petacchi. Not that this made an impression on everyone.
“He holds the record now,” O’Brien says of a rider who won at least one stage in all but his 14th and final Giro. “And whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, it is a thing. But being Italian, riding for Italian teams, and in an Italian race, he was able to focus on one thing and one thing entirely – and that was winning Giro d’Italia stages.”
Without wanting to be too dismissive of a rider who also won Milan-San Remo, three editions of Gent-Wevelgem, and 12 Tour stages (albeit infamously without ever making it to the Champs-Élysées), O’Brien adds: “For the most part he was a big fish in a relatively small pond, and I think to mention Cipollini’s name in relation to all-time greats like Binda doesn’t really cut it.”

The first Giro stage win, aged 22

Before Cipo came Cesare, his older brother. Nine years Mario’s senior, Cesare cleaned up in the amateur ranks and went on to ride the Giro on nine occasions, albeit with little fanfare. While his only professional win came in the Giro dell’Emilia in 1983, he had a word of warning for his colleagues in the late eighties: “Win as much as you can now,” he said. “Because when my brother turns pro, you won’t get a look in.”
Cesare’s prediction was not without foundation: little Mario graced the top step of the podium in his age group and in the amateur ranks a whopping 125 times before becoming a neo-pro with the Del Tongo team in 1989. And it was wholly fitting that his first victory with the big boys should come in his first appearance in his national race – although it took a little time for the new kid on the block to find his feet.
Dubbed “one of the toughest in history”, the 1989 edition of the Giro was loaded with mountains and hilly transitional stages. With no rest days and a parcours that largely eschewed the coast, it wasn’t exactly an ideal race for a rider of Cipollini’s persuasions to take a bow. And it hardly helped that, in the race’s curtain-raiser in Sicily, Cipo fluffed his lines, failing to make even the top 10 in Catania.
The 22-year-old fastman was then twice denied in bunch sprints by Switzerland's Urs Freuler – on Stage 7 to Rome, then Stage 11 to Mantua. With the Dolomites approaching, Cipo had one remaining window to strike: the flat 148km Stage 12 between Mantua and Mira, just west of Venice. It was the Panasonic team of Dutch stars Jean-Paul van Poppel and Erik Breukinck, winner of the opening stage and the current Maglia Rosa respectively, who controlled the peloton as it rampaged towards the finish. A long-range effort from Frenchman Francis Moreau of Fagor came to nothing, and a bunch sprint was on the cards.
Keeping faith in their man, the Del Tongo team protected Cipollini on the fast approach to Mira with both the world champion Maurizio Fondriest and GC man Franco Chioccioli, who would win the Giro two years later, chipping in. And, once Cipo was launched on the home straight, there really was no stopping him.
Even a crash to his right could not perturb a man hell bent on glory, with Cipollini holding off the Spaniard José Luis Rodriguez and Van Poppel for his first professional win, the towering tyro holding both arms aloft in what would become a familiar sight over the decade to come. Little did anyone know that this was the start of a sequence that would see this cocky youngster with his bushy mane of blonde hair become the biggest stage collector in Giro history.
“Finally, Mario, you hit the target at the third attempt,” the interviewer teed up the Stage 12 winner in the post-race broadcast as a media scrum engulfed Cipollini.
“I needed a win and, after coming so close, I demonstrated that I could do it,” he replied, calm and composed in front of the cameras. “I owe today’s win to my teammates who have done an incredible job, as you can see from the helicopter. I need to thank especially Maurizio and even Franco Chioccioli who really slaved away for me even though he’s going for the win tomorrow.”
So focused was Cipo, that he was entirely unaware of the riders crashing around him.
“It's like entering the trenches,” he said. “You basically risk your life at all times, and I just went for it. I don't even know who went down. I'm sorry for them because crashing is always dangerous. But us sprinters don't realise the risks we take.”
Had finishing runner-up twice helped him go one better?
“Yes. In fact, today I was even more eager to do well, also because there’s not much left in the race for the sprinters. As you saw, I went long. When I saw Van Poppel go, I knew that was the moment. I jumped and I managed to pass him. It’s an incredibly important day for me. I hope it won’t be the last.”

The fastest man on two wheels

Practically everything that we associate with Cipollini was present that day: the teamwork, the powerful acceleration, the fast but slightly reckless legs, the glorious wingspan in celebration – and the preening in front of the camera afterwards. As John Foot explains in Pedalare! Pedalare!, his history of Italian cycling: “Tall and powerfully built, he could do one thing extremely well: sprint. Cipollini came into his own in the very last part of every stage, perfectly set up by his teammates, who ‘prepared the sprint for him’. The sight of him crossing the finish line first, his massively long arms high in the air in triumph, became a familiar one for cycling fans across the world.”
That Cipollini was able to break through in an era when the likes of Van Poppel, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov and Olaf Ludwig ruled supreme underlined that the muscle-man from Lucca was the real deal. Even back then, he had the ingredients to become not only one of the sport’s greatest ever sprinters, but an entertainer who would pull in the crowds. In his second pro season, Cipo made it two Giro stage wins, then three in his third year, and four in his fourth. Italy had witnessed the birth of a champion. Back-to-back wins in Gent-Wevelgem made him big in Belgium, too, where he was dubbed Rik Van Cipollini on account of his resemblance to Rik Van Steenbergen, the strong, speedy Belgian who dominated the peloton in the 40s and 50s.

2002 Giro d'Italia, stage 3 - Mario Cipollini of Acqua & Sapone wins the stage.

Image credit: Getty Images

Sports doctor Yvan Vanmol, who worked with Cipollini early in his career and is now a veteran member of the Deceuninck - Quick-Step medical team, compared the young Cipo to the Belgian sensation Freddy Maertens, saying he was “the classiest” and “fastest sprinter in the world”.
“He is capable of a great deal, but he has one problem: he is raving mad,” Vanmol told compatriot Noël Truyers for his book Kings of Cycling. “They always said Eddy Planckaert was mad, but Cipollini makes Planckaert look sensible. He is mad about women, cars and speed.”
It was not long before Cipo was portrayed as a happy-go-lucky womaniser whose roving eye gave Joey Tribbiani’s from Friends a run for his money; a foolhardy fast-man who made light of “only” writing off “three cars at most” in his mid-20s. Speaking to Truyers before Cipollini had tried his hand at the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España, Vanmol also described him as lazy: “From June onwards, there is nothing you can do to get him on a bike. The drive and the will have gone, and all he wants to do is then go skimming over the water on his sea-scooter, enjoying the sun, sea and the chance to relax and do nothing.”
Vanmol had a point. For when Cipo did break a habit and take time out of his beach schedule to do his job, his heart clearly wasn’t in it: the Italian failed to finish all eight of his Tours and all five of his attempted Vueltas. Indeed, the sight of Cipollini clambering off his bike as soon as the mountains loomed on the horizon became an enduring one. The call of the parasol was just too great.
The Italian stallion might have been proving himself a one-trick pony, but it was a very effective trick. Blessed with dollops of self-confidence and self-assurance, Cipo could never be accused of being too modest. When Abdoujaparov, the Tashkent Terror, once accused him of using foul tactics, Cipo snapped back: “At present I am so fast that I have no need to hinder anyone else. All I need is a little space, then nobody can catch me. The finishing banner is my only point of reference. I don’t see my rivals.”

Super Mario the showman

If there was Cipollini the cyclist, there was also Cipollini the man – although the boundaries between the two were blurred. Cipo’s achievements on the bike were indistinguishable from his comments off it – and how he looked both in and out of the saddle. Many have claimed that Cipo carefully cultivated a persona to wind up his rivals and cause a distraction.
But then again, it might have just been Cipo expressing himself as only he knew how. Before he started hitting the gym and curating a wardrobe to match that of a West End theatre, the Lion King was all about his mane. Often grown shoulder-length, this wavy blonde bouffe made him one of the most distinctive riders in the peloton.
Cipo soon chopped and changed up to glistening curls, a hairstyle that was responsible for one of his more memorable monikers: “Mousselini”. His changing appearance became an enjoyable sideshow. Over time, Cipollini graduated from the Narcissus who would gladly watch himself in a handlebar mirror on the home straight, if only it didn’t ruin his aerodynamics, to a man so comfortable in his own skin that he revelled in putting on costumes, playing the showman and infuriating race organisers with his antics, which invariably involved non-regulation kit of increasing hilarity.
The notorious human body, tiger, and all-pink skinsuits, as well as the array of coloured shorts, are all hard to purge from the mind, but it was the Roman toga and gold-leaf crown worn ahead of the key Sestriere stage of the 1999 Tour de France – in apparent homage to Julius Caesar – that perhaps made the biggest splash. He even wore one of Brazilian Ronaldo’s Inter Milan shirts on the podium at the Giro, after swapping it for a bicycle. And then there is always the time he puffed away on a cigarette mid-stage…

Mario Cipollini, Tour de France 1999

Image credit: Imago

“Cipollini dressed eccentrically for the cameras – was sometimes even fined for his increasingly absurd outfits – and played up to his film-star and playboy image,” Foot writes in Pedalare! Pedalare! “He would turn up in tight-fitting suits as a zebra or a tiger. The organisers of the Tour and the Vuelta lost patience with his antics after a while, and he was excluded from the Tour on a number of occasions. The governing body feared it was becoming a circus.”
If putting on costumes became a trademark thorn that Cipollini wilfully pressed into the sides of ASO, RCS and other race organisers, it was the removal of clothing that often presented a greater motivation for Mario. As Daniel Friebe wrote in 2014 Procycling magazine: “The togas, the non-regulation shorts, the naked ad campaigns, the naked Pamela Anderson pictures on his handlebar stem, the naked tryst with glamour model Magda Gomes on a beach in Sardinia in 2006, caught on camera by a paparazzo… With Cipollini, there was barely a dull or fully-clothed moment.”
With a trademark grin, the agent provocateur told a Spanish journalist in 1993: “An orgasm lasts only for a few seconds, a victory lasts forever.” It was a soundbite, Friebe noted, that could also be his epitaph.

Tour teething troubles

With 10 victories in his first four editions of the Giro, Cipollini proved to be a potent sprinter on home roads. But he still needed to perform on the centre stage – the Tour de France. Having picked up a hat-trick of wins in Paris-Nice in 1992 before his four scalps in Italy, Cipo made his eagerly anticipated Tour debut that July, where he received a real wake-up call.
There were zero bunch sprints in the opening six stages of what proved to be a baptism of fire. Fed up with the slim-pickings, Cipo got in the break in Stage 7 to Valkenburg – only to blow up before the finish and withdraw from the Tour with his tail between his legs. His highest finish had been 16th place.
In Kings of Cycling, Truyers quotes an unnamed source on the Italian’s rude awakening: “Cipollini thought he could shine like he did in the Giro, but he couldn’t. He was totally confused and disenchanted, and that’s when he probably realised that he could no longer stay with it; and that there was still a long way to go. After a brilliant Giro, he felt enough was enough. Before the Tour, he said that winning stages in France would be easier for him. He now knows better.”
A similar fate befell Cipollini on his Vuelta debut in 1994, but this time he did not even make it through the third day. To his credit, however, at that point he’d made amends in France at the first possible instance by winning the opening road stage of the 1993 Tour following the prologue. Victory for GB-MG Maglificio in the team time trial two days later gave Cipo the Maillot Jaune – the first of six occasions he’d wear yellow over the course of his career.

Cipollini, Zabel, Riis

Image credit: Getty Images

While Cipo would pick up 12 Tour stages in total, he never flexed his muscles on the Champs-Élysées, rarely making it beyond the first mountain range of the race. In 1995, with two sprint wins in the bag and the prospect of Alpe d’Huez looming, he allegedly turned up the air conditioning in his room in the hope of making himself ill so he could justify an early withdrawal.
The tactic backfired: all those months spent on the beach meant Cipo’s body easily withstood the heat, and it was his roommate and lead-out man, Silvio Martinello, who was struck down with fever. Still, when Martinello tore off his race number midway through the next stage, Mario took it as his cue to join him in the broom wagon. Cipollini’s love-hate relationship with the Tour would continue until things came to a head the same day he made Giro history – but there was plenty of road to cover before then.

Riding the ‘Red Train’

Although he had a taste for flash cars, Cipollini’s success often came down to his use of the train. It would be wrong to claim that Cipo and his teammates invented the ‘sprint train’. The likes of Rik Van Looy and Jean-Paul van Poppel both relied on teammates guiding them into position before they pulled the trigger. But it’s fair to say that no one before the Saeco team that emerged from the shadow of Del Tongo, GB-MG and Mercatone Uno, had employed the tactic with such precision.
The sprint train was certainly something that evolved over time. Speaking to Truyers early in his career, Cipo described his style of sprinting, citing his teammate Eros Poli as a key component in getting him to the line in pole position.
“My favourite sprint begins 300 metres out,” said Cipo. “I launch myself from a long way back and head forward at full speed. The first thing I do is look for Eros Poli’s wheel. He is my engine. He is a giant of a teammate, literally and figuratively. He has unbelievable knowledge of his craft, and has incredibly broad shoulders. He protects me from the wind. If he starts making his way to the front, it is just as if the Red Sea was opening in front of us. I know exactly where and when he will drop off the pace, and then I take over.
“I go straight ahead, no longer looking at anything or anyone, I push the biggest gear, and if conditions are good, I go hell for leather. I can keep going at full speed for a very long way. I do miss a certain explosiveness, however. I’m not a jump-sprinter like [Marino] Basso was in his day, or like Abdu is nowadays, I sprint more in the style of ‘The Buffalo’, Guido Bontempi, or like Rik Van Steenbergen used to.”

Mario Cipollini within the Saeco "Red Train" during the 2001 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

By the mid-90s when Cipollini was entering his pomp, the era of the ‘Treno Rosso’ or ‘Red Train’ had really taken off. Saeco was built around Cipollini, with their sole focus delivering their man to the line ahead of all his rivals. It is certainly telling that Poli’s only professional win – that wondrous career-defining adventure over Ventoux and the heart-in-mouth descent to Carpentras – came in a year where Cipo was omitted from the team for the Tour.
Saeco’s iron grip on the peloton and the Red Train’s tendency to always arrive on time consigned the Giro breakaway to the scrapheap. And the more success they had, the more it was replicated by rival outfits. As Foot says in his study of Italian cycling: “[Cipollini] was the perfect rider for the post-modern, televisual sport cycling had become. With fewer and fewer successful breaks coming to fruition, and the dominance of the teams, more and more races ended up being decided at the sprint. Teams now had this down to a fine art, and specialist gregari were assigned the role of preparing the sprint, which required perfect timing and positional sense. In this brave new world, Cipollini was a superstar.”
One person who was left cold by all this was Colin O’Brien, whose interest in the sport coincided with the meteoric rise of Cipollini. For O’Brien, Cipo came to be “the epitome of that specific era of hyper-specialisation”. He was the leading light of a late-90s version of a sprinter that O’Brien concedes was part of the history of cycling – just not a very compelling one. It made the sport if not a foregone conclusion, then certainly very predictable.
“If you’re a fan of sport – and sport as in competition – I don’t think it’s a very interesting thing to watch,” O’Brien says. “There are fans of athletes and there are fans of success who would disagree with that – but their main focus is their hero who is winning everything. But if you’re just a fan of competition, somebody like Mario Cipollini is really quite boring.”

Mario Cipollini of Saeco wins stage 21 of the 2001 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

As a comparison, O’Brien cites the example of Mark Cavendish, a rider who emerged just as Cipollini was hanging up his shoes. Cav enjoyed all the advantages of a sprint train at HTC-Columbia, but didn’t rely on it in his quest to cross the line first.
“Over the years, Cavendish has shown that he’s able to win in different ways,” O’Brien says. “He had race craft and, to me, was a more dynamic character.”
More on character later. But first, the tumbling of that long-standing record…

Binda in Cipo’s crosshairs

This is not the story of the man whose record was taken 70 years on by Cipollini. But a little background won’t go amiss as we bid to unpick the achievements that consigned Alfredo Binda to second place in the history books. The first rider to win five editions of the Giro, and a triple-world champion, Binda also won Milan-San Remo twice and the Tour of Lombardy four times. This unparalleled all-round ability made him, in O’Brien’s words, “cycling’s first cannibal”.
“Binda’s rule was not a benign hegemony,” O’Brien says in his book Giro d’Italia. “His dominance became so overbearing that his detractors called him Il Dittore, ‘The Dictator’.” An apt comparison, perhaps, given his later adoration of Benito Mussolini.

Alfredo Binda

Image credit: Imago

Binda’s breakthrough came in the 1925 Giro, as a 23-year-old debutant. His victory helped precipitate the end of the career of the legendary campionissimo, Costante Girardengo. Four wins in his first five Giro d’Italia appearances made Binda unpopular in the eyes of both his rivals and the tifosi, who quickly tired of his domination, booed his brilliance, and took issue with his cold, detached, pompous character.
He was dubbed ‘Il Grande Antipatico’ by a journalist at the time – The Great Unlikable. “To his rivals, his presence made their failure an almost foregone conclusion,” O’Brien writes. “To the fans, that made the racing boring, which meant that to organisers, Binda’s virtuosity was also an inherent vice. His mere appearance at the start threatened to damage, even destroy, the race. And so they paid him to stay home.”
This came about in 1930 when La Gazzetta, which ran the Giro, offered Binda the equivalent of the winner’s prize not to turn up at the grande partenza.
“That meant he earned 22,500 lire without so much as pinning on a race number or turning a crank,” O’Brien writes. “Given professional cycling’s proudly avaricious nature, that coup must surely rank as the greatest success in the history of the sport.”
Instead, Binda headed across the border to race the Tour, where he won two stages and perhaps could have won the entire thing were it not for a crash on Stage 7 that saw him concede an hour. He later withdrew – which he described as his one great regret – in a bid to chase up the money he was owed by the Giro organisers, who had still not paid up.
The 10th of 14 children, Binda was, like Cipollini, a snappily-dressed and famed ladies’ man. He was also a heavy smoker and quite lazy off the bike, often sleeping in till noon. He gave his successor a run for his money in the sobriquet stakes, with the fans calling him ‘The Trumpeter of Cittiglio’. Like Cipo, he even had a bike-riding brother – the trombone-playing Albino – who often supported him as a loyal gregario during races.
Unlike Cipollini, he excelled over a variety of terrains – and not simply in the closing moments of flat stages. “He was the complete package,” O’Brien writes. “Powerful on the flats, imperious in the mountains, said to be blessed with a seemingly effortless pedal stroke and an easy elegance under pressure.”
His contemporary Rene Vietto once said that you could balance a glass of milk on Binda’s back at the beginning of a race and it would still be there, unspilled, at the end. Perhaps the only minor criticism you could make of Binda the rider was not even a reflection of the man, but of his rivals: he lacked a consistent challenger. Girardengo’s career was in decline while his apprentice, Learco Guerra, only occasionally got the better of him.
After a fifth Giro win in 1933, and a 41st stage win, Binda’s form tapered off and he retired three years later to become a team manager presiding over Tour de France victories from the likes of Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi and Gastone Nencini. While the careers of Coppi and Bartali are more readily celebrated today, there is a serious case for Binda – the man who nurtured those careers off the back of his own – being one of the greatest cyclists ever to have lived, right up there, with Eddy Merckx.

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All of which begs the question: just how did a flat-track bully like Cipollini come to be mentioned in the same breath as Binda? Put simply: by turning on the style in the final kilometre of Giro stages more often than his predecessor.

Beating Binda’s record

In the event, the ageing Cipollini’s biggest obstacle to making history was the new Cipollini: his compatriot, Alessandro Petacchi. Forget fast cars and trains. Here was a rider so explosive his nickname was ‘Ale-Jet’. Although Petacchi’s engine was one that took many more years to warm up.
It wasn’t until Petacchi’s sixth Grand Tour – his third Vuelta – that the Italian finally opened up his account, in 2000, for the Fassa Bortolo team. The next year he tasted the Tour for the first time, before returning to the Giro in 2002, where he twice placed runner-up – narrowly missing out on the final day to Cipollini. He ended that year as part of Cipo’s lead-out train as the Lion King became king of the jungle in the Worlds at Zolder.
But things were different in the 2003 Giro. Petacchi, now 29, was finally ready to emerge from his mentor’s shadow – even if Cipo, by winning a sensational six stages in 2002, was now within touching distance of Binda’s landmark. In the opening stage to Lecce, Petacchi beat Cipollini in the bunch sprint to take the first Maglia Rosa of the race – a fine way to secure the first of 22 career wins in La Corsa Rosa.

Alessandro Petacchi of Fassa Bortolo beats world champion Mario Cipollini in the opening stage of the 2003 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

Supplying the voiceover to the documentary, The Quest – Saeco at the 2003 Giro d’Italia, Phil Liggett summarised the state of play: “Alessandro Petacchi, the rising Italian sprinter, beats Cipo to the line. It is an uncharacteristic defeat for the Lion King, who has spent the last decade virtually without rival in the bunch sprints.”
Petacchi was in the top five the following two days before being beaten by the Australian Robbie McEwen in Vino Valentia on Stage 4. The next day, in Sicily, Petacchi got back to winning ways, once again getting the better of Cipollini in Catania. The hat-trick came on Stage 6 to Avezzano, as fans got the impression that they were witnessing a changing of the guard.
Still one victory away from matching Binda’s 41 wins, Cipollini’s quest was being comprehensively derailed by Petacchi. In the words of Liggett: “Beating this sprinting phenomenon is proving to be a much harder challenge than Cipo, or anyone else, could have expected.”
But Super Mario kept his cool and made light work of a punchy climb near the finish at Arezzo to power past McEwan and level the scores on Stage 8 – just what you would expect from a rider who, a year earlier in his annus mirabilis, had finally tamed the Poggio to win Milan-San Remo.
“Will Super Mario prove to have what it takes to own the record outright?” Liggett asked. We’d get the answer the next day in Stage 9 to Montecatini Terme, just 30km east of Cipollini’s hometown of Lucca.
As was so often the case in the era of the sprint train, the six-man break that day sat up with 20km remaining as the latest showdown between Cipollini, Petacchi and McEwan looked set to play out on the tricky finishing circuit in Montecatini Terme. In the fight for Cipo’s wheel, Petacchi and the Latvian rider Andris Nauduzs came to blows in the final kilometre. The pair butted heads and swung an arm at each other, with only Nauduzs making contact – an action that would see him later disqualified. The Italian rider, meanwhile, was penalised a minute and docked points in the sprinters’ classification.
It was Cipo’s first season at the Domina Vacanze team, but the tactics were still the same. Daniele Bennati fronted the train before passing the buck to Cipo’s lead-out man, Giovanni Lombardi. They had to negotiate a final obstacle in the form of a tight right-hand bend, which resulted in a crash just behind Nauduzs, slowing local rider Stefano Garzelli.

Mario Cipollini and Giovani Lombardi of the Domina Vazance team during stage 1 of the 2003 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

Cipo and his rivals were not held up, though, and the Italian Stallion galloped to his historic win in front of a huge home crowd of Tuscan tifosi by half a wheel ahead of the fast-closing McEwan, with Petacchi, shaking his head, rolling over for third. An emotional Cipollini dedicated his historic win to his late father Vivaldo, an amateur rider himself in his day.
“I’ll tell you something strange,” a choked-up Cipollini added, “my father’s side of the family is from near here and he used to bring me often to visit my grandmother who’s buried in the cemetery on the hill there. She died when I was only three years old. When I was a little kid, my dad and I would ride by here on our bikes. We would always stop to see her grave. When I was riding by the finish line on the first lap, I looked up and saw the cemetery. So I prayed to my grandmother and my father to give me all the energy to do it.”
Overcome by emotion, Cipo went silent before composing himself to talk through his win.
“I rode with guts today. It was a nervous stage and I needed good legs. I don't have the jump like McEwen does and I managed to hold him off. That was a win that I can really be proud of. I really wanted to win today and for sure, there were a lot of people who wanted me to win. And that, gave me a boost.”
On Binda’s record, Cipollini was uncharacteristically modest and gracious:
“I never thought I could break the record. I’m now the leading stage winner of the Giro but I don’t really deserve it. I'm a champion in the sprint and I can't be compared with great champions like Binda or Merckx. But at 36 years old, I’m just trying to do my best. Social security even sent me a letter the other day to see if I was ready for retirement. Not yet!”

What happened next?

Retirement wasn’t too far away for the then-36-year-old Cipollini. Breaking Binda’s record had been the silver lining on an otherwise cloudy day for Cipo, who learned of Domina Vacanze’s unexpected exclusion from the Tour just ahead of his record-breaking stage.
It was the third successive year that he had been snubbed by the world’s biggest bike race – and the veteran pulled no punches in a savage rebuke of Jean-Marie LeBlanc, the Tour director.
“I feel like saying a lot of nasty things to Mr LeBlanc and the Tour,” an irate Cipollini said before the stage in Arezzo. “They are showing once again that they are not thinking about cycling like a sport. They need to evaluate this better – cycling isn’t just made of teams, it’s made of individual athletes who are helped by their teams. I have to be careful what I say because if I told you everything, it wouldn’t be pretty. They may not let me back in France again!”
The outburst came after ASO announced the four wildcard places for the Tour would be taken by three French teams and the Spanish squad Euskaltel – overlooking Cipollini’s dozen Tour stage wins.
“It’s as if the Grand Prix of Australia rejected Michael Schumacher in order to take a local driver,” Cipo lamented.
“We didn’t want not to select Cipollini,” LeBlanc said in defence of the decision. “In spite of his flamboyant sprints, we wondered if he was as motivated as last year. Is he nervous, or tired? Lacking condition?”
That came before the world champion broke Binda’s record – and in doing so, beat McEwen, the fastest sprinter at the previous year’s Tour.
“I’m so angry about not being invited that if the organisers change their mind, I’ll only ride if my team order me,” Cipo concluded. “If I could choose, I’d tell LeBlanc where to go.”

Mario Cipollini

Image credit: Imago

Two days later, on the pan-flat Stage 11 raced in abysmal wet conditions, Cipollini was taken out by another rider on one of the last corners, the man in the rainbow stripes sliding into the barriers as McEwen zipped clear to take a canny second win. The race headed for the mountains, and the Zoncolan on Stage 12, where Cipollini was supposed to have a mountain bike waiting for him at the foot of the climb, but quit the race before he got there. There was only one destination for the Giro’s leading stage winner: the beach.
In the absence of Domina Vacanze and Cipollini, Alessandro Petacchi won four stages in the opening week of the 2003 Tour. Domina Vacanze were instead invited to the Vuelta on the grounds that Cipollini would feature. But when the Italian withdrew ahead of the event, the organisers Unipublic duly excluded the Italian team just days before the start. Cipollini acquiesced, and the team was reinstated. But after an abject showing in the opening team time trial, during which Cipollini had to be pushed at times by his teammates, Super Mario withdrew. He was never welcome on the Vuelta again.
The Italian veteran never made it to 43 wins in the Giro, retiring after Stage 6 of the 2004 race without cracking the top 10. And when Domina Vacanze were finally invited to the Tour that year, Cipo threw in the towel in the opening week after a string of poor performances. He never rode a major stage race again, retiring after Milan-San Remo the following year. A bizarre comeback three years later saw Cipo, in the colours of Rock Racing, come third in the second stage of the Tour of California. Two more top-10s was as good as it got, as the Lion King’s final roar became more of a whimper.

CYCLING 2008 Tour of California Cipollini

Image credit: Eurosport

Unfit to shine Binda’s shoes?

In his comprehensive sweep of Italian cycling, John Foot quotes the legendary Italian journalist Gianni Mura’s opinion that Binda’s 70-year record being surpassed by Cipo was “a sad reflection on what the sport of cycling had become by then”.
But one Italian cycling specialist doesn’t agree. “I don’t buy any of that at all,” says Herbie Sykes, the Turin-based author of Maglia Rosa: Triumph and Tragedy at the Giro d’Italia. While Sykes feels that no meaningful comparison can be made between Binda and Cipollini, he disagrees with the notion that Cipollini’s victories in bunch sprints were any less valuable than his predecessor’s. Binda might have been “a truly great and complete cyclist” who could win over all terrain – he could not only make it to the finish, but also topped the GC on five occasions – he was also a showman who played to the crowds.
“Cycling was fashionable in those days and people paid to watch him win sprints,” says Sykes. “Most of Binda’s wins would have been in bunch sprints because that’s what the public wanted and that’s how the organisers generated revenue. Fans paid to go into the velodrome to watch the sprint. There was no electronic media or means of disseminating otherwise.”
For Colin O’Brien, however, Cipollini’s achievements in the Giro were a bit of a turnoff – to the extent that Super Mario is mentioned on only a couple of pages in his entire biography of the race.
“He’s a strange character in the sense that he’s a part of Giro history, but not a very compelling part of the narrative,” says O’Brien. “My idea was to tell the story of this race – from its origins to its current day – through the lens of the most compelling characters in its history. With Cipollini, I very quickly realised that either he was going to have to get a chapter or two chapters all to himself, to give that balanced opinion. Or, the other way to look at it was: in the pantheon of Giro greats – the names that have really shaped the history of the event – he wasn’t fit to shine their shoes.”

Mario Cipollini

Image credit: Getty Images

Cipo’s dark side

It was not simply the clinical use of the sprint train that turned people off. Cipollini’s character – so big, bold and comedic on the surface – became something of a deal-breaker for fans. And that’s before you consider the links to the infamous Operación Puerto scandal. Like most of the standout riders of his generation, Cipo was very much associated with doping, even if he never tested positive during his career, nor served a sanction.
But retrospective testing from the 1998 Tour, which first came to light in 2013, identified Cipollini’s samples as being positive for EPO. There were other allegations, thrust into light by Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport, who claimed it had evidence of doping between 2001 and 2004 and that Cipollini worked under the codename 'Maria' with disgraced doping doctor Eufemiano Fuentes. Cipo had long since retired and pleaded the fifth amendment. The storm duly passed, since which he has still regularly featured on state broadcaster RAI as a talking head. In 2010, he also successfully appealed a 10-month suspended prison sentence for tax evasion.
Cipollini wouldn’t be the first rider from the 90s for whom an asterisk next to their name has been no obstacle to picking up TV work, nor is he the only sportsperson to exploit legal loopholes to protect his private wealth. But there are some things in this day and age that cut the mustard of impropriety.

Giro d'Italia - Mario Cipollini

Image credit: Getty Images

Cipo was known as ‘sciupafemmine’ or ‘ladykiller’ from his early playboy days, but he married Sabrina Landucci, the sister of Marco Landucci, the former Fiorentina goalkeeper, in 1993. They separated in 2005, just after he ended his cycling career, but Cipo faces ongoing charges that he stalked and violently assaulted his ex-wife and threatened her new partner.
While being viewed from the outside as a ‘patron’ of the peloton, Cipollini was quite unpopular with many of his teammates and contemporaries, who invariably felt like he acted like a bully. “I can’t think of anybody who had gushing praise for him,” says O’Brien. “They all say he was a brilliant professional, but as a person, they weren’t as effusive.”
In 2000, he was kicked out of the Vuelta for punching a rival in the face, while three years later, a month ahead of his record-breaking turn in the Giro, he was ejected from Gent-Wevelgem for throwing a water bottle at a race commissaire on a motorbike.
Then there’s the litany of inappropriate comments that pepper his palmarès more frequently than his wins punctuated the Giro. Speaking about his rivalry with Djamolidine Abdoujaparov in the early 90s, for instance, Cipo told Noël Truyers for his book: “I won’t go down on my knees to anyone, not to a woman, and certainly not to Abdu.” That set the tone. Then in 2012, working as a pundit, he laid into Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador for congratulating each other at the top of the Tourmalet like, in his words, “a pair of gays”.
“When you used to look at Hinault, you saw a good-looking bloke,” Cipo elaborated. “Indurain, f***, he was handsome. Strong men. Merckx, bloody hell, he was like an actor… Now, look at Schleck, look at Contador. They’re extraordinary athletes, but come on. They’re small, skinny, light, like a pair of show ponies.”
It’s hardly surprising that Cipollini lost so much respect in the sport given his willingness to espouse such homophobic and boorish views.

Mario Cipollini

Image credit: Getty Images

“The things Mario Cipollini has said over the years are fairly – well, sometimes they’re idiotic, sometimes they’re plain hateful,” says O’Brien. “I think that now more than ever we’ve all realised that there shouldn’t be a place in our hearts for these people who are more interested in speaking about stupid things. I don’t want to say he’s bigoted, but he’s said some pretty unenlightened things about women through the years; he’s been really offensive to people he doesn’t like.”
While he admits to having never met Cipollini in person, O’Brien says: “In cycling, the personality of champions is so integral to their story and their following. I just don’t think that Cipollini’s – at least, his public persona – is very likable.”
This was what turned O’Brien off from covering Cipollini’s achievements in depth in his book.
“I said to myself: ‘You know what, this is a book about a race, it’s not a book about a person who wants to talk about sex and fast cars, who has drugs and tax problems, allegations of beating his wife.’ Purely in the context of the race, I said to myself: ‘For a guy who was won 42 stages, I don’t necessarily remember really enjoying Cipollini racing all that much.’”
When it comes down to the racing and the results, what the Lion King achieved should be put into the context of his era, and carefully weighed up alongside his character, according to O’Brien.
“With a rider like Cipollini, he’s exciting for the last 30 seconds of a race, provided it’s completely flat and he’s got all his teammates around him,” he says. “With Cipollini, I always wonder if we think his talent was greater than it was purely because we expected it to match the size of his ego and his personality. I’m not necessarily convinced that his talent was a match for his ego.”

Mario Cipollini in a lurid skinsuit during the 2004 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

The legacy of a stage-hunting lion

For O’Brien, there’s no separating Cipo the cyclist from “the s*** he’s doing now” and the way he treated, and continues to treat, other people. But while O’Brien struggles to see Cipollini as anything beyond “an internet meme” and “a caricature of himself”, Sykes is able to put the rider’s character traits aside and appreciate what he did on a bike.
The Italian thoroughbred might have been a flat-track bully who finished only six of his 27 Grand Tours, and he might have benefitted from a tactical mechanism that left little to chance – sprinting’s equivalent to the suffocating Team Sky mountain train of old – but he was still a clinical performer who prepared and pulled off his signature trick on multiple occasions.
“As a sprinter and a professional athlete, I think Mario was sensational,” says Sykes. “Sensational. Because cycling’s about a lot more than just winning cycle races. As a lightning rod, as a focal point for fans – he understood the whole thing – Cipollini was fantastic. Fantastic.
“He shouldn’t have climbed off as much as he did. But he obviously didn’t feel the need to get through the mountains to get to the Champs-Elysees or get back to Milan generally. But that doesn’t alter the fact that he was really, really good – that he had a massive engine, that he was a massive trainer."
And, of course, it’s not as if the man’s whose record he beat was a complete angel. Alfredo Binda was an unapologetic fascist, even after the War; a rider whose domination won him no friends, a star who was too good for his own good.
Sykes still finds something fascinating in the battles enjoyed by Cipollini’s generation of sprinters. He also gives Cipo the benefit of the doubt in many domains where O’Brien is less accommodating.
“To win 42 stages, you have to stay on the bike 42 times,” says Sykes. “You have to be really f***ing good to win 42 stages of the Giro d’Italia. You’ve got to be really f***ing good to win one. And Cipo hated getting beaten.”

Mario Cipollini of Saeco during the 2001 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

Winning Milan-San Remo – a race many thought beyond him – plus the world title, and then breaking the Giro stage record, all within 14 months and while in his mid-30s, made Cipollini undeniably one of the legends of the sport.
“I don’t suppose it’s that easy for anybody with that big an ego to cope with someone like Petacchi coming along to usurp him,” says Sykes. “But the notion that Cipo was in some way rubbish, or a charlatan, or not worthy, is absolute nonsense. He won 42 stages of the Giro while generating publicity for the people who paid him. He was a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant cyclist. He wasn’t a complete cyclist, but he did a lot for cycling.
“People wanted to see him on his bike, and he was a Pantani figure. He was the biggest by some distance. He understood cycling and showbusiness. He got it. He got it perfectly well. He was anything but stupid. In fact, he’s the polar opposite of stupid.”
Be that as it may, O’Brien does not favour the comparison with the late Marco Pantani, a rider whose legacy is still celebrated in Italy despite his doping history.
“I can suspend my disbelief when I look at old footage of Pantani,” says O’Brien. “Or when I read about him, even when his name is mentioned in passing by a commentator on a particular climb – I can wistfully think back to the good old days. Whereas with Cipollini, I can’t separate all that I know about the person from his achievements.”
Talk of Cipollini breaking Binda’s record, says O’Brien, is a red herring. In the same way that Mark Cavendish could never be compared to Eddy Merckx should his current purple patch of form see the Manxman finally surpass the Belgian’s Tour de France stage record. Besides, he adds, had Binda focused solely on winning Giro stages and nothing else, his total would have been much higher.
“Cycling already struggles with this idea of the General Classification verses the stages; climbers verses sprinters, one day specialists, cobbled specialists, all of this. Then Cipollini is that on steroids – if you’d forgive the doping reference – because he’s so specialised. He’s specialised within a speciality,” says O’Brien.
Whereas today we have riders like Peter Sagan, capable of winning over multiple terrains, and Wout van Aert, who can win bunch sprints and pace teammate Primoz Roglic in the mountains, Cipollini rarely managed to get through the mountains, even in the gruppetto.

Mario Cipollini present at stage 7 of the 2016 Giro d'Italia

Image credit: Getty Images

“If I wanted to be controversial, I’d say that someone like Cipollini oversimplifies the sport to an almost offensive level,” O’Brien concludes. “To me, there’s no beauty in that, there’s no interest. It’s just a guy who’s fast enough in a straight line for 30 seconds in perfect conditions. I’m glad that’s not the cycling we’re living today. I think that he’s an interesting footnote for cycling, but I’d almost say he’s a kind of cautionary tale.
“Perhaps [Italian sportswriter] Gianni Mura was right. Cipollini was a sad indictment of where turn-of-the-century cycling found itself. And I think that the difference we see now between the modern riders – whether it’s Mathieu van der Poel, Van Aert, Sagan, whoever – and Cipollini’s era is a mark of how far cycling’s come and, hopefully, the better health that we find the sport in in 2021.”
If O’Brien has now completed his belated chapter on the Italian sprinter by proxy, perhaps the final word should be left to the very man who once famously said: “I was a leopard. And you don’t ask a leopard to be a cow.” You also don’t expect a leopard to change his spots – and that’s the issue that clings to Mario Cipollini and his legacy as tightly as one of his statement skinsuits.
After all, if you dress up like Caesar then you have to expect the knives to come out at some point.
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