This image of Mario Cipollini winning the opening road stage of the 1993 Tour de France ahead of two other redoubtable sprinters—Wilfried Nelissen (blue jersey) and Laurent Jalabert (in pink)—sums up the incomparable style of the man they called the Lion King, Super Mario or, simply, Cippo. His arms are high in celebration of his first-ever Tour stage win, he’s wearing the giant shades he made popular and his white cotton racing cap is set at just the right angle.
Words: John Wilcockson | Image: Yuzuru Sunada
Cipollini is our No. 2 pick of the Greatest Road Sprinters of the past four decades. When the Belgian-based Velo annual put out a special edition in 2005 it summed up the Italian sprinter thus: “The absolute top sprinter of his generation.”
That characterization dimmed somewhat in the years after his retirement with a February 2013 front-page story in Gazzetta dello Sport claiming that Cipollini was involved in the Operación Puerto doping scandal and in July that year the French Senate, in a major enquiry into doping in sport, named Cipollini among 18 riders whose retroactively tested urine samples from the 1998 Tour showed traces of EPO. The sprinter has remained silent on these allegations though, that like those of Erik Zabel, the Cipollini “positives” exceeded the World Anti-Doping Agency’s eight-year statute of limitations.
In a career that spanned two decades, Cipollini won 191 races, including a stunning record 42 stages of the Giro d’Italia (between 1989 and 2003), 12 stages of the Tour, three stages of the Vuelta a España, the 2002 world road championship, and classic victories at Milan–San Remo (2002), Ghent–Wevelgem (1992, ’93 and 2002), E3 Prijs (1993) and Scheldeprijs (1991 and ’93).
At over 6-foot-2 and 174 pounds, Cipollini was one of the most powerful sprinters the sport has seen and was almost unstoppable when his famous Red Train (in his seven years with Team Saeco) unleashed him on the finishing straightaway of stages at the grand tours. Cipollini was a showman, once showing up to the start of a Tour stage in a chariot like a Roman emperor wearing a toga and golden laurel-leaf crown; and he raced the prologue time trial at the 2002 Giro dressed in a full-body, tiger-striped skinsuit, riding a tiger-striped bike.
It’s sure that the sport will never again see the likes of Mario Cipollini.