Mario Cipollini: “Real sprinters are like heavyweight boxers”

A typically shy and retiring Mario Cipollini on stunts and scandals, wins and women, and how he thinks he could still beat every current Italian sprinter

Mario Cipollini lives in Lucca, at the top of a little hill. From below, it’s a climb, but judged from above, it’s a descent. The man who entered the history books by taking flight on the flat simply knows it as home sweet home, his start and his finish, his observatory overlooking the world.

Originally published in Issue 62, May 2016.

Marco Pastonesi: What does the sprint mean to you?
Mario Cipollini: It’s a whole life concentrated, squeezed and shaken in 20 seconds. To be as strong in those vital, existential seconds, you have to work body and mind, day and night. The sprint is tension and intuition, will and desire, self-denial and sacrifice, focus and determination, judgement and vision. For me it was a way to express myself, to show my character, to make my personality stand out.

The longest sprint?
In 1988, my last year as an amateur. The Giro di Puglia, a stage race. Olaf Ludwig, the East German, was there. They were talking about him like he was divine wrath, a holy monster, a god of war from the Peace Race. I beat him in the first stage, and the second. The third they boxed me in and he won. For the fourth, we gave it all we had from 400 metres until a little less than 70 from the line when he sat up. 

Related – What does 2021 hold for Mark Cavendish?

Related – Wout van Aert: Comeback Kid 

And the shortest?
Maybe the 2002 World Championships in Zolder. At 400 metres to go, there was an incline but it levelled out around 150 and with that Blue Train [the Italian national team] it was the easiest part of the whole race.

The most beautiful?
There were lots. Some at less prestigious races. But there’s one that still moves me, at the 1995 Giro d’Italia, the first stage from Perugia to Terni. The maglia rosa was up for grabs and my dad and family were in the crowd.

Have you ever bet on one of your sprints?
Never for or against, either on myself or the others. The sprint was sacred. Actually, I’ve never bet on anything. In the 15 years I lived in Monte Carlo, I never spent a Lira at the casino.

What did it mean to win?
Enjoyment, satisfaction, liberation. In my own way, I always felt the burden of the race and only victory could lift that weight.

And yet, you were known for levity. What about that time on the motorway, caught doing 70km/h?
It was 90, probably 95, maybe even 100. It was 2003, I was training on the Monte Serra [a mountain just south of Lucca] and to avoid the traffic, I tucked in behind the Smart car of “Carube” [Roberto Lencioni], my mechanic, and got onto the highway that runs from Livorno to Pisa.

I was listening to some music on my Walkman and paying attention to avoid the pockmarks on the road when I saw that Carube was signalling to me. I turned to see a police car with the cop banging his temple with his forefinger as if to say I was crazy and then he motioned to the hard shoulder to tell me to pull over. 

They charged me for being on the highway, for speeding and for dangerous driving. Then they got angry because I didn’t have a registration plate and they couldn’t find the bike’s serial number, so they gave me a verbal warning and a fine that never arrived, and then they left. I got back on the bike, turned on the Walkman’s radio and my incident was already on the news.

As for Francisco Cerezo?
The 2000 Vuelta. I didn’t even want to go because my father was in a coma and my mother was distressed. On stage four, the peloton split and I was in the front group, but there was a fan in the road and when I pulled in I brushed another rider, who shouted at me: “Hijo de puta!”

I immediately tried to settle the score, but he got away. I didn’t know who he was, he was a nobody, but I spotted him and the next day I got him with a right hook to the face. [Cerezo needed three stitches, Cipollini was disqualified.]

What about your muscle skin suit?
I came up with the idea while I was working out in the gym. There was an anatomical poster with all the muscles and nerves. So I did it. They called it scandalous but it was just a silly idea like so many others. I didn’t even get a fine, maybe because it was the first time, the officials weren’t expecting it and didn’t know how to react.

And then?
At the 1997 Tour, I had a different coloured pair of shorts every day, and every day I got a fine. At the ’98 Tour, in Ireland, I had “Peace” written on the green jersey. The next year I dressed as an ancient Roman to really enjoy my triumph.

At the départ I showed up with my own Cleopatra, who was a stripper. I was the first to say “If I wasn’t a rider, I’d be a porn star,” the first to make a mobile phone call during the race, the first to have a picture of Pamela Anderson on his stem, the first to ride in the Papal colours in Rome [at the Giro d’Italia], as a tiger in Holland, baroque in Genoa. All my ideas, silly but fun.

The last?
The most recent, but not the last. Wearing socks, shoes and a helmet, but otherwise naked, on the rollers, in response to those who said I was training without protecting my head. I posted it on Facebook and it got a million hits in a day and phone calls from two female TV presenters on Rai and Mediaset [Italy’s two major networks].

Ah, the women.
At the ’93 Tour in San Sebastián, I was giving a journalist from the Diario Vasco my full attention at the start village, she was beautiful and in a tight-fitting dress. I was totally absorbed in words and thoughts when I heard the radio in a team car saying that they’d already launched the first attack. I jumped on my bike and shot off to catch the group at 60km/h. 

And what about that time you broke away, not in the race but from the race, for a girl?
I was forced to participate, I think, in the Coppa Agostoni. On the final circuit, Alessio Di Basco and I broke off at the first climb. We went into a house, where we’d been invited to have lunch in the garden and watched the bunch pass by every lap. 

The problem was that Di Basco wanted his directeur sportif to think that rather than abandoning, he’d gone on to do some distance training. So we embellished the tale and a journalist wrote a love story. But that time, it wasn’t true.

Honestly, in your life, more victories or women?
If I only had 198 women, the same numbers as my victories, I’d have to be considered a loser.

Is there anything that you wouldn’t do if you could go back in time?Everything I did went well for me, so I regret nothing.

Is there something that you wish you had done?
I wish I’d finished at least one Tour de France. I went back to the Tour, as a spectator, in 2014 when Vincenzo Nibali won. And I lived the atmosphere not as an athlete or a journalist, but with all those fans who see the riders who finish the Tour as authentic heroes. And I was sorry. I should have got to Paris. For them. For me. For cycling culture.

Do you have a weakness?
Who knows what I look like most of the time, but deep down I’m a good guy. Sweetness melts me, passion conquers me, love dominates me. 

Will you go to heaven or hell?
I hope I’ll go wherever the women are, that is to say, where the cock crows. And you know why the cock crows? Because Mother Nature, or the good lord, made chickens without underwear.

Why didn’t you become a directeur sportif?
Because I was the person least suited to explain to a rider all of the sacrifices he has to make to respect himself, the fans and the sport. He has to tell them that once they’ve fixed their minds on a goal, they can’t falter with one kilometre in training, a spoonful of food or a minute of rest.

And why not a team manager?
Because I finished my career as a rider in a period in which it was no longer important to know the rules and strategies, you just had to be friends with those in charge. I’ve never been a politician, I’ve never been enchanted by anyone; basically, I’m a tricky one to manage. 

You don’t want to return to racing?
I’d only need a month and a half of training to beat all of the Italian sprinters. Some of them I beat even now. Just don’t ask me to give any names; they have contracts and I’d get them in trouble.

And the others?
The road is like a ring. Real sprinters are like heavyweight boxers. People like Marcel Kittel, André Greipel, like me. Mark Cavendish is strong, or at least was strong, because now – with all respect – he is in decline, but he was never a heavyweight. He was lucky to come into a power vacuum when the world heavyweight title was vacant, and to have a train that made it like a stroll for him.

How is Italian cycling doing?
Once upon a time, the Belgians, French and Spanish came to us to learn. They raced for Italian teams and the calendar of Italian races was equal to the WorldTour. No other country had riders like Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. Now we are hostages and victims of cycling politics that exclude us, marginalise us, give us up as sacrifices.

There are still some good Italians.
It’s not only the scientists who have fled Italy, but also the riders, from Nibali and Aru to Daniel Oss and Manuel Quinziato, Elia Viviani and Alessandro De Marchi… and some coaches. Italian excellence still exists in some companies making bikes and clothing.

And the bicycle has never been more in vogue.
It’s a lot cooler in London. The city planners think about cycling, the streets are full of urban cyclists, I saw some girls riding with their high heels in their baskets, they’d get off their bike, change their shoes and go to the office or into the nightclub. Here in Italy, women only cycle to keep fit, as an alternative to the gym or spinning classes, only thinking of firm legs and a nice ass.

What’s still to come from Mario Cipollini?
I want to live peacefully. Walking in the woods. Or on the road, on my bike. As a free man.