"I was in a trance!" said a grinning Mario Cipollini after he'd stormed to an
expected, yet still enchanting, victory in Zolder. It was more of a team victory
though, as trusty teammates Mario Scirea (a good friend and fellow Acqua e
Sapone rider), the World Cup leader Paolo Bettini, Giovani Lombardi (another
teammate) and in-form sprinter Alessandro Petacchi acted as the perfect lead out
men for him - especially Bettini, who worked tirelessly and selflessly to reel
in late breakaway attempts. It allowed Cipollini to just do what he does best -
sprint to the line. McEwen and Zabel battled (almost literally!) to get Cipo's
wheel but by the time McEwen was behind, Cipo had his arms raised and a radiant
smile on his face, realising he'd won.
Cipollini, born in March 1967, turned professional in 1989 (a relatively
young age) with the Del Tongo team. In a good 3 year spell, he won six stages on
the Giro d'Italia (he has won a monumental 40 in total!), including three of
those in 1991 and another trio of wins on the Paris - Nice stage race in the
same year. Already, his sprinting ability was clear to say as a new decade
In 1992, he secured a lucrative move to M. G. Bianchi (what we now know as
Mercato Uno) with teammates such as David Rebellin, Andrea "Judas" Tchmil and
the recent Italian World Cup coach Franco Ballerini, and stayed there until
1996, winning prestigous one day road races such as Gent -Wevelgem (twice - in
consecutive years!), GP Harelbeke and Criterium Roosendaal and snapping up 3 of
the 4 'Days' in the 1992 4 Days of Dunkirk race! Super Mario also won more
stages in important stage races such as Giro di Puglia, Giro d' Italia, Paris -
Nice and (of course) the Tour de France, though his wins in Italy and south-eastern France were of larger quantity than in the Tour. Halfway through his time
there, M.G. Bianchi lost its sponsors and when it found new ones, the new team
name was Mercato Uno. In 1995, he was recognised even more so after 2 stage
wins, charging from the bunch to be triumphant.
After a good spell with the San Marino based team, Cippolini moved on to
Saeco in Italy. Immediately he made a name for himself, winning four Giro
stages, Circuito di Firenze and a Tour de France stage. But in 1997, it was very
difficult not to recognise his name...
'The Lion King' hit the big stage with an incredible 5 Giro stages, making
them seem a formality (though no Giro stages are that) and he added 2 more Tour
de France stages to his collection. At this point, Cippolini was considered to
be one of the fastest and best sprinters in the world, if not the best. That
opinion has hardly changed at all over the last few years. As Saeco changed
sponsors to Cannondale and then Valli & Valli as the Millennium occured, Cipo
remained loyal to the team (much to the delight of the fans!). As the years went
by and he got older, he just seemed to get better and better!
In 1998 and 1999 he won a quartet of Giro wins and in 1999, he won the same
amount of Tour stages. Now, the offers from other Division I Trade Teams were
flying in from all directions, but Mario stayed true to Saeco. After a fairly
quiet Millennium (one Giro stage), he bounced back with the magic number of 4
Giro wins in 2001.
This year has been arguably the best for Cipollini. If there were a Cyclist
of the Year award, after transferring to Acqua e Sapone and winning Gent-Wevelgem,
Milan-San Remo (on home turf!), an incredible 6 Giro stages, announcing his
retirement, returning after the Tour to win 4 Vuelta stages (AND he dropped out
halfway through!), Cipo would be the man. And to cap off such an eventful
season, Cipollini, who was fiercely expected to win the World Championships Mens
Elite Road Race in Zolder, reigned victorious. He was simply untouchable on that
day (though I wish I could say the same about Robbie McEwen and Erik Zabel after
their pushing fest) and it was a deserved victory for a man who has worked so
hard over the years.
Cipollini has the heart of a lion, the power of a lion, the cunning and
strategy of a lion. I'm pretty sure he may turn into one soon and then the
phrase "And Cipollini is just eating up his wheel!" could be true!
Undoubtedly, "The Lion" will roar again.