One puny stage in the Tour de la Mťditerannťe, and one stage in the Tour de Georgia, thatís it. Thatís all Mario Cipollini had to offer to his legion of fans so far this season. The Lion King doesnít seem to have much more to offer than his eternal charm at this moment, while his big rival Alessandro Petacchi continues to stack up the sprinting victories. Not that Cipollini himself is bothered one bit with it. ďCredo in me stesso, per sempre. I will always keep believing in myself. There hasnít been one moment when I wasnít doing well that I panicked. I have certain capacities as a rider, and those donít just disappear overnight.Ē
Two weeks ago the New World had the opportunity to get to know the former world champion better, and the love they showed towards him there was mutual. Cipollini enjoyed every second of the attention he was given in Georgia. Armstrong was obviously extremely popular, but Cipo certainly didnít do much worse than the 5-time Tour-winner in terms of popularity. And even if the Italian would stubbornly claim that he didnít know any English at all, women who told him that he had the looks of a movie star would always get his toothpaste smile in return. And his preference there unmistakingly went out to Miss Dodge, a silicone-filled American beauty.
What did he have to say for himself?
ďDuring the hours that I reserve for cycling I am 100% professional, but when the races are over I have a different mentality. Iím not a monk, and I donít want to look back on the first part of my life when Iím 40, regretting all the things I didnít do. There will always be new champions in cycling, but none of them will be as crazy as me!Ē
But going out accompanied by gorgeous women isnít something one would link to a career as a professional athlete, is it?
Donít be fooled, a lot of that is a pose, people expect me to be a bit of a playboy. Everyone sees me leave the hotel driving a sports car, but few people see that Iím always in bed on time in the evenings. (laughs) Alone!
The Tour de Georgia was your first race since Milan-Sanremo. What have you been doing between those races?
I got sick around the time of the Primavera. That classic was the first main goal of my season, and I had prepared myself in an almost maniacal fashion. The entire winter long I was only thinking of that race. And then, when I finally was in great shape, fate struck. I had to let go of the peloton on the Cipressa, I was totally empty. It took me quite some time to regain my strength after that. I didnít want to interrupt my training program, but at a certain moment I just had to, I could barely ride 100 metres anymore. Afterwards I started building up my condition from scratch again.
But in the races before Milan-Sanremo you also won unusually little. You seemed to have lost your speed.
I had lost my explosiveness a bit, because I had trained uphill too much. Only recently did I understand that I made a serious mistake in doing that. (laughs) I had to become 37 in order to mess up so bad! Which sprinter would throw away his most important weapon, for crying out loud? I would, as it turns out! I donít feel as sharp as I used to do yet, but that stage win in Georgia proved that Iím on the right track again.
Why did you go to the US to race, by the way? You could have made it much easier on yourself by staying in Europe.
Because I was curious, and because the alternatives didnít really interest me as much. When youíve been around for as long as I have, you donít feel like riding yet another Tour of Aragon or Tour de Romandie. I felt like doing something new. In 1996 I rode in the Olympic road race in Atlanta, and ever since that day I wanted to return to that country someday. And when I heard that Lance Armstrong would like having me around in Georgia I didnít hesitate. But itís a shame that I had to wait so long to experience it.
When I was a little boy, I used to watch American movies, with my mouth wide open. In Georgia I had the opportunity to ride through landscapes I had only seen in the movie theatres before. It was just fantastic. And the unusual way in which they experience cycling over there was really cool too. All those school kids and their teachers yelling at the side of the roadÖ(wanders off in his thoughts). Maybe we all did some ďdevelopment workĒ in the States, in a way. If there are a few more kids there that feel like becoming a cyclist now, then we did good. And the way in which the American pros treated me was very nice too. They looked up to me like I used to look up to Sean Kelly. With respect and appreciation.
You think you can still take Alessandro Petacchi?
Why not? I think of Alessandro as I do about any other rival; Petacchi isnít superhuman. Up until now I have not been able to fight him in a fair battle, thatís why the balance tips over in his advantage. But just wait until I am at my best, in the Tour.
What do you mean? Youíre not going to win any stages in the Giro this year?
I hope I will, but it wonít be the best Cipollini that will be riding here. My best shape is programmed for July. Suppose I win a mass sprint in the Tour de France; there arenít many 37 year-olds that did that before me, right? Thatís a challenge for me. I already have the record number of stage wins in the Giro, so Iím safe for awhile there. I have 12 Tour stages to my name already and, even if no other Italian has ever done better, Iíd like to add a few more to that.
Are you mad at Jean-Marie Leblanc for not inviting you to the Tour in the last 4 years?
No, because itís pointless to be. You just have to accept some things in life, Which isnít to say that it isnít a terrible shame to be left out like that, during my best years as a rider. But I promised Leblanc that I would make it to the Champ-Elysťes this year. Maybe it was that which pulled him over.
Johan Museeuw, only one and a half years older than you, has recently left the pro peloton. Does that make you think about quitting as well?
Absolutely not. Iím still in love with this profession, so I go on. I donít have any big dreams anymore, I live from day to day. Really, I have been blessed. I achieved everything I dreamed of as a little boy. That record in the Giro, winning Milan-Sanremo, becoming world championÖI won enough to be able to say I quit, now. No one would blame me. But I keep riding because winning is so addictive. The sensation you feel when you cross that line firstÖthereís no comparison in everyday life. And even when youíve outdone your wildest dreams, you always want more.
Source: Gazet Van Antwerpen, www.gva.be translation by Jan Janssens.