Mario Cipollini flashes a brilliant smile, the whiteness of the Lion King’s teeth enhanced by his deeply tanned face. We’ve just asked him what he thinks of Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s drive to get Londoners onto two wheels as part of his cycling revolution.
Super Mario, who confesses that his only previous visit to the UK’s capital was in the 1980s on his way to take part in the Wincanton Classic, the British round of the former UCI World Cup, has only been back here for a few hours, but is already impressed by what he’s seen.
“It’s wonderful,” he exclaims. “When I arrived late yesterday evening I saw all these people riding around on their bikes, people who find a simple way to live in a metropolis that’s considered great all around the world.”
While London clearly has a long way to go to match cities such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen in terms of the number of people using bikes as their daily form of transport, the man who dominated his fellow sprinters during the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium says that the city’s global cultural significance could signify the start of something big.
“I believe London and New York are the two cities that give birth to new eras in fashion and art, where it’s possible to express yourself with freedom, not a closed city in which culture is restricted,” he explains.
“Here, there’s an enormous mental openness, and seeing people on their bikes makes you understand that in reality the bicycle represents freedom, in all respects.”
Cipollini isn’t speaking just as a former pro cyclist. He’s also a native of Lucca, the Tuscan city considered the most bike-friendly in Italy, and at times his enthusiasm for two wheels make him come across more like a campaigner for a cycling advocacy group rather than a man who won 55 Grand Tour stages. He’s someone who is clearly still in love with the bike.
“It doesn’t pollute, and you don’t bother anyone because it doesn’t make noise,” he enthuses. “You can move around without having to pay, without having to take on other obligations, and I believe it reflects the soul of the city.
“And I think that’s a lovely thing because cycling may have become a sport that you take part in riding on a bicycle, but it remains within a cultural system. You can ride a bike even in little, very simple situations.
“The mother and father who go for a bike ride with their kids, I think that can become a very special day out, away from technology, the cinema, 3D et cetera. I think it’s something that can bring families together.
It all comes back to the freedom that two wheels can give you, insists Cipollini, and that in turn dates back to the first time you get on a bike as a child.
“Cycling and football are the first games you pick up so again, it’s a form of liberty. I started riding when I was six years old and for me the bicycle was an extension of my legs, my head… and in my case, it’s brought me right to where I am now.”
Where the 43-year-old is right now is sitting on a sofa among the bikes on the MCipollini stand at the Cycle Show in London’s Earls Court which he has just formally opened, cutting the ceremonial ribbon while standing in front of a giant video screen on which he himself appeared, looking on, ten times larger than life.
It’s an appropriate image, because Cipollini is one of those people who radiate stardom. Tall for a road racer, mixing smart and casual in a way only the Italians really manage to pull off – an impeccably tailored jacket and pristine white shirt offset by salt and pepper stubble and distressed jeans – even if you knew nothing about cycling, if you saw him in a restaurant, or in a hotel lobby, you’d instinctively feel he must be someone famous.
For all his showmanship when winning races, and the one-off kits that regularly brought him into conflict with the authorities, it’s perhaps surprising to discover that Cipollini comes across as reflective and perhaps more softly spoken than you might anticipate, although his enthusiasm for cycling shines through.
That passion comes across most clearly when the Italian is talking about his newly launched MCipollini range of bikes, already race proven with ISD-Neri’s Giovanni Visconti winning this year’s Italian National Road Race Championship on one. It’s clear that the ex-pro has lent the bikes much more than just his initial and surname.
“The bike isn’t just my name,” he asserts. “It’s all of my experience.” The two models, the RB800 and RB1000, Cipollini explains, “are distinguished by their characteristics,” the former being “a classic bicycle, which is closer to a traditional form of cycling.
“The other, however, and I’m talking about the RB1000 which is what we’ve called it, is a bike that I designed as if I were to race with it, built around all the specific needs I had as a cyclist. So I gave it a personal form, I put all of my experience into this frame, I wanted to create a very particular object,” he continues.
A labour of love, in other words, we ask him. “It’s a piece of work that’s born from the heart, from experience, backed by so many years of activity,” he agrees.
For all his stage victories, perhaps the pinnacle of Cipollini’s racing career came in 2002, when he won the World Championship in Zolder. With the Italian men’s team, coached by Paolo Bettini who himself pulled on the rainbow jersey in 2006 and 2007, missing out on the medals in Geelong last weekend despite appearing to have been in control of the race as it entered the final lap, the country’s press has been keen to put the ex-sprinter’s name forward as a future candidate for the role, but Cipollini is quick to distance himself from such speculation.
“No, no… that’s a job for Bettini or someone else. I’m not on the inside, all I spoke about was what was my views as a racer, I had an attitude in competition that was totally different to what unfolded on Sunday, and which comes down to Bettini’s personality,” he explains.
“I’d have reacted differently due to my personality, we’re two different people, he has his vision, I have mine, and that’s due to our respective roles, me as a huge fan of cycling, him as the national coach and the person who makes the decision on these matters,” he adds.
At the same time, he’s delighted at last week’s announcement by the UCI that the 2013 Road World Championships will be coming to Tuscany, with the races all finishing in Florence, although other towns and cities in the region will be hosting the start of the various events.
For Cipollini, that has a particular resonance since the Men’s Elite race will get under way in Lucca, his home city. “For better or worse, I was the first World Champion from Tuscany,” he says, quickly acknowledging that Bettini followed in his footsteps.
“Tuscany has produced some great cyclists, Bartali, Nencini, so many others,” he adds, “so yes I’m proud. I don’t think that my persona influenced it in the slightest, but at the same time, for me personally it’s very satisfying.”
As for last week’s race between Melbourne and Geelong, Cipollini sees Thor Hushovd as a worthy winner, and understands why the Norwegian immediately set himself the goal of winning Paris-Roubaix while wearing the rainbow jersey.
“I think life is made up of stimuli and objectives,” he states. “Me, as soon as I won the World Championship, my first thought was to win Milan-San Remo.” Cipollini had won La Classicissima a few months before his World Championship success in what would turn out to be his only success in the race all Italians want to win.
“That year [2003, when he defended his Milan-Sanremo title in the rainbow jersey] I rode very strongly but I didn’t manage to win it. I believe when an athlete reaches this kind of level they need to find stimuli within themselves to keep pushing on, and to consider the jersey not as a final destination but as a starting point, and that’s the secret to keep on winning, to keep on improving yourself.”
While Cipollini’s year as World Champion saw him beat Alfredo Binda’s record of 41 Giro d’Italia stage wins, he subsequently crashed out of the race and his Domina Vacanze team didn’t receive an invite to the Tour de France, but he dismissed any thought of the jersey being cursed.
Instead, comparing himself to the newly-anointed World Champion, he says, “It’s a different situation, the ages are different, when I got the rainbow jersey I was 36 years of age, Hushovd is younger than me, and because of that he has a lot of scope to express himself through this jersey.
Certainly, Cipollini admires the manner of Hushovd’s victory, following a race in which the Cervelo TestTeam rider had to overcome the handicap of racing in a smaller squad compared to many of the other fancied riders, the Italians included.
“He rode a fantastic race, a very intelligent one, biding his time, he showed that he was in great shape and that was obviously due to the work he’d put in during the Vuelta,” he maintains. “He remained out of the moves, with no team communications he didn’t show himself, and he exploited the other teams that were going flat out and I think they badly misread the race.”
The conversation turns to the growing presence of British riders in the pro ranks, and while Cipollini maintains that on the whole it’s a positive that riders from Britain, as well as countries such as the United States and Australia are becoming more prominent on the world stage, it’s important to preserve cycling’s traditions and not just focus on statistics and the numbers game.
“British cycling has exploded onto the professional scene,” he acknowledges. “I started racing professionally in 1988 and there were very few British, or even English-speaking, cyclists coming through the system. So it’s nice to see, it’s a good thing for cycling.
“I see the English-speaking world as having entered cycling with new ideas, a new style of management to the sport,” he continues. “But if it were possible it would be great to see a mix of the Italian cycling culture and what is the greater reality of the Anglo-Saxon cycling world, because very often the managerial aspect is given more importance than the cycling aspect.
Cipollini understands that technology needs to play a role within cycling, but says that shouldn’t come at the expense of the sport’s culture being forgotten, of its traditions becoming lost, citing the example of “the classic gregari who knew how to pull a team along for an important race, nowadays they’re no longer around.”
For all his talk of tradition, however, in tactical terms Cipollini was one of the sport’s great innovators, together with his Saeco team developing the concept of the lead-out train, their red jerseys at the head of the race in the closing kilometres of a sprint stage as familiar a sight in the closing kilometres of a sprint stage in the late 1990s as those of HTC-Columbia are today.
Comparing athletes and teams of different eras is of course a perennial conversation topic among sports fans, and the Italian is no different. “I’d love to see Cipollini’s train against that of Cavendish, if such a thing could ever happen”, he laughs. “I don’t know who’d win, but I’d really like to see it,” he concludes.
With thanks to Mario Cipollini for his time and Paligap, distributor of the MCipollini brand in the UK, for setting up the interview.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.