When it was reported earlier this week that Mario Cipollini, who celebrates his 45th birthday later this month, was planning to return to the pro peloton, many dismissed it as yet another publicity stunt. After all, he has plenty of previous – whether dressing in a toga to celebrate Caesar’s birthday on a Tour de France rest day, or taking to a time trial in an anatomically detailed beneath-the-skinsuit – and he also has some rather nice bikes to flog.
Speaking live by telephone during the Gazzetta dello Sport’s live web streaming of Stage 4 of Tirreno-Adriatico, Cipollini conceded that his plans hadn’t exactly been greeted with open arms by the team management, and joked that he was open to offers, but the project itself is an entirely serious one.
According to the Italian sports daily, there are three principal reasons why Cipollini is planning a return to the sport. First, there is the experience he can pass on to the young riders within the squad, as well as potentially acting as leadout man to sprinter Andrea Guardini, already winner of six races this season and due to make his Giro debut in May.
The newspaper points out that with Pippo Pozzato looking to score his own stage wins rather than being deployed in aid of others, only Oscar Gatto can fulfil that role at present.
Secondly, Cipollini is said to be making himself available as a guinea pig to a group of sports scientists who want to study the effect of the passage of time on the performance of elite athletes.
Among those keen to become involved are Paolo Menaspà, formerly of the Centro Mapei, has expressed an interest, backed by Perth’s Edwin Cowan University and the Australian Institute of Sport, to study the effects of age on a sprinter’s capacity to compete.
Finally, there is a charity angle too to Cipollini’s proposed comeback, with the cyclist pledging any money he earns to go to a variety of good causes.
According to La Gazzetta dello Sport, Cipollini has already contacted the UCI to start clearing any administrative hurdles that might have to be overcome, although one of those – the fact that a rider must be part of the anti-doping testing pool for six months prior to competing – could well be insurmountable.
The UCI came under criticism three years ago when it waived that rule to allow Lance Armstrong to make his comeback in the 2009 Tour Down Under, with the Texan was outside the six months by a couple of weeks.
It seems unlikely the rules would be stretched further for Cipollini, who himself acknowledges that anti-doping rules need to be respected before he can take part in a WorldTour race.
Nevertheless, the former world champion is training hard to get himself down to racing weight; currently 86 kilos, he aims to be down to 80 by early May.
For the Lucca-born cyclist, it’s certainly not about the money; Cipollini, who once joked that if he hadn’t become a cyclist he would have been a porn star, revealed that he has turned down an opportunity to appear on the TV show L’Isola dei Famosi [the Italian equivalent of I’m a Celebrity…] for four years in a row.
According to a Gazzetta journalist who has watched him train, the shape he is in already suggests that there’s a bit more to Cipollini’s proposed comeback than mere wishful thinking – although the UCI might well have the final say on that.
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.